Sunday, March 04, 2007

China as Big Brother

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo paid a strangely fawning tribute to China during the East Asian Summit held in December in Cebu (and from which the United States is excluded): “We are very happy to have China as our Big Brother in this region.

She was not using the term “Big Brother” in the Orwellian context that is familiar to most educated Westerners from his novel 1984. Rather she was using the term in its Confucian sense of respect and deference to a benevolent elder brother.

It was all the more unusual in that the Philippines is not a Confucian culture. Never mind. Throughout much of non-Confucian Southeast Asia, China is now perceived as a benevolent Big Brother in contrast with the United States, which is too often seen as a Big Scold.

Arroyo had good reason to be effusive. In September Beijing had announced its intention to extend a $2 billion loan to the Philippines with no conditions attached. More to the point there were no rude concerns raised about the epidemic of extra-judicial killings in her country attributed to rogue elements in the army and police.

Technically, the US is barred by the Leahy Amendment from providing military and police .assistance to governments that are found to be involved in systematic human rights abuses such as political killings, although it has not invoked the amendment. China, of course, is under no such constraints.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been getting a lot of static these days from non-governmental organizations and donor groups about alleged corruption in his government. These donor groups are on a crusade to end corruption in the government by tying millions of dollars worth of aid to the government’s willingness to curb graft and to stop his habit of locking up critical journalists.

Hun Sen had to listen to them because donor groups have underwritten most of the Cambodian budget for the past decade since the first UN-monitored elections in 1991.

Enter China with millions of dollars worth of assistance to build hydroelectric power plants and other infrastructure, providing roughly the same amount of developmental aid as Cambodia’s traditional benefactors and no strings attached.

Little wonder that Hun Sen has been effusive in praising China. Speaking at the inauguration one of the Chinese-funded projects recently he said, “The Chinese prime minister never orders Cambodia’s prime minister to build this road or that. It’s up to Cambodia what to do.”

Shortly after the generals seized power in Thailand and ousted the elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup d’etat last September, the US suspended $24 million in bilateral military assistance, in accordance with American law that mandates such actions when democratic regimes are overthrown.

In the past, Thailand would have had to do without, at least until democracy was restored. This time China moved speedily to fill the gap by offering Thailand $49 million in military assistance and training. The welcome news was delivered in person to the junta leader, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin during an unannounced visit to Beijing earlier this year.

Soon thereafter Washington announced that it would indeed continue to participate in the annual Cobra Gold joint military maneuvers with Thailand and several other nations, the largest such exercises in Southeast Asia.

There had been some doubt whether the US would take part in the exercise this year in order to show its displeasure with the coup. But that was before it was learned that China was offering military assistance – and especially after China put out feelers to Southeast Asia to hold its own joint exercises or training.

Needless to say, Beijing has not condemned the Thai coup.

So it goes. With China’s rapid rise, Asian governments are increasingly able to pick and choose between engagement with the US or with China. Given a choice, many might prefer to deal with Beijing since China’s aid comes with no apparent strings attached, no hectoring to expand democracy, improve human rights or open markets further.

To be sure most Southeast Asian countries are not yet ready to throw themselves entirely into China’s welcoming embrace. Memories of Communist China’s support for insurgencies still lingers as do uncertainties about Beijing’s long-term goals. And the region still welcomes the US as a potential counterweight to China’s influence.

Nevertheless, American foreign policy in the region is increasingly confronted with choices it never had to face before. Should it try to maintain the high ground in accordance with its ideals – and see its influence steadily drain away? Or, should it compete on China’s terms?

These days many Asian nations are finding they prefer to deal with Big Brother rather than the Big Scold.


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