China's ASEAN Policy in the 1990s: Pushing for Regional Multipolarity

By Cheng, Joseph Y. S. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1999 | Go to article overview

China's ASEAN Policy in the 1990s: Pushing for Regional Multipolarity


Cheng, Joseph Y. S., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

Chinese leaders often refer to the important place of the Third World in their foreign policy. But in the actual implementation of their foreign policy, the focus has been on the handling of China's relations with the United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), and other major powers. This was already the case in the 1970s, although the trend became more pronounced in their pursuit of diplomatic modernization in the 1980s and in their attempt to accelerate the transition towards multipolarity in the international state system in the 1990s. But ASEAN has been an exception. In the past two decades, despite territorial disputes and other differences, Chinese leaders have valued good relations with the ASEAN states. In view of ASEAN's impressive economic development and increasing international influence, an expert of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1997 described the regional grouping as one of the poles in the multipolar power transfiguration in the Asia-Pacific region.(1)

After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, the unmistakable emphasis of the post-Mao leadership on the "Four Modernizations" improved China's image. To the ASEAN states, China was no longer a power dissatisfied with the status quo and intent on exporting revolution, Chinese style. The post-Mao leaders after 1976 drastically reduced their material aid to various :national liberation movements and communist guerrilla groups, so that those in the Middle East largely turned to the Soviet Union, and many of those in Southeast Asia split into pro-China, pro-Soviet (or pro-Vietnam), or independent factions. When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Beijing in November 1985, he indicated that Malaysia had accepted the assurances given by the Chinese leadership that it had no intention to do anything harmful to China's Southeast Asian neighbours, and instead remained concerned about China's stability.(2) On the other hand, Indonesia still had lingering doubts about China's support for communist groups in Southeast Asia; nevertheless, the Chinese Foreign Minister visited Indonesia in 1985, and the two countries resumed direct trade in July of the same year.(3) Admittedly, this improvement in relations had more to do with China's open-door policy, the enhanced attraction of the China market, and economic difficulties in Southeast Asia as a result of falling commodity prices. The ASEAN states were then more interested in managing a balance of power in Southeast Asia; they became self-confident and were, therefore, more inclined to grant China the benefit of the doubt.

With the open admission of the failure of the Maoist development strategy, China could no longer claim to be an attractive model of socioeconomic progress offering a successful alternative to the Third World. Since the late 1970s, China's economic development strategy has been similar to that of other developing countries in East and Southeast Asia. It has also been competing with other Third World countries for aid and loans from international organizations such as the World Bank, as well as from Western countries and Japan. After China joined the Multi-Fibre Arrangement and indicated its intention to participate in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), it too entered into hard bargaining for export quotas from the developed countries in competition with the developing countries, particularly those from East and Southeast Asia. All these actions demonstrated that China was gradually freeing itself from various ideological restrictions and trying to compete with other Third World countries within the existing international financial and trade framework. Such competition might have initially aroused jealousy and suspicion from ASEAN and other developing countries, but in the long term, only through this means would China be accepted by them. In some ways, China was probably quite accommodating in supporting the Third World's demands. …

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