Southeast Asia worried about choosing sides as China-U.S. rivalry intensifies – RTÉ World Report

RTÉradio – radio report here, starts 15.40

Chinese diaspora around Asia also concerned about being caught in the middle

Vietnam's Defense Min. Ngo Van Lich and Philippine Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana at the Shangrila Dialogue in SIngapore on June 2 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

Vietnam’s Defence Min. Ngo Xuan Lich and Philippine Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore on June 2 2019. Both countries are caught in the middle as Chinese-American rivalry grows (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — “We do not want to choose between the United States and China.” So said Malaysia’s Deputy Defense Minister Chin Tong Liew during a speech last week on his country’s relations with China.

Earlier this month the U.S. Secretary of Defence and his Chinese counterpart told a conference of defence ministers in Singapore that they do not expect other countries to takes sides.

But many in Southeast Asia fear this is a choice they will have to make, given the increasingly-acrimonious Chinese-American rivalry.

Thailand and the Philippines might be American military allies, but they and indeed all countries in the region are being drawn into China’s orbit.

Beijing’s financial resources have meant loans and grants for roads, ports and railways across parts of Asia. The outlay is part of a blueprint called the Belt and Road Initiative, which would make China the nerve centre for trade and transport links running across the continent.

With the exception of Vietnam — a former Chinese possession that has a similarly dependent-but-distrustful relationship with China as Ireland has with Britain — Southeast Asian governments will allow Chinese tech company Huawei to develop 5G networks. That’s despite American allegations that Huawei is too close to the Chinese state and therefore is a security risk.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Huawei’s Beijing office in April and later said Malaysia would use Huawei technology “as much as possible.”

Even in the Philippines — sometimes described, like Ireland, as a kind of 51st state due to its ties with the U.S. – there is a growing sense that China’s power is irresistible, in Asia at least.

President Rodrigo Duterte was last week reluctant to criticize Beijing, even over the Chinese sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in waters claimed by both countries.

Also caught in the middle are the roughly 50 million people whose ancestors emigrated from China, decades or even centuries ago, to countries elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region.

In Thailand, Chinese immigrants have long blended in, becoming, to rework a saying, more Siamese than the Siamese themselves, with the Thai royal family able to trace its ancestry to China’s Guangdong region.

In Singapore, a wealthy city-state with income levels above most of Europe, around three-quarters of the population are ethnically Chinese, many of whom, like in Malaysia, are descendants of migrants who came during British colonial rule.

Australia, which depends hugely on China as a buyer of raw materials, is home to around a million people of Chinese descent — “terrific citizens,” as former Prime Minister John Howard put it in a speech in London last year.

But Howard echoed the growing perception in Australia that its Chinese community could be used by Beijing “to further her power and her influence.”

In Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, Chinese minorities have been successful in business but have had to put up with official discrimination, and, on occasion, deadly ethnic and sectarian violence.

In 2015 Beijing’s ambassador in Malaysia said China would “not sit idly by” if Chinese-Malaysians were threatened — Jack Lynch-like remarks that prompted outrage in Malaysia, not just among the majority Malays but also among Chinese-Malaysian politicians who did not want to alienate Malay voters or be seen as a fifth column.

And as his name suggests, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Chin Tong Liew is of Chinese descent himself. And when he spoke last week, not only did he say that Southeast Asia does not want to choose between China and the U.S., he warned against China seeing the diaspora as “a special group of potential extra-territorial Chinese countrymen.”

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Kuala Lumpur

Follow us on Twitter
, , , ,