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Vietnam-war-era friends poster
Southeast Asians have become increasingly aware that their future is closely tied with China. Schools and language institutes in Southeast Asia gave began offering more Mandarin classes. Airlines offer flights to places like Chengdu and Chonqing as well as Beijing and Shanghai. Research institutes and scholarships have been established with China.

China, Japan and South Korea participate in ASEAN meetings although they are not members. ASEAN Plus Three refers to meetings involving the ASEAN countries plus South Korea, China and Japan. It is the closest thing there is to an Asia-wide organization.

China has come to dominate ASEAN meetings even thought it is not a member. Many worry that China will gain too much influence and begin calling the shots for ASEAN. The United States is suspicious of the ASEAN Plus Three format because it seems aimed at uniting Asia at the expense of the United States.

China has concluded a free-trade deal with all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while a similar U.S. pact is only in its infancy. It is cementing ties with Thailand - a U.S. ally - despite recent political unrest there. [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, November 20, 2010 ><]

On relations between individual Asian nations and China, Sheng Lijun wrote on YaleGlobal online: “Take the warming in China-Indonesia relations for example: The two nations have declared each other as strategic partners, which may have a lot to do with Muslim Indonesia’s intention to use China to balance the excessive US pressure against Islamic extremists in the country. Indonesia’s overture to build defense ties with China and buy Chinese weapons can be interpreted as a tactical rather than a strategic re-orientation, a means to pressure the US to lift its arms embargo on Indonesia.

“Myanmar and Cambodia both have close relations with China. In the case of Myanmar, the US has chosen not to engage with its government, likewise rejecting trade or investment. US trade sanctions and embargo against Myanmar still stand. China is Cambodia’s top investor and trade partner. The US, for political reasons, still has no significant trade or investment in Cambodia. If the US changes its policy and prioritizes these two countries, China may find it difficult to maintain its primacy there.

History of Relations Between China and Southeast Asia

In the mid 1960s, the Chinese government supported the Communist insurgents in Vietnam, Cambodia Burma and Laos. Since the 1990s it has signed peaceful cooperation accords with several Southeast Asian countries and has held regular meetings with representatives of these countries. Chinese leaders regularly visit countries in Southeast Asia, welcome their leaders and attend regional meetings such as those hosted by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Ties between the ASEAN nations and China have improved dramatically since China has been seeking better, more stable relations with the world as a whole. China is not a member of ASEAN but its sends representatives to their meetings. In 2002, China signed an agreement with ASEAN to exercise self-restraint in the Spratly Islands.

In June 2003, China agreed to sign a friendship pact with the nations of Southeast Asia in part to address fears that China is a military and economic threat to Southeast Asia. China has also worked to settle disputed between Cambodia and Thailand and coaxed Burma to be open up.

Southeast Asia and Economics and China

A number of Japanese and American companies have cut their production facilities in Southeast Asia and shifted jobs to China. To remain competitive Southeast Asian country either have offer labor costs lower than those in China as Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia have done or make more value-added products as Malaysia and Thailand are trying to do.

China has proposed establishing a huge free trade zone with Southeast Asia by 2010. Many of the Southeast Asian nation are suspicious of this proposal because they feel it will ultimately serve China’s interests better than their own.

Some economist predict that Southeast Asia will become known primarily as a supplier of food and raw materials to China with their manufacturing sector ultimately being undermined by Chinese factories and cheap labor.

See China and the Asian Economy, Under Asia and China

Warmer Relations Between China and Southeast Asia

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “China continues to consolidate its relations as never before with its consultative approach to diplomacy with ASEAN. After the joint ASEAN statement criticising China's assertiveness over the Mischief Reef back in March 1995, Beijing has been working hard to mend fences with the grouping through countless new initiatives. At this juncture, China-ASEAN relations are extensive at all levels...In 2003, it was China that set the ball rolling when it became the first non-ASEAN nation to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand), February 25, 2008]

I. Wibowo, the head of Chinese Studies at the University of Indonesia, wrote in the Jakarta Post : “Relations between China and several Southeast Asian nations have been fast improving. ASEAN leaders now regularly speak highly of China, and of the nation's recent successes. This positive atmosphere was unheard of 10 years ago. [Source: I. Wibowom, Jakarta Post, February 5, 2007]

During his visit to Laos in 2000, Chinese president Jiang Zemin received a very warm welcome, in which ""banners were hung across the capital lauding Jiang, and endless banquets were held in his honor"". This scene was replicated in Cambodia, where over 200,000 cheering schoolchildren welcomed Jiang's motorcade.In the early '90s, Cambodia opposed China's involvement with the Khmer Rouge. While Myanmar, suffering from an embargo implemented by Western nations, showed its gratitude to China for its support by bettering economic and political ties between the nations.

Thailand is no exception from this pattern. A long-time British and U.S. ally, the nation now considers its diplomatic relationship with China -- along with India -- essential to furthering its own position in Asia. Vietnam has been at war with China since 1979, but from 1991, when diplomatic relations between the nations were restored, Vietnam's relations with China have continued to improve. In February 2002 the two nations proposed the ""Four good themes"": good neighbors, good friends, good camaraderie and good partners. As a result, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, which all hug the Mekong River, have benefited tremendously from trade with China. Under the framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), China has implemented a development program in the Mekong Basin. It has been noticeable that China has paid great attention to this region through aid-giving. It is within the Mekong area that China's soft power is most evident.

Similar trends have been evidenced in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Malaysia, under Dr. Mahathir, has developed a close relationship with China, and at both economic and diplomatic levels the two countries are on good terms. Singapore remains a ""natural friend"" of China as the majority of the city-state's population are of Chinese descent. Although their relationship was strained during the '70s, as of 1990 it has been reinvigorated by increased trade and two-way visits from the nations' leaders. Meanwhile, relations between China and the Philippines have been caught in a dangerous dispute over Mischief Reef. Yet, in the past five years, relations between the two countries have been bettered due to high-level exchanges. The Philippines have also received a loan of US$500 million to build railroads.

Relations between Indonesia and China suffered after a diplomatic break-up lasting 32 years. Yet, over the past eight years, Indonesia and China have worked to better this situation. Visits by leaders of the two countries have been more frequent, while exports and imports have grown. When the Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia, China also increased its assistance to the region. In addition to US$400 million in stand-by loans as part of an IMF rescue package, China also increased its export credit facilities by $200 million. During the 2004 tsunami disaster, China was among the first of nations to provide not only financial assistance to Indonesia, but also medical assistance.

The increase in China's soft power is evident among the various cultures to which citizens of ASEAN nations belong. One observer said, ""Chinese culture, cuisine, calligraphy, cinema, curios, art, acupuncture, herbal, medicine and fashion fads have penetrated into regional culture."" He also says Chinese films, pop-music and film stars, such a Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, are now extremely popular among Southeast Asia's youth. Mainland Chinese brands such as Hai'er, TCL and Huawei have also become increasingly popular in many Southeast Asian societies. According to a poll conducted in Thailand in 2003, 76 percent of respondents considered China to be Thailand's closest friend.

Chinese Offers $15 BillionAid Package to ASEAN

In April 2009, in the wake of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, Xinhua reported: “China unveiled a multi-billion-dollar package of aid and credit to enhance China-ASEAN cooperation. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met with envoys of the 10 ASEAN countries in Beijing, fresh from his return from Thailand where scheduled Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings were postponed due to unrest in Thailand. "As always, China firmly backs ASEAN integration and community building, and firmly supports ASEAN to play a leading role in regional cooperation," said Yang. [Source: Xinhua, April 12, 2009 ==]

“Yang said China called for joint efforts to reach an investment agreement, which would be conducive to the establishment of the China-ASEAN free trade zone. China planned to establish a China-ASEAN investment cooperation fund totaling US$10 billion, designed for cooperation on infrastructure construction, energy and resources, information and communications, Yang said. ==

Over three to five years, China planned to offer credit of US$15 billion to ASEAN countries, including loans with preferential terms of 1.7 billion dollars in aid for cooperation projects. China also planned to offer $39.7 million in special aid to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to meet urgent needs, inject 5 million dollars into the China-ASEAN Cooperation Fund, and donate 900,000 dollars to the cooperation fund of ASEAN plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK). China would provide 300,000 tons of rice for the emergency East Asia rice reserve to strengthen food security in the region. China would offer an extra 2,000 government scholarships and 200 master's scholarships for public administration students from the developing member countries over the next five years. ==

"The overall thought for China-ASEAN cooperation is that the two sides should rise to difficulties in face of the grim global financial crisis, and make efforts to convert unprecedented challenge into opportunity for closer pragmatic cooperation and common development," said Yang. All the envoys said the proposals would exert profound and active influence on China-ASEAN cooperation, and would enormously support ASEAN countries during the global financial crisis. ==

China Move Towards Better Relations with Southeast Asia

In October 2013, China's President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Southeast Asia (to Indonesia) and said his country's territorial disputes with Southeast Asia should be resolved in a "in a peaceful manner so as to safeguard regional stability and peace". "Southeast Asia is one important hub of the maritime Silk Road. China is ready to increase maritime cooperation with ASEAN," he said. "China attaches great importance to Indonesia's role in ASEAN and is ready to work together with Indonesia and other ASEAN countries to make the two sides share the same prosperity."[Source: AFP, October 3, 2013 <:>]

“Analysts said Xi's speech had a conciliatory tone aimed at repairing relations but offered little new of substance. Li Mingjiang, China programme director at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Xi's tone was one of openness, reinforcing his more accommodative and relaxed attitude to the disputes. "This shift is already taking place -- we haven't seen any aggressive patrolling in the South China Sea since Xi took the leadership," Li said. But Bantaro Bandoro, a professor at the Indonesian Defence University, told AFP he saw nothing new in Xi's comments. "China will certainly not sacrifice its principles of sovereignty," he said. <:>

“There was no sign of Beijing bending to ASEAN's long-held demand that China accept a legally binding code of conduct for handling disputes in the South China Sea. Analysts, however, agreed that Xi's visit to Southeast Asia -- just after US President Barack Obama cancelled parts of his visit to the region -- was a blow to the much-vaunted US "pivot" towards Asia. "You have this sharp contrast between Xi Jinping and Obama, so people will conclude that China is a near neighbour and it is committed," said Li. <:>

“A week later AFP reported: “Premier Li Keqiang called for peace in the South China Sea and expanded Chinese trade with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as he met the bloc’s leaders in the oil-flush sultanate of Brunei. “A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all. We need to work together to make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation,” Li said. Li took the baton from President Xi Jinping, who underlined Chinese power by occupying centre-stage earlier this week at an Asia-Pacific summit in Bali while Obama was stuck at home due to the US government shutdown. [Source: AFP, October 9, 2013 <<<]

In sharp contrast to the often icy tone Beijing takes with perceived rivals like the United States, a smiling and energetic Li showered ASEAN with pledges of friendship and deeper economic integration. He called for China-ASEAN trade to be more than doubled to $1 trillion by 2020, from about $400 billion last year. The two days of talks in Brunei began with an annual ASEAN summit followed by the bloc’s separate meetings with Japan, South Korea, China and the United States.

China has succeeded in lowering temperatures in the sea disputes by agreeing recently to discuss a code of conduct with ASEAN. Even officials from the Philippines welcomed the tentative signs of a thaw. But President Benigno Aquino reminded his ASEAN colleagues of the risks of instability at sea, according to a text of his remarks during the closed-door ASEAN summit. “Clearly, our development as a region cannot be realised in an international environment where the rule of law does not exist,” he said.

Li and the Southeast Asian leaders were all smiles as they cut a giant blue and pink cake to mark the 10th anniversary of a China-ASEAN strategic partnership. However, some experts view Beijing’s recent moves as a bid to buy time while it continues to strengthen its regional clout. “(China) is not going to compromise on its claims,” said Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. ASEAN is also pushing an ambitious 16-nation free trade zone called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that also involves China. The initiative is seen as rivalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact championed by Washington.

China, ASEAN and South China Sea

The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint. China's claim over the huge area has in particular set it against ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines.

AFP reported: ASEAN suffered deep splits in 2012 linked to territorial disputes with China over the resource-rich South China Sea. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as China and Taiwan, claim parts of the sea, which is also home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes as well as rich fishing grounds. But a push by the Philippines and Vietnam for ASEAN to send a united message to an increasingly aggressive China crumbled amid resistance from Cambodia, a close Chinese ally that held the rotating chair of the bloc in 2012. [Source: AFP, April 24, 2013]

See South China Sea Dispute

China Gives Cambodia $500 Million Aid for Help in South China Sea Dispute

In September 2012, Reuters reported: “China has pledged more than $500 million in soft loans and grants to Cambodia and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao thanked it for helping Beijing maintain good relations with ASEAN. A summit of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the group's 45-year history after disagreement over the wording of a section on territorial claims in the South China Sea. Cambodia, which chaired ASEAN in 2012, was accused by some countries in the group of stonewalling in support of its ally, China. [Source: Reuters, September 4, 2012 \\\\]

“Four loan agreements for unspecified projects worth about $420 million were signed when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited China. Another three loan agreements, worth more than $80 million, were expected to be signed this year, Cambodia's Minister of Economy and Finance Aun Porn Moniroth said, adding that Wen had also promised a grant of 150 million yuan ($24 million) as "a gift" for Cambodia to use on any priority project. \\\\

"The Chinese government also voiced high appreciation for the part played by Cambodia as the chair of ASEAN to maintain good cooperation between China and ASEAN," Aun Porn Moniroth said. According to China's Xinhua state news agency, Wen said China "will closely coordinate with Cambodia and support the country to make the upcoming series of meetings for East Asian leaders a success". Those meeting are in Cambodia in November. \\\\

ASEAN Woos India As a Hedge Against China

In December 2012, The Nation reported: “It took two decades for the leaders of ASEAN and India to have the courage to say that they are strategic partners in the truest sense of the world. They have been reluctant to say this all along, as they don't want to give the wrong impression that they are ganging up against common adversaries. But the rapidly changing regional environment and global uncertainties have made ASEAN and India to realise that they have to forge a closer relations beyond the economic and trade tracks. For years, they have negotiated a free-trade agreement to promote trade and investment, which by all records dealings were still small. At the summit meeting last week in New Delhi, the leaders of ASEAN and India exhibited the same wavelength - that comprehensive relations are important to peace and stability in the region. [Source: The Nation, December 23, 2012 >>>]

“Of course, the summit successfully concluded without mentioning the rise of China and perceived threats that come with it. Everybody knows the reason why the two sides got together and upgraded their relations beyond the 20th anniversary - to essentially balance the growing influence of China. ASEAN and India were very clear not to say the obvious. In the past, ASEAN has treated India as a middle-ranked power with an inward looking attitude, focusing on its own region. However, over recent decades, with growing trade and investment and other links with ASEAN, India has become an important partner to promote economic progress in Southeast Asia. ASEAN-India ties are now much more strategic than before. >>>

ASEAN feels comfortable with India, as a rising power. New Delhi has never been perceived as a security threat in the region. Its benign foreign policy and humility has encouraged ASEAN to woo India to increase security cooperation, especially maritime security. This will be a new area of security cooperation between ASEAN and India. Deep down, ASEAN is looking to India, the world's largest democracy, as another security guarantor. Of course, the US is the main superpower, which provides to an overarching security shield for the region. But ASEAN is keen for an additional strategic partner that has proximity. Although Australia is close to Southeast Asia, it is considered a Western power with a focus mainly on protecting its and US interests in the region. >>>

From now on, India should do more to maintain the confidence of ASEAN and demonstrate its commitment to make tangible progress on their bilateral ties. In the past, ASEAN also wooed China, thinking that it would help to strengthen the regional security. However, the rising tension in the South China Sea accompanied by Beijing's tough talk has recently changed the thinking within this region. ASEAN wants to make sure that along with US, India will walk side by side with the grouping to increase its support when it is placed on a line-up with China. In a similar vein, ASEAN's increased engagement with India will intensify in proportion to the degree of cooperation the region gets from Beijing on the drafting of a code of conduct for the South China Sea and other areas. >>>

Island Disputes

The gas-rich Gulf of Thailand is contested by Thailand and Cambodia and the southern South China Sea is contested by Indonesia. Malaysia and Brunei. Neil Chatterjee of Reuters wrote: “The disputed boundary in the Gulf of Thailand's Pattani Trough, a gas-producing zone, involves no territory, and comes between a Thailand desperate for more domestic fuel and a Cambodia desperate for any kind of income -- factors that could all augur well for a resolution...Other prospective South China Sea spots are between Malaysia and Brunei, as well as northeastern Borneo, claimed by Malaysia and Indonesia. But it has been just a couple of years since opposing naval ships patrolled this area to stop exploration from the likes of Total and Eni. [Source: Neil Chatterjee. Reuters, April 30, 2007]

The South China Sea is the world's largest sea. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it covers 1,148,500 square miles. In the last 2,500 years mariners for Malaysia, China and Indonesia navigated the South China Sea to trade sandalwood, silk, tea and spices. Today it carries roughly a third of the world's shipping and accounts for a tenth of the world's fish catch. China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines all have 200-mile coastal economic zones in the South China Sea. All of these countries also claim the Spratly Islands which are in the middle of the sea

About $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which passes through U.S. ports. Below the South China Sea is an estimated $3 trillion worth of oil, gas and minerals. Fisheries in the South China Sea have been decimated by overfishing and polluting chemicals from shrimp farms and factories. By some estimates there is enough oil under the South China Sea to last China for 60 years.

The Spratly Islands are a group of tiny islands, reefs, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Most of the islands are submerged during high tide and generally regarded as uninhabitable. No one paid much attention to them until the 1960s when it was realized there could be mineral wealth and oil deposits located in the waters around them. [Source: Tracy Dahlby, National Geographic, December 1998]

The Spratlys and Paracels straddle busy shipping lanes. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas states that countries have exclusive economic zones in areas within 200 nautical miles of their shores. In the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratly Islands, these zones overlap. When a country claims the Spratly Islands it also claims the waters win a 200 nautical mile radius around them. Dozens of fishermen and sailors have been killed in disputes involving the Spratly Islands. Also naval vessels have faced off, fishermen have been arrested, oil rigs have been blockaded and occasionally shots are fired.

Vietnam and China

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Even though Vietnamese culture has been greatly influenced by China and China helped Vietnam in their fight against the United States in the 1960s, China and Vietnam have traditionally been enemies. See Vietnamese History.

The Chinese were always been afraid that the Soviet Union would use Vietnam and Laos to harass China from the south. These fears were eased when Vietnam left Cambodia in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is ironic that the Vietnam War was fought in part to contain China because today the Vietnamese want the Americans to contain China.

Vietnam and China fought a fierce one month war in 1979 after 250,000 ethnic Chinese in Vietnam fled persecution and Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge. China invaded to "teach the Vietnamese a lesson." The war was an embarrassment for China's People's Liberation Army who were thoroughly trounced and suffered as many as 20,000 casualties in two weeks of fierce fighting.

Before, during and after the 1979 Vietnamese-Chinese border war, there was an anti-Chinese pogrom in Vietnam, forcing many of the country's most talented entrepreneurs” who were ethnic Chinese---to flee Vietnam. country. In 1979 some 300,000 boat people fled Vietnam. Many of them were persecuted ethnic Chinese who sailed to Hong Kong. Many ethnic Chinese that fled Vietnam now reside in Kunming in southern China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ties between China and Vietnam have improved. Vietnam and China normalized diplomatic ties in 1991. Trade between the two countries is booming and Vietnamese leaders of China have visited China and Chinese leaders have visited Vietnam. Trade between Vietnam and China reached $2 billion in 2000. China has helped renovate the rail line between Vietnam and China.

Myanmar and China

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Some view Myanmar and North Korea as satellites of China and parts of its outer empire. Myanmar serves as a buffer between China and India. China covets Myanmar’s natural gas and its access to the India Ocean.In the past couple decades China had emerged as Myanmar "closets friend, protector and trading partner." The top general in Myanmar has visited China to sign a $250 million soft loan package. Newly-acquired Chinese weapons have helped the Myanmar regime crush Karen rebels.

In January 2007, China blocked a resolution by the United States to seeking improved human rights in Myanmar. China has not been critical of the Myanmar’s regime and its human rights policies as other countries have been. In December 2001, Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Myanmar and said it “must be allowed to choose its own development path suited for its own conditions.

China would like to gain access through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. It is helping the Myanmar regime build a new naval installation with access to the Indian Ocean and is financing the construction of roads in Mynammr that will connect China with these facilities. Some people are worried that Beijing has plans to take over Burma and turn into a satellite province like Tibet.

“While Western nations slammed Myanmar's election in 2010 as a sham, China has shown no such concerns. Hu offered his "warm congratulations" to Thein Sein for his appointment as president after the elections, which Myanmar lauded as the culmination of efforts to return the country to civilian rule. [Source: Reuters, May 27, 2011]

“Diplomatically, China provides Myanmar with crucial cover at the United Nations, fending off calls for tougher action demanded by the West on Myanmar's poor human rights record. For its part, Myanmar gives China access to the Indian Ocean, not only for imports of oil and gas and exports from landlocked southwestern Chinese provinces, but also potentially for military bases or listening posts. In October, China's state energy group CNPC started building a crude oil port in Myanmar, part of a pipeline project aimed at cutting out the long detour oil cargoes take through the congested and strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.” [Ibid]

But relations have not all been smooth. China has frequently expressed its concern at instability along their often mountainous and remote border, where rebel groups deeply involved in the narcotics trade have been fighting Myanmar's central government for decades. In August 2009, 30,000 refugees from Myanmar crossed the border to China to flee fighting in Myanmar’s northern Kokang region between rebels and government troops, promoting an unusually public show of anger from Beijing towards its poor southern neighbour, Many of the refugees had ties with the Kokang militia, an ethnic Chinese rebel group in the Shan state. In April 2010, four Chinese workers died during bomb blasts at a dam construction site in northern Burma’s Kachin state.

Image Sources: Landsberger Posters; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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