By Kathrin Hille in Beijing
When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last month failed to agree a joint position on the South China Sea, the disputed waters contested by several of its members and China, many observers lamented the organisation’s weakness.
But in Beijing, the outcome was quietly celebrated as a success for its new foreign policy strategy as China seeks to use key allies to push through its own interests in the region.
Cambodia, which this year chairs the 10-nation Asean group, blocked an attempt by the Philippines and Vietnam to include a reference in the summit communiqué to a recent stand-off with China in the South China Sea.
“We co-ordinated very well with Cambodia in that case and . . . prevented an incident which would have been detrimental to China,” says Chen Xiangyang, a foreign policy expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
Analysts say Cambodia’s move to do China’s bidding is a glimpse of things to come as Beijing seeks to build foreign policy alliances it long eschewed. Deterred from such alliances by the collapse of its pact with the Soviet Union in 1961, China decided in 1982, when it started opening up after more than a decade of self-imposed isolation during the cultural revolution, that it should follow a strict policy of non-alignment.
But following the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring and the growing US push to reassert its presence in Asia, this strategy is increasingly being challenged at home.
“The situation in China’s backyard has become more complicated, and there is a feeling that things are running out of control,” says Mr Chen. “Following the increase in Chinese power, we will need more friends. Otherwise we run the risk of isolation.”
Some Chinese scholars believe Beijing has already started watering down its traditional non-alignment dogma.
The country distinguishes between “strategic relationships” – a title it is happy to attach to any ties that the other side wants to give more weight to – and “special relationships”. China has long pursued a small number of special relationships, including a friendship treaty with North Korea, close ties with Pakistan that include anti-terrorism and military co-operation, and a strong partnership with Cambodia.
China has also cultivated friends such as Iran and Sudan, but Chinese foreign policy experts say these relationships are mainly driven by economic interests such as securing resources and could never become part of a Chinese alliance system.
In contrast, Beijing is experimenting with broadening and strengthening its ties in Asia into relationships that could become building blocs for an alliance. Analysts point to China’s role as a big aid donor and investor in Cambodia and Phnom Penh’s increasing co-operation with Beijing. It arrested Patrick Devillers, a Frenchman whom Chinese authorities wanted to question in connection with the scandal surrounding disgraced politician Bo Xilai. In 2009, Cambodia extradited 20 Uighur refugees to China whom Beijing suspected of involvement in sectarian violence in its restive western region of Xinjiang.
There were recriminations over Cambodia’s role at the the Asean meeting with some accusing China of intervening too forcefully in the group’s politics. But in recent days officials from the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have sought to draw a line under the events in Phnom Penh saying that long-term relations with Beijing are more important.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of international relations at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, says China knows it has the power to influence Asean countries and that a more engaged role by the US in the region is also causing friction within the group.
“The rebalancing [of the US in Asia] means certain Asean members can rely on the new US posture to hedge and leverage vis-a-vis China . . . In short, current internal Asean rifts are attributable not just to China’s assertive rise but also the US’ vigorous re-engagement.”
China’s relationship with Russia is also undergoing a major change. Chinese diplomats say the escalating crisis in Syria has pushed the countries much closer. Beijing and Moscow have jointly voted down three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria against a closed front of other countries.
“In the past, we happened to take the same position in the UN Security Council in some cases, but that was just because our national interests just happened to overlap, and there were other countries sharing our views, like in the Iraq case,” said one diplomat. “Now we have been pushed into a quasi-alliance.”
Some experts who advise Beijing also argue that China should do more to build ad hoc alliances with the other Brics – Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa – around certain topics where the big emerging markets have common interests. But many Chinese foreign policy experts say such experiments fall far short of what is needed.
Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University who has been one of the fiercest critics of non-alignment, says Beijing must completely abandon the dogma and replace it with a web of military alliances reaching from North Korea all the way down to Sri Lanka.
“We live in an international order dominated by the US’ military alliances,” he said. “China is not offering its neighbours security guarantees, so as China is rising, fears are emerging among them as to what our intentions might be.”
Some Chinese scholars believe the country has the building blocs in place for an extensive alliance system of its own. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a body co-founded by Beijing which includes Russia as well as several central Asian states, could be part of it in addition to North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Such ideas have the potential to deepen unease, especially in India which has long feared strategic encirclement by China. Beijing has repeatedly denied such intentions. But Pakistan and Sri Lanka have large ports that could be used for military purposes, and the prospect that the Chinese navy could be given regular access to them is feeding those fears.
Chinese analysts believe that signs of opening-up in some of the more unsavoury countries Beijing counts as friends could even speed up the process of building an alliance network.
Kim Jong-eun, North Korea’s new ruler, set up an economic reform group in his ruling party last month, feeding expectations that he might start Chinese-style economic reforms. “Both Myanmar and North Korea are seeking reform and opening,” says Mr Yan. “They are following China’s path. That would make them more suitable as real allies for us.”
Additional reporting Gwen Robinson in Bangkok, Jeremy Grant in Singapore and Roel Landingin in Manila