CHINA and South-east Asia are geographically contiguous. We have no choice but to live together. China and Asean have decided their relationship should be a “strategic partnership”, the 10th anniversary of which was celebrated last year.
Today, Asean-China relations are indisputably one of the most crucial relationships in East Asia and an important pillar of regional stability and development. And yet, there remains an undercurrent of reserve.
The various maritime disputes in the South China Sea have received much attention, but they are not the central issue. They are symptoms of a far more fundamental issue that colours the entire Asean-China agenda: the sheer disparity of size between Asean and China and hence the fundamental asymmetry of the relationship between them.
The combined population of the 10 Asean member states is less than half of China’s population; China’s gross domestic product is almost four times larger than the combined GDP of the 10 Asean member states.
This asymmetry of size and thus of power is an empirical fact that cannot be wished away. Big countries are always going to provoke a degree of anxiety in smaller countries on their periphery. This has nothing to do with the intentions of the big country; it is a reality faced by all big countries in every region throughout history. Big countries have a duty to reassure, a duty that China has only partially fulfilled. Small countries look at the world very differently from big countries.
I have come to the sad conclusion that it is almost impossible for big countries to understand how small countries think. Throughout my diplomatic career, I have failed to get Chinese friends to understand; they may intellectually grasp the difference but do not emotionally empathise with small countries. This is probably true of all big countries everywhere. But it may well be particularly difficult for China to empathise because of justifiable pride in its achievements, the growing role of nationalism in the Chinese body politic and, above all, China’s sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia and the world after “a hundred years of humiliation”.
Recently a young Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance told me that Singapore’s Prime Minister should not have expressed a view on the dispute between China and Japan over the islands the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese call Senkaku, because the “Chinese people” took umbrage at a small country telling a big country what to do. I do not know how my acquaintance knew what 1.4 billion people were thinking, but the Prime Minister was only answering a question about a dispute that could affect the peace and security of the entire region.
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