Southeast Asia in China's Foreign Policy 9789814376662

Attention will be paid not so much on China's relations with individual Southeast Asian countries, as on the role a

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Southeast Asia in China's Foreign Policy

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China's Perceptions and Objectives

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" Copyright subsists in this publication under the United Kingdom Copyright Act. 1911 and the Singapore Copyright Act (Cap. 187). No person shall reproduce a copy of this publication, or extracts therefrom, without the written permission of the Institute of Soutbea t Asian Studies, Singapore."


Southeast Asia in China's Foreign Policy


Joseph Camilleri

Occasional Paper No. 29 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Price:


China's foreign policy towards the individual countries of Southeast Asia as well as the region as a whole is of considerable significance. The dramatic developments in mainland Southeast Asia over the past few weeks have 1 if anything, tended to highlight th is In this setting, Dr. Joseph iqnificance even further. Camilleri's survey of "Southeast Asia in China's For i Policy" is both timely and instructive and one hopes it In the will stimulate further work along these lines. al paper his and Camilleri Or. wishing meantime 1 \othile the best , it is clearly understood that responsibil it · opinions expressed in the work that foll o· ·. for fact rests exclus 'vely with Dr. Camilleri, and his inter pretations do not necessaril reflect the vie s or olicy of the Institute itself or its supporters.

30 April 1975

Kernial Singh Sandhu Director

Introduction China's interest and involvement in the affairs of Southeast Asia date back almost two thousand years. Over the centuries the countries now comprising Indochina, Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago had evolved a tributary relationship with the Chinese empire based on trade and the acceptance of Chinese suzerainty. This system of state relations was irrevocably shattered in the nineteenth century by the intrusion of European military and economic power and replaced by a wide-ranging network of colonies and spheres of influence. The emancipation of the entire region from foreign domination has not yet been completed, although the Second World War, the communist Chinese victory of 1949 and the protracted Indochinese conflict have been important landmarks in the achievement of independence. A new stable relationship between the People's Republic of China and the nations of Southeast Asia has not yet emerged, but perhaps the developments of the last few years can give us some indication of the way in which historical influences, geopolitical realities and ideological attitudes are likely to coalesce into a new pattern of diplomatic and economic interaction. In this brief survey we shall focus attention not on China's relations with individual Southeast As i an countries as on the role and importance of the reg1on in China's overall foreign policy. The intention is to highlight certain general themes rather than present a detailed analysis of evolving bilateral relationsh1ps. Southeast Asia cannot of course be cons 1 dered as a unified or homogeneous entity. In fact, 1ts special relevance to Chinese foreign policy lies not s1mply in its proximity to China, but especially in the var1ety of political systems and diplomatic alignments which it comprises. As a microcosm of the international system, Southeast Asia reflects China's policies and attitudes not only to the regional sybsystem but also to the Third World as a whole and to the global balance of power. so· ~uch

Much has recently been written on the so-called new phase in China's foreign relations since the end of the Cultural Revolution . It is perfectly true that in the early 1970s, Chinese diplomacy has placed much greater stress on the normalization of state-to-state relations,

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given increasing attent ion to the capitalist world, made growing use of aid and trade, and moderated its advocacy of protracted armed struggle. What has occurred, however, i s not so much a reassessment of ultimate objectives, as a reappra1sal of the balance of forces currently shap in g the course of i nternational politics . A series of far-reaching changes in China's external environment - among which one would include the d~ en te in Sovlet - American relations, the deepening Sino-Sov iet conflict, the rise of China and Japan as the paramount powers 1n Asia, the emerg ing economic conflicts and cr 1 ses w1thin the capitalist world have all contributed to changes in China's perception of the intentions and c apabilities of other countries . The Cultural Revolution may have temporari l y distorted and impeded the effective conduct of Chinese foreign policy, but it has also reinforced the Maoist de t ermination to create within China a viable revolutionary society, and instilled in the leadership a greater sense of self-confidence, thereby enhancing China's capacity to develop and reorient its external relations in the light of the changing great power balance and the strategic and economic realignments in eastern and southern Asia . China's Perceptions and


All ~he avai . able evidence would indicate that, in the view of the present Chinese leadership, the bipolar system of International relations has been irretrievably undermined . China welcomes this trend and hopes to take advantage o f 1t to reduce the power o f the Soviet Union and ~he United St a tes while expanding its own freedom of action an d ideological sphere of nfluence . Chinese policy-makers no doubt bel1eve tha~ the ambivalent adversary relat1 ons hip between the two superpowers has severe ly limi t ed th eir supremacy withln the international system. In h1s report to the lOth Nat i onal Congress o f the Chinese Communist Part y (C CP ) , Chou En-lai stated: .. . the us and the USSR . .. are contending for hegemony . Wh1 le hawking disarmament, they are actually expanding their armaments every day they contend as well as collude with each other . Their collusion serves the purpose of more intensif1ed contention . !



Re view ~

September 7, 19 73 ,


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Since the late 1960s it is the Soviet Union, rather than the Un i ted States, which has become the primary target of Chinese hostility. The Sino~soviet conflict has been particularly acute in Asia, where China has felt most directly threatened by the perceived Sovie t attempt at encirclement, and where it has been most anxious to prevent the establishment .of a Moscowinspired system of collective secur ity. It is largely in order to offset Soviet, and to a lesser extent American ; initiatives inimical to its interests that China has favoured the creation of a multipolar system and encouraged the rise of new focal .points of international diplomacy. Here lies the significance of Japan and Western Europe in China's strategy for a revised world order. Apart from restoring .its diplomatic links with all the maJor capitals of Western Europe, Peking has become a staunch advocate of European integration and repeatedly warned of the dangers of Russian expansionism. A similar approach has marked China's relations with Japan, resulting in .the rapid development of diplomatic and economic ties .. Chinese efforts to promote a multipolar system of inter-state rela tions are not intended, however, to achieve a lasting quadrangular or pentagonal concert of power. China ~s merely seeking to take advantage of the disruption caused by the present transitional phase to enhance the flex i bility and effectiveness of ~ts own diplomacy. Particularly illuminating in this regard was Chou En-lai's report .to the lOth Party Congress in which he characterized the present international situation as one of great disorder: Relaxation 1s a temporary and superficial phenomenon, and great disorder will continue . Such great d~sorder 1s a g.ood thing .. . it throws the enemles lnto confusion and causes divis~ons among them,2 China favours such a fragmented and divided internat~onal system because it offers the best opportunity for transforming its impl i c~t power structure in a d irectlon favourable to Chinese national interests and ideological objectives . The same theme was stressed by Chiao Kuanhua at the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly:


Ib i d.

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All the basic contradictions. in ,the world are further sharpening the e-ont.r.adietion between the two superpowers on the one hand and the people of all .countries on the other, and the contradiction between the two superpowers .themselves .. It is now evident to all that .the .world -today is amidst more intense turbulence and unrest. 3 China's response to the behaviour .of the .two superpowers and to the international disorder which .it generates has been defined in terms of two .k ey propositions. In the first place, it is asserted that .the Chinese people "firmly stand on .the side of the .proletariat and oppressed people and nations the world over • , . . At no time will China ever behave like .a .superpower The Chinese people stand for equality among al.~ nat i ons, big or small .. "4 Far from participating .in the struggle for 11 world hegemony 11 or engaging in . "aggression, subversion, control and interference,." China will make common cause with all those countries that are rising against "imperialism, colonialism, .neo-colonialism, racism, zionism,. and hegemonism ~ "5 Thus China is a member of the Third World not only .by virtue of the objective conditions of its economic .and .socialist development but by its conscious choice to support "the non-aligned policy of peace and neutrality . n6 The Third .World is of particular .importance to Chinese foreign .policy because .it is .in this international arena that the most .powerful forces for change and disorder are likely to develop. By injecting a new element of polarization, the .attitudes and actions of underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa and


Speeah by Chiao Kuan-hua at the .P"lenary Meeting of the 29t h Sessi -on of the UN GeneraL Assembly, Oct ober 2, 19?4J Peking~ Foreign Language Press, 1974, p. L




Jih-Pao editorial reprinted in Peking

Review~ J anuary

1, 1971.

See Chou En...,lai's speech of welcome t o .the delegation from the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam., Peking Review,November 23, 1973.


See the Jen-:~n Jih-Pao editorial ."Hail .the Successful Conclusion of the 4th Summit Conference of Non-Aligned Countries," Faking Review, September 21, 1973.

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Latin America have already contr1buted to a much l es s rigidly structured internatlo~ system. The unre st and turbulence that typify many regions of the Third World place severe limitations on the effect i ve influence of great powers; they create the conditions for revolut i onary change which militates directly against the interests of the two superpowe r s. In this sense, the Third World 1s perhaps t he theatre where the demands of China's revolutionary obJe ctives and the requirements of its nat i ona l 1nterests most happily coincide. It is not at all surp r1s1ng, th eref ore, that Ch1na shou d be str1ving to fash1on an elaborate Third World policy wh1ch reflects both i de olog ical commitments and the realities of power. At the leve l of pr1nc1p l e, China has co ns is~entl y committed 1tself to the re volut1o nar y t ran sformatlon of the underdeveloped wor ld and to t h e struggle aga1nst "US imperial1sm" and "revision1sro " (o r "soci a l imperialism" ) wh 1 ch stand as the main enenue s o f world revolution. In the 1960s and es pecially during the Cultural Revolution, protracted armed struggle was considered the maJor, and somet imes the sole i ns trume nt for the reorqanizat1on of the ex ist1ng power equil ib r ium. In April 1969, Lin Pi ao reported to the 9th Party Congres s that "armed struggles [were] stead1ly grow ing in st..rength .•. the truth that 1 po itical power grows ou t of the barrel of a gun' 1s being grasped my ever br e a der masses of oppressed people and na~1ons."7 By the early 1970s and especially after China's admiss1on to the United Nations, the tone had markedly changed . Ch 1na was still anxious to project an 1mage of itself as the champion of the poor and the proud; but the strateg y for revolutionary change now placed much greater emphas1 s on the need to mobilize the broadest poss1ble united front, which took full account of "all the pos1t1ve factors favourable to the struggle . ~Ac cording to a series of authoritative statements emanating fr om Peking, these factors included not only, or even primarily, the victories of liberation struggles but also the divisions within the ."imperialist camp" and the "revisionist bloc" and the success of Th1rd Wo rld governments, regardless of their 1deological c omp ex1on , in opposing "the hegemony and power po l it l cs o f the


"Report to the 9th Nat iona Congress of the Communist Party of China, by Lin Piao (April 1, 1969 ) ," Cz.a'!'ent Backg OW"..d , No. 880 , May 9, 1969, p . 42.

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two superpowers." 8 The five principles .of peaeef u l co-existence, to which China had always subscribed, were now restoned to a pre-eminent posLtion in Ch i na's foreign policy. Chinese representatives at. the United Nations and other international forums were now expounding in detail and with effect .their analy s ~ s of the economic underdevelopment of .the Third Wor l d , The dramatic and growing inequalities .between t he haves and have-nots had produced a politica l c limate of increasing resentment and frustration in many Third World countries~ which China was .able to explo it a s a means of w1nning favour with the .non-al1gned wor l d .. China's support for the concept of a .United Nat:ions Charter of Economic Rights and Duties .of States · gave a powerful impetus to the resolution sponsored by Mexico and to the genera demand for a more equitab e d i st.n . bution of the world's resources. Southeast Asia in China's External Relations OVer the last two decades China's relations with Southeast Asia have been closely intertwined with its policies towards the two superpowers ~ Chinese support for the various Communist parties and liberation movements in the region has had as one of its principal objectives the partial, if not complete, withdrawal ef the American m1litary presencee With the enunciation of the Nixon Doctrine and the Vietnamization policy and t he consequent removal of American ground forces from the Indochinese Conflict, it can be argued that this objective has been at least partly fulf1lled ~ However~ .a new critical problem has arisen with the growing Sino-Soviet rift, which has continued to gain rnementum .since 1ts origin in the m1d- or late 19 50s, thus making Sout.heast As 1 a a key element 1n the apparent policy of con ~ ainment., and hence in the Chinese determination to thwar t SovleL designs. The friendship treaty of Aucgust: 19 7 1, the groping efforts towards d~ t e nte w1th t he United States, Moscow's attempts to develop d1p l omatic and economic cooperation with Japan, .its proposa l for an Asian security system, .1. ~s obv1ous .pressures en North Vietnam, and its increas i ng overtures .to several So utheast Asian countries have convinced China both of the hosti l ity


See Jen-Min Jih-Pao edi torials, "A 0 r ogrammf! for Anti-lmpenalist St ruggle," Peking Review~ May 21, 1971; "Unite ~ o Win Stil l Greater Vict ories," Peking Review, January 7, 1972; anrl "Strive for New Victories," Peking Review, October 6, 19 72 o

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of Soviet intentions and of the need to foil them in the Southeast Asian theatre where presumab l y Ch i na should be able to exercise most leverage. In addition .to its di rect .role .in .Pek i ng's -great · power diplomacy ,. Southeast Asia .offers .Ch i na - the · · opportunity to estab li sh an accepted .s.phere of i nfluence . This l ong-term interest .i s · assuming:.particular i mportance at a time when the American presenc e appears - to be on the decl i ne and when many Southeast Asian nation s -are explori ng the possibil ity of c l oser .cooperation .amongst t hemselves and .of a - redefinition .i n exis ti ng alignments. The crucial ques tion for China .is whether t h i s · reassessment will be directed against Chinese influence or designed to accommodate it. Here ,. it woul d seem necessary to g ive a ·more precise meaning t o t he concept of a Chinese sphereof i nfluence .. Al l t he evi dence would sugges t t hat China has a very flexible unders tanding of the concept , and t hat it would be satisfied wit h a policy of neutrality wh i ch may .even tolerate a · modest! low-profile us military commitment, so long as it effectively _.Prevents Soviet penetration. A Ch i nese sphere of influence woul d not,. therefore,. necessitate the establ-i shment .of communis t governments - wfiich is in any case precluded by the .tenet that revolution cannot be export ed- but .s i mp l y the adoption by Southeast Asian government s of a poli cy opposed t o the emergence .of hostil e armed power and po liti ca l i n~luence likely to threat en Chinese security& Apart from the · requirement that neighbours reject -provocative assoc i ations and alignments, and refuse .t .he .install at i on of foreign military bases-, · a -Chinese .sphere of i nf l uen ce is likely to make few additional demands , although in an ideal context it might also postul at e .the f r eedom to publ i c ize Chi na's revolutionary ideology . It is at this point t hat Chinese fore i gn po licy appears to suffer .from an acute .dilemma,. for a t ·t he present stage in the political evol uti on .of Sout heast Asia, there is a very · large gap between theo:f'ientation of most governments and the .aspirations and s t rategies of revolutionary movements . Many of .the ruling el ites of Southeast Asi a, and the r epressive .government al structures wh ich they operat~, have a vested -. i n t erest in preventing .the possibility of .a .social andpolitical . revolution i n their own countries . Thus the Chinese advocacy of wars of nat i onal liberation i s like l y to antagonize not on ly the gr eat .powers but a l so many ·. of the local governments wh i ch China presumably hopes to influence . Peking i s thus confronted with t he pai nful

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choice either of leading a mildly reformist trade union of conservative governments or of mobilizing and coordinating the weak and scattered forces ·· of revolutionary insurgency. To examine more fully this issue and China's complex and . .;o ften ambivalent response to it, it is necessary to begin with a closer analysis of China's evolving relationship with the United States and the Soviet Union. The Global Balance It will be remembered that throughout the 1960s Chinese leaders were primarily .concerned with thwarting the American policy of containment. China's decision to acquire a nuclear capability was primarily intended to deny the United States the diplomatic advantage of nuclear blackmail. China required a nuclear umbrella in order to be able to continue its support for revo ~ lutionary activity without running the risk of nuclear attack. Although less menacing, the introduction of US troops into the Indochinese conflict was also considered as posing a major threat to Chinese security. It was, therefore, of the utmost importance that these forces should not ,advance past the 17th parallel. In a very real sense, ~ orth Vietnam was to remain an important buffer zone bet~fl:een China and the United It is not States throughout the duration of the war. without significance that China's only threat to intervene directly in the conflict was explicitly designed to forestall the possibility of an American ground invasion of North Vietnam. For Peking, then; the overriding objective was the withdrawal of US combat forces from Vietnam, which had reached a peak of 543,000 in February 1969: "the crux of the Vietnam question is not whether the USA bombs the North or not, but that the USA aggr essive forces must be pulled out of Vietnam."9 Thus, with the resignation of President Johnson and the gradual departure of US troops from South Vietnam, one of the .key conditions for the establishment of a new dialogue .between Washington and Peking had been satisfied. China's admission to the United Nations in October 1971, and the subsequent visit of President · Nixon to Peking in February 1972, inevitably ·a exercised and policy Vietnam China's complicated


Jen-Min Jih-Pao, February 20, 1967.

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restraining influence on its denunciation of American actions in Indochina. Nevertheless, only a few weeks prior to the American President's historic journey to Peking, the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs issued one of its most critical statements on the US role in the Indochinese war: The USA Government must stop its brutal persecution of the SQuth Vietnamese people, stop pushing its "Vietnamization scheme," stop its war of aggression against Vietnam and ~he other Indochinese countries, immediately withdraw all the USA aggression armed forces and its vassal .troops and · immediately cease supporting the puppet regime in South Vietnam, the Lon Nol-Sirik Matak clique in Cambodia and the Rightists in Laos.lO Even in the joint communique signed at the end of the Nixon visit, which was meant to usher in a new era in Sino-American relations, China reiterated its commitment to revolutionary struggle and explicitly reaffirmed its support for the peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and more particularly for the sevenpoint proposal of the Provisional Revolut.ionary Government (PRG ) of South Vi.e ·tnam.ll Accordingly, Peking did not allow the Nixon visit to prevent a series of aid agreement with Hanoi in January, June and November 1972 providing for the gratuitous supply of military equipment and materials during 1973.12 It is true that the American decision in May 1972 to impose a tary blockade on North Vietnam produced a somewhat muted reaction on China's part, and · it is even possible that Peking played an important role in getting the Vietnam peace negotiations off the ground


The statement was issued on January 21, 1972 and reprinted in the Peki ng Review, January 28, 1972 .


For a full text of the Shanghai communique 1972, see "Current Documents" in Current History, September 1972, pp. 131-133.


These agreements ,were renewed in 1974, following the visit to China by a North Vietnamese delegation in June 1973o For a complete list of recent agreements between China and North Vietnam, see Curren t Backgr ound, No . 1014, August 5, 1974, p o 74 .

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by persuading Hanoi to give up the precondition of the removal of the Thieu regime. Furthermore, it has been argued that China's enthusiastic acceptance of the provisions of the Paris Peace Agreement of January 27, 1973, betrayed an eagerness to maintain the momentum of det e nte with the United States rather than any desire to secure "self-determination, peace and unity for the Vietnamese people." The Agreement, which was hailed as a major Yictory for the Vietnamese people with far-reaching implications for the anti-imperialist struggle throughout the world,l3 did not in fact bring an end to the fighting . Instead of the promised ceasefire, the Paris Agreement was followed by continuous and escalating warfare throughout much of South Vietnam. Far from withdrawing its entire military personnel, the United States retained thousands of men (variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000 ) in active service, including senior officers, pilots and technicians, many of them disguised as civilians and embassy officials. While acknowledging these obvious limitations to the gains achieved by North Vietnam at the negotiating table, the fact remains that the Agreement left North Vietnam and the PRG in a relatively strong position should they choose to proceed with a military assault on the Saigon administration which, given the mood of American public opinion and the US Congress, now had to face the prospect of diminishing military assistance from the United States. In other words, the negotiated settlement did produce a partial victory for the communist side, which in any case, did not prevent China from reaffirming its support for Hanoi, renewing annual agreements for military and economic aid to North Vietnam, and repeatedly condemning both Saigon and Washington for their violations of the Agreement. It is also worth noting that the rapprochement with ~he United States has been arrested at a low level of cordiality. Since the lOth Party Congress, China has engaged in renewed and vigorous criticism of US policies in relation to Indochina, Taiwan and several other unresolved issues. The scale of military operations recently undertaken by North Vietnam and the PRG has made it clear that China does not intend to sell out Hanoi or to force it into a negotiated settlement which would fall far short of its proclaimed political goals. As so often in the past, China is 13

See Chou En-lai's speech of June 1973 in Peking June 8, 1973, p . 7,


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pursuing a revolutionary dual .policy.which enables it to provide revolutionary movements with sufficient support to exercise an appreciable measure of influence over their activities without, .at the same time; provoking retaliatory action by .any major power.. Since the United States has · abandonedr or .at . least · dowRgraded, its role as global - policeman, there ,i s little -l ikelihood that China's aid to national .liberation. struggleswill set it on a collision course - with the United State s . Support for revolution by political .or .even mili t ary means no longer endangers .the .prospects of dia logue with the world's major capitalist power . There is, however, an important .corollary to this apparent compatibility between Chinese and American For the end of the Vietnam war and even of interests ~ Ameri c an military intervention in As ian affairs wi ll not necessarily affect the US strateg ic position in the south-West Pacific . By contrast r China ·. i s still a very small naval power and has only limited sho rt-r ange aerial st.rength. To the extent, therefore, th at China fears the militarypenetration of the Soviet · Unien into Southeast Asia, and so long as it remains - in a - position of strategic inferiority vi s-a-vis the two superpowers, it may be favourably disposed t o a.res i dual · American presence in the region as · a counter -to Sovi e t influence . At the end of · 1973; Chou En~la i was .reported to have conveyed to the Australian Prime Minister, China's preference for a gradual US military withdrawal from Southeast Asia ,and the west Pacificc 1 warningc: