Although it is his trip to the US that everybody is eagerly awaiting, Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao first visited Malaysia and Singapore. This arrangement displays not only China's diplomatic efforts to develop good relations with its neighbors and strengthen its position as a regional superpower, but also its intention to ally with Southeast Asian countries as a counter to the US and Japan.
Hu's Malaysia trip underlines China's strategy to promote harmonious relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Since their foundation, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines and Thailand have suffered from the destabilizing effects and violence of communist parties. These countries, therefore, have kept their distance from China. The influence of communism collapsed with the end the Cold War, and the power bases of rulers in Southeast Asian countries has consolidated. But China has grown stronger, forcing Southeast Asian nations to adjust their relations with China.
Singapore took the lead in advancing the concept of an East Asia free-trade zone in 2000. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, along with ASEAN, announced a plan last November to establish a free-trade zone within 10 years. In mid-April, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi followed suit and suggested forming an East Asia free-trade zone in 2010.
Let's set aside the question of who is behind the free-trade-zone idea. In the string of voices suggesting free-trade zones, Hu's targeting of Malaysia and Singapore is clearly part of China's attempts to keep on good terms with ASEAN. This has also highlighted China's resolution to become a regional superpower in Asia in a bid to compete with the US and Japan for leadership in the region.
China and Malaysia seem to have been warming to each other in recent years. Malaysia's Muslim beliefs are not entirely against capitalist or against modernization. But the Malay political elite often takes issue with US stands on democracy and human rights as a result of internal political maneuvering and the emphasis on "Bangsa Malaysia," a united Malaysian nation.
Since economic reform began, China's leaders have come under pressure from the democratic and human rights values promoted by the US. As a result, China's leaders have tried to team up with Malaysia to counter US protests. They are also getting friendly with the Muslim powers of Malaysia and Indonesia to compete with Western powers such as the US.
Singapore, sandwiched between the Muslim cultural powers of Indonesia and Malaysia, has a complicated geopolitical and ethnic history. Singaporeans have deliberately tried to suppress their ethnic Chinese cultural characteristics lest they provoke a counter-reaction from Muslims. Using this strategy, Singapore has ingeniously acted as a "mediator" to persuade ASEAN to establish better relations with China. The tiny city-state thereby ensures its continued existence and boosts its economic interests. It also ensures the security of Southeast Asian nations.
The outside world is describing Hu's diplomatic visit as a "networking journey," but this underestimates Beijing's efforts to court Southeast Asia.
Milton Yeh is a professor at the Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, National Chi Nan University.
Translated by Jackie Lin