China’s ascension on the global stage: A Chinese Malaysian’s perspective

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China's "nine-dash" line - Map: Wikipedia

Genuine alliances among nations require equal partnerships based on mutual respect and benefits, not fear of retaliation and military threats. Ch’ng Chin Yeow writes.

I am a third-generation Malaysian on my father’s side (my grandfather arrived in Penang from China in 1927). I am at least a fifth-generation Malaysian on my mother’s Peranakan side of the family.

China suffered for almost 200 years when the country was in decline due to its failure to endorse modernisation to keep up with the West, the inhuman bullying of China during the Qing Dynasty by the Western powers, and the mismanagement of the country during Mao Zedong’s leadership of the Communist Party in the disastrous implementation of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution policies.

Having gone through such humiliation in its recent history, China’s current success on the global stage has given the Chinese in China a renewed sense of pride. Some Chinese Malaysians also may feel the same sense of pride at being Chinese.

This positive sentiment towards China was not always so. When China was poor, many Chinese Malaysians looked down on their own relatives and counterparts in China, even labelling them as greedy.

The rise of China is phenomenal. Its economic development has taken hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Many cities in China are among the most modern megacities in the world, and the nation’s advancements in science and technology (eg in communications) have been spectacular.

As a Malaysian, I am ambivalent to the rise of China as a superpower from the perspective of a person living in South East Asia. On the one hand, I am happy with the economic rise of China and its spillover economic effects on many countries around the world, including Malaysia, and the improved wellbeing and prosperity of the Chinese citizens. From a human rights perspective, people should not be trapped in poverty.

On the other, I am concerned with the increasing Chinese military presence in the South China Sea and the issues related to the Uighurs and Tibet. Then there is the encroachment into Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” autonomy, based on the agreement between Beijing and the UK government, which is legally binding until 2047.

Maritime disputes


China’s building of an airstrip on a reef in the South China Sea has also alarmed its neighbours.

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Despite it being illegal to claim a reef as one’s territory (under the international law on territorial claims, a land that is submerged under water during high tide cannot be claimed as land), China has created seven artificial islands out of reefs (permanently submerged under water) as its territory. It has put in place runways and other military facilities on these islands.

In the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both China and the Philippines, a standoff arose in 2012, when the Philippines navy tried to arrest those in eight fishing vessels from China.

This led to the former filing an international territorial dispute case against China in the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2013. One piece of evidence presented by the Philippines was the Velarde Map that showed the shoal had been part of Philippines’ territory from at least 1734.  

In 2016, the court declared that China’s “nine-dash” line claim in the entire South China Sea was invalid. Despite the Hague court ruling, China refuses to accept the ruling and retains its military presence to stop vessels from the Philippines from entering the area.

Vietnam also encounters similar aggressive military action by China in the South China Sea. Part of its recent protest against China was over the sinking of a boat with eight fisherfolk off the Paracel Islands in April this year. (China, for its part, claims the Vietnamese vessel had hit the Chinese ship, which tried to avoid it.)

The maritime disputes were one of the most pressing issues raised at the Asean summit hosted by Vietnam over video in June this year.  

China’s claim of almost the whole of the South China Sea is based on its “nine-dash” line, which has been ruled invalid. That line would have changed airspace, maritime and international boundaries in the region forever. Based on China’s claim, it would seem much of the exclusive economic zone claimed by neighbouring countries, would have effectively become Chinese territory.

Other concerns

Another area of concern are the indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, which are no longer a myth. Their presence was laid bare by John Bolton, the former US National Security Adviser, in his recent book, The Room Where It Happened.

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Bolton writes that at the Osaka G20 meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping explained to US President Donald Trump the reason for China building these camps in Xinjiang.

Critics say these are not training camps – contrary to what China claims – but “concentration camps”. If so, it is a human rights violation to keep millions of Uighurs in such camps separated from their families and children. Love for one’s country cannot be forced upon its citizens; it has to be intrinsic – coming from within. National reconciliation programmes and the admission of past mistakes by both sides will be a first step towards reconciliation.

Trying to turn millions of Muslims into nationalistic Chinese nationals is the biggest social engineering project ever undertaken in the world. But hardline programmes have been proven time and again to be ineffective. An example of such a failure is the Australian state and federal governments and the church missions’ taking away of Aboriginal children – known as the Stolen Generations – from their parents from 1905 to the 1970s.

The involvement of a Chinese state-owned bank in helping Jho Low to allegedly launder 1MDB money around the world was exposed by Sarawak Report recently. The East Coast Rail Link signed by Najib Razak and China was apparently part of the 1MDB scandal, with China helping the Najib administration by substantially inflating the cost of the project. China, however, denies it offered to bail out 1MDB. This scandal has not inspired much confidence among Malaysians towards China’s branding as a trustworthy equal partner.

China’s other projects signed with governments in some other countries have also caused discontentment among the citizens. One example is the controversial Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.

China is able to get governments to sign joint venture projects around the world, but the public acceptance of China as a trustworthy joint venture partner in many of these countries is not reciprocated.

These joint venture projects are perceived as lopsided in favour of China rather than their home countries. Discontentment flares when poor people are relocated from their lands or their livelihoods jeopardised by these projects. Many of the projects were built with Chinese workers rather than with local workers, further fuelling resentment against China. 

Towards mutual respect

China has enormous economic power. It is among the most important trading partners of the EU, the US, Australia and Asean. China is spoilt for choice in sourcing its components, agricultural products and natural resources with its enormous bargaining power.

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Many countries are cautious about voicing their concerns about China, fearful of repercussions and retaliation by China. This explains the lack of a concerted effort in voicing condemnation from the international community on China’s building of the airstrip and other amenities in the South China Sea. This is a short and medium-term comparative advantage for China.

In the long term, the rest of the world can unite to neutralise China’s substantial bargaining power by diversifying their markets and manufacturing away from China. Power is only power when it is used sparingly and is soft and invisible. One such possibility is the moving of US manufacturing to South America. After all, Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of countries around the world to their overdependence on supply chains in China.

China’s foreign policy in the South China Sea has alienated and alarmed small Asean nations. On its west, China reportedly captured 60 sq km of arid land, patrolled by India, along the border of the two nations. Its stand-off in the demilitarised zone in the Himalayas in May-June 2020 has alienated India, another fast-rising large Asian nation.

Alienating other nations is not the best foreign policy for any nation in this diverse world, especially on so many fronts. For China’s Belt and Road Initiative project to be truly successful, China needs to build trust not fear among its trading and joint venture partners. Indeed, this is the key success factor.

Diverting attention away from its trust deficiency by counter-attacking the US or any other country or blaming the West for its record will not inspire the trust in China’s branding. Aggressive messages coming out of China along those lines will not win them friends and in fact may backfire.

True alliance requires true equal partnership based on mutual respect and benefits, not fear of retaliation and military threats.

Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody

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Krishna Moorthy
Krishna Moorthy
12 Jul 2020 3.19pm

We must make the distinction between the greatChinese people and culture and the current political dispensation of one party rule by the CCP. This rule is Chinese only in name and is little more than a successor to the Qing dynasty that oppressed the Chinese people. Under CCP rule China has become an irredentist and expansionist power whose actions are no different from those of the colonial exploiters it likes to criticize. B

Teo Chuen Tick
10 Jul 2020 6.45am

“..not fear of retaliation and military threats.” – if China is guilty of these transgressions, so is the US. Yes, I know 2 wrongs do not make 1 right – my point is that in this unequal and unjust world, might is right by those yielding such power!

From input given by Sarawak Report, it is clear Jho Low is protected by powers-that-be in China. Yet, I must ask, especially now that the backdoor govt. in power with the umnoputras, perhaps such protection has the sanction of the evil doers and powerful in this country? 1MDB stain cannot be wiped clean as they are convictions and confiscations of assets in several countries.
Why is China doing so? The Chinese proverb that you don’y have to draw the intestines to show it’s a human comes to mind