By Xu Liping
Some western media have blatantly ramped up the political propaganda about Cambodia’s so-called “choosing China over the US” because Cambodia accepted Chinese assistance in infrastructure construction. In a firm response to this, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked who else, is willing to help Cambodia develop infrastructure, except China? China has been providing assistance to Southeast Asian countries for many years, and the western media are downright smearing both the helper and the recipients by equating “China’s assistance to Southeast Asia” with “choosing China over the US”.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the country has been aiding Southeast Asian countries in various forms, which has gone through three important stages. In the first stage, before China launched the reform and opening-up, it mainly provided strategic assistance along with aid in other forms to ensure the security of the socialist camp. In the second stage, which lasted from the beginning of the reform and opening-up to the late 20th century, China mainly provided humanitarian and development aid to Southeast Asia, with strategic assistance accounting for a smaller share. In the third stage, which is since the beginning of the 21st century, China mainly provided development aid to Southeast Asia, along with humanitarian aid and a small part of strategic assistance.
In all three stages, China’s assistance to Southeast Asia has been based on and intended to improve bilateral relations without targeting any third party, let alone a specific major country. Even during the Cold War, the assistance was mostly institutional arrangements that were defensive in nature. Never was such assistance intended to disrupt a specific major country’s strategic deployments in the Southeast Asian region.
China’s current assistance to Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, is concentrated on infrastructure and therefore falls under the category of development aid. The main reason is that those countries are unable to raise the money needed to build infrastructure that usually involves long-term investment and slow payback but is at the same time fundamentally important for the industrialization of developing countries in the region. Once in place, the infrastructure will give a strong boost to the interconnectivity among local countries as well as that between them and China, bringing benefits to both sides by facilitating their trade and free and convenient investment.
As a matter of fact, countries like the US and Japan began conducting aid programs in Southeast Asia long ago. After WWII, the Eisenhower administration developed a special assistance program for Southeast Asia; during the Cold War, Washington obviously took assistance as an important economic means to secure the support of Southeast Asian countries. Recently, the US claimed to increase its aid to the region, an undisguised attempt to curb China. In Mid-September this year, US Secretary of State Pompeo announced to kick off the Mekong-U.S. partnership, pledging American assistance and investment to the Mekong River region while accusing China of destroying the environment there.
On the surface, Japan’s assistance to Southeast Asia doesn’t directly target China, but it essentially serves to achieve the strategic goals of the US-Japan alliance.
Indeed, the less developed regions in Southeast Asia are in urgent need of international assistance and cooperation. Being the victims of western invasion and aggression in history, they suffer deeply from the damages of war, such as left-behind land mines and soil and people affected by defoliant pollution. They don’t want to pick sides between Beijing and Washington, all they yearn for is assistance and development, nothing else. The hyping of China-US confrontation and the “China penetration” theory by some western media is no good for the peace and development in Southeast Asia.
China and Southeast Asian countries share a history for more than 2,000 years of friendly exchanges, and some of them are among the first to have established diplomatic ties with the PRC. At present, bilateral relations have entered a period of upgrade and quality improvement, with the foundation for bilateral cooperation being increasingly consolidated. Those who hold the petty view that China provides assistance to Southeast Asian countries to get them to “choose China over the US” has underestimated China’s broad mind and wisdom as an eastern major country.
(The author is a research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy and director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)