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.
A few years ago, a Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) leader from another Asean country told me that when his country was chair of Asean, the Chinese ambassador in his country forced him to move an Asean delegation out of the hotel that had been allocated to it so that former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao could be accommodated there. The ambassador insisted on this even though both hotels were of equal quality. I doubt that Mr Wen knew about this or would have approved had he known. But the Chinese ambassador's attitude certainly made a deep impression on the SOM leader and the Asean delegation that was forced to move.
These incidents betray a mindset that does not serve the future of Asean-China relations well. The asymmetry of the relationship can only become more salient as China grows.
The boundary distinguishing China from the contiguous regions to its south has historically been fluid. The forces of globalisation, the many planned Asean- China projects, and initiatives like the new maritime silk route are re-establishing historical patterns in new ways and adding new layers of complexity to even the most positive of relationships. Unless the mindset that I have briefly described changes, the future may not be as smooth as both China and Asean hope.
S-E Asia's quest for autonomy
MODERN South-east Asian history, like modern Chinese history, can be described as a quest for autonomy. In South-east Asia, the formation of Asean was a critical step in that quest. What was hard won will not be tamely relinquished by even the smallest country. Where the balance of autonomy between big and small will eventually be struck is the crucial question that we must confront.
It will be a critical influence on the evolution of what we mean by a "strategic partnership" between Asean and China.
Asean-China relations are an important pillar of regional stability and development, but it is by no means the most important one. US-China relations are clearly the most crucial for East Asian stability, with Sino-Japanese relations not far behind and Sino-Indian relations bound to grow in importance. Nor can the interests of countries such as South Korea, Australia and Russia be ignored.
All these relationships are intimately connected and influence one another. None of Asean's partnerships with major powers, however strategic they may be, can ever be exclusive.
I know Chinese friends do not like the word "balance", regarding it as a relic of the Cold War and directed against China. But this is not how Asean member states themselves see or use the concept. "Balance" is a vital concept for small countries because they can retain their autonomy only in the space created by a balance of major powers. "Balance" in this sense is not directed against any country; rather, it is an omnidirectional state of equilibrium. No Asean member state wants to have to choose between any major powers. We want the best possible relationship with all the major powers. We seek "balance" in the context of an open and inclusive regional architecture in our own national interests and not at the behest of any major power or to hurt the interests of any major power.
The leaders of both China and the United States have said that the region is big enough for both and they do not seek to make Asean choose between them. Chinese and American leaders seem to understand that any other kind of Asean external engagement will inevitably lead to South-east Asia again becoming a locus of great power rivalry to the detriment of all, big and small. I am not entirely certain, however, that this is understood at more junior levels in both Washington and Beijing.
Disputes in the South China Sea carry the greatest risk of polarising Asean and the region. How a big country deals with a small country over questions of sovereignty will be a major influence over how that country is regarded. Questions invoking sovereignty cast the darkest nationalist shadows; no country can easily back down without incurring grievous political costs, and consequently the temptation to secure sovereignty by de facto control through superior force can never be entirely discounted.
This has nothing to do with any country's intentions, and I do not believe China's intentions in the South China Sea are particularly bellicose, any more than any other claimant states' intentions are bellicose. Every claimant will sincerely believe that it is only acting defensively in response to the provocations of other claimants. The very notion of provocation is not particularly useful or relevant in this context.
No angels among claimants
COMING from a country that has important interests but no specific territorial or maritime claims in the South China Sea, I have the luxury of objectivity, and I must say that there are no angels in this affair. Every claimant has taken actions that are considered provocative by other claimants. This must be so almost by definition, because each claimant takes actions it believes are entirely justified as its right in areas it regards as sovereign, but it is that very claim of sovereignty that is disputed by other claimants. It is quite futile to try to apportion praise or blame to specific behaviours.
It is equally irrelevant to demand that the disputes be dealt with only by the parties concerned; that is self-evident and indeed a tautology as far as specific territorial or maritime claims are concerned. But it does not mean that other states do not have important interests in how such specific claims are managed. At the very least, we have an interest in their peaceful resolution and in upholding the integrity of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
It is entirely natural that any country will defend what it considers its sovereign rights. It is also entirely natural that every country will want the best military force it can afford, because the ability to defend oneself is a vital attribute of sovereignty. I thus find nothing unusual about China's claims in the South China Sea or its military modernisation programme.
What is critical is how claims of sovereignty are pursued. Will such claims be pursued within common frameworks of norms, including procedures to change norms considered obsolete or unjust, or by unilateral actions based on superior force? China has dealt with other boundary disputes, for example with its land border with Vietnam and maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin, largely within established frameworks and equitably, perhaps even generously.
But in the South China Sea, the record is mixed, and China has not behaved consistently. In its recent submission to the UN justifying the deployment of HD-981 to contested waters in the Paracels, China cited international law and Unclos. Yet on other occasions China has argued that since its claims predate Unclos that regime cannot be the sole basis to determine sovereignty.
Particularly unsettling is the increasing reliance on history.
Even setting aside the fact that in international law history has a role in determining claims over territory but not over maritime claims, historical arguments arouse anxieties among claimants and non-claimants alike.
History is always subject to multiple interpretations, and interpretations are constantly being revised as new facts come to light and interests change. There is therefore a danger that our own historical narratives will lead us in directions that we do not intend to take. In any case, the words of any major power echo far more loudly than may be intended.
In February, China's President Xi Jinping met Mr Lien Chan, Taiwan's former premier and vice-president, in what was described as the highest-level exchange since Mao Zedong met Chiang Kai Shek in 1945. In a speech on that occasion, which the People's Daily published on its front page under the title The Chinese Dream To Fulfil The Great Rejuvenation Of The Chinese People Together, President Xi cast the meeting in the historical context of how Taiwan had been occupied by foreign powers when the Chinese nation had been weak in the past. Much of the speech was specific to Taiwan, and cross-strait reconciliation is certainly to be welcomed.
But by casting reconciliation with Taiwan as an instance of the rectification of a historical injustice done to a weak China, it suggested and left open a broader settling of accounts. Since the 19th century, China undoubtedly suffered from the predations of many foreign powers. Does it mean to redress every one of these historical injustices? If not, how will distinctions between different cases be made? Who will make them? The mentality of a victim ill-suits a great country.
So where do we go from here?
Geography gives us no choice but to move Asean-China relations forward. Some things are already in train, for example, discussions on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. In addition to the 2+7 Cooperation Framework, there are various other Asean-China projects in the works. These are all necessary and important, but unless we address the core issue of asymmetry squarely and sensitively, I fear they may well have unintended consequences.
I think it was Mencius who observed that in dealing with a small state, a large state ought to use magnanimity, and when dealing with a large state, a small state ought to use wisdom. This is very good advice, although it still leaves open the precise meaning of "magnanimity" and the meaning of "wisdom". I suspect that large and small states will have somewhat different understandings of these concepts, and different understandings of the meaning of "mutual strategic trust".
As another venerable Chinese tradition puts it: "If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success."
The "truth" of these and other concepts that will shape the future of Asean-China relations will have to be politically and diplomatically defined and constructed between Asean and China.
Both sides need nothing less than a genuine process of partnership in which there is a duty of care to ensure one partner's dream does not become the other's nightmare.
The writer is former permanent secretary at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This is excerpted from a longer article in The American Interest, a Washington-based magazine on foreign policy issues.