Sat, Nov 24, 2018 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Beware of Beijing’s friendship

With all the pomp and press coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) seven-day Asia-Pacific tour that took him to Papua New Guinea, Brunei and the Philippines, and Beijing’s promotion of his Belt and Road Initiative, another plan has gone almost unremarked.

On Tuesday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said that satellite images showed that China has installed a new platform on Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) — which are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China — very close to Vietnam, with a radar dome and solar panels.

While the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday “vehemently objected” to the move and demanded that China stop such activities and respect international law, such protests are unlikely to carry much weight with its northern neighbor.

Just the week before, ahead of an ASEAN summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said that a rule book to settle disputes in the South China Sea should be finished within three years, and reiterated that Beijing is not seeking hegemony or expansion, but hopes to have a “harmonious relationship” with its neighbors.

Li’s comment came three months after ASEAN said an agreement had been reached with China on a draft negotiating text to serve as the basis for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, something its members have been seeking for years and Beijing has been trying to delay for almost as long in a bid to force bilateral pacts with individual members.

Beijing’s island-building efforts and establishment of military facilities in the region are not conducive to such negotiations or its claim to be committed “to open and inclusive cooperation ... as well as a friendly neighborhood,” to quote Xinhua news agency’s reporting on Xi’s trip.

China likes to play the victim, claiming that “outside” forces, i.e. the US, are trying to constrain it, and muttering about its historical rights, but it is exactly because of history that so many are becoming increasingly assertive about their own rights, even as they seek Beijing’s financial help with infrastructure projects. Expanding Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative into the Pacific, combined with Beijing’s expansive claims to islands, reefs and atolls, are reminiscent of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that led to the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

In addition, while Beijing touts “us against them” in pushing Xi’s initiative and its development and loan offers in South and Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America, by “us” it means China, no one else. Granted, the development and aid programs offered by Western nations and international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF over the past six decades have not been entirely altruistic or even completely beneficial, but China’s offers increasingly appear to be more along the lines of Don Corleone’s “an offer he can’t refuse” from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Western nations’ development projects, such as railways, dams and other infrastructure, do not come with demands that hundreds of thousands of workers from their nations be employed, the way that Chinese construction companies have done in Africa and elsewhere, nor do they threaten the sovereignty of the recipient nations.

Beijing’s takeover of the US$1.5 billion Hambantota Port that Chinese firms built in Sri Lanka after Colombo could not pay its debts is a classic mafia tactic. The initially moderate lending terms became much harder as the Sri Lankan government sought to renegotiate the payment time frame and refinance the deal, and Beijing’s response was to demand more equity, not ease the burden.

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