Sat, 11 Nov 2000

Geopolitics behind Jiang's trip to SE Asia

By Peter Harmsen

BEIJING (AFP): When Chinese President Jiang Zemin embarks on a week-long trip to Laos, Cambodia and Brunei this week he will be carrying China's ambition to be a regional power, but will be weighed down by history.

It is the first time since the 1960s that a Chinese head of state has paid a visit to any of these countries, but analysts say Beijing's hope of gaining influence in Southeast Asia should not be underestimated.

"China dreams of becoming some sort of uncontested elder brother in the region," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

What complicates this task is its past as the foremost supporter of the Khmer Rouge movement, whose genocidal regime in Cambodia in the late 1970s led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people.

Cambodian police Monday barred students from handing a petition to China's embassy asking for an apology.

Beijing has made clear it is not going to address the issue during Jiang's trip, let alone apologize for it.

"This is an internal affair of Cambodia," said a foreign ministry spokeswoman. "This time the focus of the meeting between President Jiang and all the leaders of the three countries will be on how to further strengthen cooperation."

China's focus on Southeast Asia is the result of its location on the map, on top of a region that functions as a crossroads for trade.

"No outside power has a larger stake (in Southeast Asia) than does China," American professors Andrew Nathan and Robert Ross wrote in The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress, a book about Chinese foreign policy.

"Geography forces China to see the region much as America sees Latin America or Russia sees Eastern Europe."

Geo-politics is likely to make a major mark on Jiang's visits to Laos, scheduled for Nov. 11 to 13, and Cambodia, set for Nov. 13 and 14.

"One of the aims is to balance U.S. influence in a region which remains dependent on outside support," said Cabestan.

After the fall of communism ended decades of Soviet influence in Southeast Asia, the United States has returned as the main outside power and U.S. President Bill Clinton is due in Vietnam for an historic visit later this month.

This adds to Chinese fears of U.S. encroachment, already strong because the United States is active at the opposite end of East Asia where it has just concluded its highest-level talks ever with reclusive North Korea.

But the race for influence in its immediate neighborhood is one China may never win, according to Cabestan.

"The more powerful China becomes in East Asia, the more the countries there will try to keep close ties with United States," he said.

Alongside China's competition with the United States, it is involved in a parallel game over influence with Vietnam, historically an important local player in Southeast Asia.

That could be why Vietnam on Tuesday announced its president Tran Duc Luong would visit Cambodia on Nov. 27, on the heels of Jiang's visit.

China faces an uphill struggle, since the Cambodian leadership's pro-Beijing lobby is characterized by observers as small and insignificant.

Its pro-Vietnam lobby is influential and led by Premier Hun Sen, a former militant communist who was installed as head of a regime after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979.

This leaves China with little hope of a decisive change in its favor, and it may have only modest expectations.

"China wants the Cambodian leadership to respect China's interests. It's not in China's interest to foster a pro-Chinese faction, because it would be counterproductive," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.

"But it hopes to see Cambodia strike a good balance between China and Vietnam."

Jiang will arrive in Brunei on Nov. 15 for an informal summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

The actual state visit to the sultanate does not begin until two days later and will focus on business and economics.

Besides meeting with the sultan, Jiang will brief local businesspeople on the opportunities they can expect from China's 2001-2005 five-year plan, according to a Chinese foreign ministry official.