Ronald N. Montaperto

East Carolina University
Photo of Ronald N. Montaperto

Ronald N. Montaperto is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at East Carolina University and a consultant on Asian Affairs.  He was dean of Academics at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Previously, he was the Senior Research Professor at the National Defense University. In his distinguished career, he has served as a faculty member in the Political Science Department at Indiana University-Bloomington, Director of East Asian Studies at Indiana University, the Henry L. Stimson Chair of Political Science at the U.S. Army War College, and the Chief of Estimates for China at the Defense Intelligence Agency.  He frequently appeared as a guest analyst of Chinese and Asian affairs, and was a Professional Lecturer in Political Science at the George Washington University. He has published four books as well as numerous articles on Asia security issues, Chinese foreign and national security politics and Chinese domestic politics.  He co-authored with Gordon Bennett, The Political Biography of Dai Hsiao-ai, which was nominated for a National book Award.  Dr. Montaperto earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Michigan.

Articles by Ronald N. Montaperto

China’s relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors moved along at a steady pace during the third quarter of the year. In the political sphere, Aug. 20 marked the first meeting of the China-ASEAN Eminent Persons Group in Qingdao. Initiated by Premier Wen Jiabao last year, and eagerly anticipated by ASEAN, the meeting put the very important ceremonial seal of approval on the growing relations between China and ASEAN. The Chinese side was led by no less a personage than former Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. The group agreed to hold a second meeting in Kuala Lumpur next year.

In the political/economic sphere, what could have been a major economic issue with significant negative impact on Chinese relations with ASEAN – regional concerns about Beijing’s decision to change its policy of pegging the value of the yuan to the U.S. dollar in favor of allowing the yuan to float – failed to materialize in any politically meaningful way.

The absence of neuralgia within Southeast Asian financial and trade circles probably had three sources. First, the Chinese invested significant time and energy in preparing both governmental and private economic centers from Thailand to Singapore to Indonesia for their action; second, regional financial circles were clearly convinced that some action was essential; and third, correctly or not, the action, which allows only the most limited room for fluctuation in value, was broadly perceived as a reasonable first step toward dealing with an issue that is likely to be present for a considerable period of time. In this context, and despite significant concerns about the future, the Chinese decision was seen as prudent, responsible, and reasonable.

Indeed, in coming to terms with the inevitable, business, financial, and government leaders in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Singapore, all declared in so many words that a floating yuan is a good thing that is likely to enhance the value of their own respective currencies. It is worth noting that Kuala Lumpur implemented a similar policy with respect to the ringgit.

Although in one sense Beijing merely took a sideways step and succeeded in deferring the time at which the issue of the value of the yuan relative to the dollar and regional currencies will have to be truly resolved, the positive regional reaction augurs well for future economic relations between Beijing and Southeast Asia. Regional economic leaders probably feel more confident about Beijing’s awareness of the impact of any change in the value of the yuan.

Syntax and usage aside, the language of the subtitle of this analysis (paraphrased from an article in People’s Daily) captures fully the thrust and character of Beijing’s relations with Southeast Asia during the second quarter of 2005. Buoyed by a swift international response, a high level of assistance, and the success of their own hard work, the nations of Southeast Asia threw off the torpor induced by the tsunami of December 2004 and returned to business as usual. Beijing seized the opportunity and immediately reenergized plans placed in temporary, forced abeyance in the wake of the disaster. The result was yet another series of apparent Chinese successes in Beijing’s continuing drive to gain acceptance as a good neighbor and further enhance its regional status.

As the year 2005 approached, Beijing was reportedly in the midst of preparations for an all-out effort to consolidate and expand the remarkable gains it scored in relations with the nations of Southeast Asia during the previous year. However, the shock and devastation of the December tsunami forced an immediate shift in regional priorities. Beijing appears to have responded by adjusting its diplomatic agenda, too.  Despite the somber atmosphere, the requirements of greeting the Year of the Rooster provided their own distractions. As a result, the first quarter of 2005 was a quiet period for Chinese diplomacy and for China’s relations with the subregion. No doubt, as the year progresses, the tempo and scope of Chinese activity will return to its previous high level.

Having sown the seeds of multilateral cooperation, China’s leaders must have been disappointed at their inability to follow up on previous initiatives. Little specific effort was directed toward creating the institutional framework for multilateralism that Beijing had been seeking. Rather, if Chinese diplomacy during the quarter reflected any deliberate focus, it seemed to involve what might best be termed assurance and reassurance. By participating actively in the tsunami relief effort, the Chinese seemed to be attempting to assure the subregion of the constancy of their commitment to the welfare of what they increasingly refer to as the “Asian Community.”

At the same time, Beijing made a quiet but significant effort to reassure its neighbors about the positive nature of Chinese intentions for shaping the emerging regional economic and security architectures. Sensitive as they are to regional concerns about the emergence of China as a driver of Southeast Asian economic and political developments, the leadership tried to disarm regional fears by speaking directly to issues related to economic competition and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Arguably, some success was achieved on both counts.

Beijing’s leaders and the supporting policy community are undoubtedly quite happy with the rhythm and trajectory of Chinese foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the nations of Southeast Asia. Indeed, from an outside perspective, it would seem that they have every reason to feel satisfied.

During the last quarter of 2004, Beijing leveraged previous gains made to use both the October Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Hanoi and the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Santiago, Chile as platforms from which to enunciate the economic and strategic priorities now defining Chinese external policies. At these events, Beijing spoke from a global perspective.

Beijing then embedded its global stance within the context of Southeast Asian concerns at the 10th Summit Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which convened in Vientiane, Laos later in November. Also at the ASEAN meeting, Beijing held its own summit with ASEAN leaders (ASEAN Plus One) and joined Japan and the Republic of Korea in discussions with ASEAN leaders (ASEAN Plus Three). The summit provided a backdrop for the annual tripartite meetings with the leaders of Japan and the ROK.

Exhibiting what has become standard behavior, Beijing also mixed its multilateral diplomacy with bilateral efforts. These were aimed at improving and solidifying ties with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. With the possible exception of Vietnam, all of these activities were crowned by success.

All in all, it is arguable that, in light of the economic and political gains achieved during the quarter, China’s overall strategic position within the region has never been stronger. Increasingly, the rhythms of Southeast Asian political and economic life are being defined by Beijing as the nations of the region place a new emphasis on analyzing, assessing, and ultimately factoring potential Chinese reactions into their respective foreign policy initiatives. Although the United States and, increasingly the European Union (EU) continue to be of vital importance, the almost daily manifestations of Chinese economic power, the effort to demonstrate commitment to the “new” principle that the economic development of individual nations is inseparable from the development of the region as a whole, and the broad perception within the region that the Chinese are willing to engage actively in multilateral, cooperative policies have combined to provide Beijing with an unprecedented  measure of  influence and even clout.

Beijing’s relations with the nations of Southeast Asia during the third quarter of 2004 remained basically positive and progressive. Contacts with the region as a whole through ASEAN followed a generally positive trajectory, as did China’s relations with individual Southeast Asian nations. Trade and overall economic relations developed according to the announced objectives of all the parties involved; several new infrastructure development projects designed to facilitate Chinese contacts with its neighbors were announced and/or begun; Beijing made major progress in its self-defined role as bridge between Asia and Europe as the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) convened; and, the Chinese announced a broad-gauge plan for integrating ties among political parties into the overall strategy for developing positive, broad relations with the sub-region.

Only two events emerged to contrast with this overwhelmingly positive pattern and, although neither threatens to challenge, much less undermine, the generally positive course of Beijing’s interactions with Southeast Asia, they merit mention here. The more puzzling of the two involved Beijing’s unusually harsh and unprecedented public reaction to the unofficial visit to Taiwan by Singapore’s then Deputy Prime Minister and now Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The second comprised region-wide speculation over the potential implications of Jiang Zimin’s retirement as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the assumption of those duties by Hu Jintao, which occurred at the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the CCP. The passing of control of the gun to Hu marks the completion of the transition of China’s leadership to the so-called Fourth Generation.

If 2003 was the year during which Beijing laid the foundation for a new relationship with the nations of Southeast Asia, 2004 may emerge as a period of fine tuning and adjustment. During the second quarter, as during the first, Beijing focused on the details of agreements already in place rather than offering bold new initiatives. China’s quest to achieve increased respectability and influence in Southeast Asia by following a two-pronged strategy that focuses on ASEAN for dealing with the region as a whole while dealing with nation-specific issues on a bilateral basis was readily apparent throughout the quarter. In some ways, the balance may have shifted slightly toward the bilateral arena.

The South China Sea and various areas along the Mekong River drew Chinese and regional attention, as did ever-present issues of trade and finance. However, these do not appear to have slowed the pace of Beijing’s political progress through the region, much less obstructed it. China’s relations with ASEAN remain positive, although Beijing must be disappointed with the lack of progress in such areas as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), security discussions, and the effort to establish multilateral mechanisms for securing unhindered passage through the Strait of Malacca.