Thursday, October 25, 2012

China's 'old buddy' diplomacy dies a death

Oct 25, 2012
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - On October 17, China's national flag was flown at half-mast in Tiananmen Square, the foreign ministry and Beijing's Capital International Airport for a foreigner - the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk who died in the Chinese capital city two days earlier.

This was the first time China had hung its national flag at half-mast to mourn the death of a foreign VIP in 18 years, the last occasion being on the death in 1994 of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, former North Korean leader who died in 1994.

The death of Sihanouk and Beijing's move to show its condolences refreshed many Chinese people's memory of the history of Sino-Cambodia relations in the 1950s-1970s and led them to look at China's relations today with its small neighbors in the Indochina Peninsula.

For Chinese leaders, this event at least presents a chance for them to extend their friendship and tenderness, as a part of the country's diplomatic tradition, to the former Cambodian king and his family and his people.

Before Sihanouk passed away, some senior Chinese officials visited this "old friend of China"; after his death, President Hu Jintao attended a condolence ceremony and Premier Wen Jiabao paid homage to his residence in Beijing. Then Dai Bingguo, the State Councilor overseeing diplomatic affairs, on behalf of the Chinese government, accompanied the Cambodian Queen Mother, the country's present king, Norodom Sihamoni, and Prime Minister Hun Sen to escort Sihanouk's coffin back to Phnom Penh on October 17.

"Sihanouk was a great friend of the Chinese people. He made an indelible contribution to creating and culturing China-Cambodia friendship. His death is a great loss for the two countries", commented a spokesman of China's Foreign Ministry. In his condolence message to Sihanouk's families, President Hu also said His Majesty Sihanouk was a great friend of the Chinese people, and he had established a profound friendship with all generations of Chinese leaders.

The concern and attention Beijing showed toward a dead man who in his lifetime didn't have real power in Cambodia's domestic politics arises from the inertia of the diplomatic tradition of the People's Republic of China (PRC) - so-called "old buddy" diplomacy that attaches great importance to contributions by friendly foreigners especially politicians and statesmen to China's foreign relations, especially in the 1950s-1990s.

Reports in 1950-2010 of the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) flagship newspaper, had termed 601 foreigners from 123 countries as "old friends"; they included Charles de Gaulle (former French president), Henry Kissinger (former US secretary of state, Juan Antonio Samaranch (former president of the International Olympic Committee), Juan Carlos I (the Spanish king), Lee Kuan Yew (senior Singaporean politician), Tomiichi Murayama (former Japanese prime minister).

Among those "old foreign friends", the largest number come from Japan (111), Americans are next, followed by the British, French and German. Some "old buddies" are from small countries like Sihanouk.

Some "old buddy" foreigners who were not politicians include Edgar Snow (an American sympathizer of China's communist revolution and author of Red Star Over China) and Joseph Needham (British historian).

Any foreigner who is considered by Chinese leaders as an "old buddy" could be given considerate diplomatic courtesy from Beijing, for instance, he or she could have the chance to dine with China's leaders, or get birthday greetings from a Chinese representative.

The "old buddy" diplomacy shows China's foreign relations formerly, and perhaps still, somehow rely on the personal ties of Chinese leaders with certain foreigners who are friendly or sympathetic to China and help China to extend its foreign relations.

This implies that the PRC's diplomacy, influenced by ancient Chinese tradition, has for a long time emphasized ideology, morality and personal friendship more than economic interests which, by contrast, are almost invariably stressed by Western countries in their foreign relations.

Chinese people used to shy away from explicitly talking about economic interests, thanks to Confucius' teaching that "The man of honor seeks righteousness, while the man of disgrace cares only about profit".

Needless to say, after 30 years of reform and opening up, China's diplomacy is also changing, some would argue increasingly sophisticated, putting national and economic interests above other considerations in developing foreign relations.

As Sihanouk was regarded as a great "old buddy", he was naturally given due respect after his death. But behind the nostalgia of old friendship, Beijing certainly also has practical considerations. As near neighbor to China and a member country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Sihanouk's motherland Cambodia is an important country for China to maintain friendship as it develops its economic and geopolitical interests in Southeast Asia.

In 2006, the two countries built a "comprehensive cooperative partnership", and in 2010, this was upgraded to "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership". Now China is the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia.

Chinese investment in Cambodia is twice that of other countries in the 10-member ASEAN, and 10 times that of the United States. Some 70% of garment companies operating in Cambodia are Chinese invested.

Apart from economic linkage, they have common geo-political interests.For instance, in July this year, Cambodia as host of an ASEAN summit decisively refused to discuss the South China Sea, where China's claims are disputed by ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines among others, as a common issue for the organization.

Especially in view of Washington's recent "return to Asia" strategic shift, Phnom Penh's support is very valuable for Beijing. As Washington uses territorial disputes in the South China Sea to alienate China's diplomatic relations with its neighbors, the "No" answer by Cambodia can to some degree affect US tactics toward China and help China and concerned countries in this region to deal with their bilateral problems without external interference.

For Cambodia, on the other hand, China is not only the faithful political and military supporter of its independence from France in 1950s and Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s, but also the very important economic support and partner in the 21st century, since modern economic construction is now the most important task for today's Cambodia.

In a word, Cambodia is a good matchmaker of China's relations with ASEAN and China is an important economic partners and long-term supporter of its independence.

Thus considering history as well as the present reality of good relations between these two countries, it is not surprising that Sihanouk was given such great honor by Beijing.

Nevertheless, with the passage of this legendary man and the era of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge receding into the past, China's relations with this small country will go to a new stage - basically based on mutual-interest but not on "old-buddies" or personal friendship.

In this sense, Sihanouk's passing also marks the end of the era of China's "old buddy" diplomacy. The Middle Kingdom is no longer an isolated communist country that had to largely depend on certain friends or sympathizers of Chinese leaders to extend its foreign relations.

Since 2003, the term "old buddy of the Chinese people" has appeared less and less often in the People's Daily, from around 50 times a year to around 20 times a year today. It indicates that China's diplomacy has gradually changed from a pre-modern approach to a modern one.

Beijing is still developing its skills in dealing with other countries based on international conventions. As a result it sometimes runs into conflict with others, and certainly it will not totally abandon "friendship" and become solely concerned with interests in developing foreign relations.

Although Confucius' motto on this issue is somehow obsolete, Beijing will strive to find a new way to balance interests and morality in its foreign relations, including with Cambodia and other neighbors.

Dr Jian Junbo is an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

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