China and Southeast Asia: Capitalizing on each other

By the Integrated Development Studies Institute
THERE are times we would read, hear or watch reports about territorial tensions between China and some Southeast Asian countries — the Philippines in particular — that leave many people in the region feeling dismayed and outraged. It does not help that Beijing’s continued assertion of its territorial claims and Manila’s seemingly feeble responses continue to fuel negative sentiment. It has reached a point where those tensions have increased resentment over the growing Chinese presence here, further challenging ties.

That wasn’t the case centuries ago when relations between China and Southeast Asia were simpler and much more cordial. Commerce and trade between them flourished; so did cultural exchanges. Even after various European powers took control of the region from the 16th century onward, economic and cultural exchanges continued, although weakened to an extent.

The 20th century saw China turn communist and Southeast Asian countries emerge free and independent after enduring the horrors of World War 2. It also saw five of these countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the turbulent 1960s, when two ideological and military superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — fought for global supremacy and China essentially retreated from the world stage.

That changed in the late 1970s onward when China adopted certain policies and reforms that enabled its economy to grow and allowed it to open up again to the world. It became a manufacturing mammoth, churning out every product imaginable for export to other countries, including those in Southeast Asia.

It can be argued that the region played a part in that development. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping used Singapore as a model for the reforms he introduced. Thailand’s CP Group was China’s first foreign investor in 1979. And a Filipino, Ellen Palanca, was among the first foreigners who, in 1985, taught economics to a group of Chinese students who would later on become important economic officials.

The result of this can be seen more than 30 years later, with China and Southeast Asia now great investment, trade, tourism and technology partners. In fact, the region has surpassed the US as Beijing’s second-largest trading partner.

Consider: Total trade between China and Southeast Asia reached more than $580 billion in 2018, a 14-percent increase from the year-before figure. Two-way investments stand at about $200 billion. And there were more than 32 million tourists traveling between China and the region in 2017.

As China became more developed, the opportunities for those in Southeast Asia to learn and benefit from the country’s growth story grew, and vice versa.

For example, Chinese companies have started training Filipino workers, among them engineers, telecommunications support staff and architects. Prof. Yuan Longping, the so-called father of hybrid rice who is credited for helping his country beat Malthusian starvation and achieve self-sufficiency in the staple, had extended assistance to the Philippines in developing its own hybrid rice.

In other countries in the region, Malaysia was recently challenged by its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to learn from China meeting the needs of its 1.4-billion population, more than 800 million of which were lifted out of poverty, according to a World Bank report.

In Vietnam, Chinese power companies are investing billions of dollars in that country’s energy and manufacturing sectors. In Thailand, China Rail is connecting the kingdom’s first two high-speed trains — with the cost at least one-third cheaper than those of other providers, another World Bank report states — and is offering vocational courses to Thais.

In China, the SM and Ayala groups, as well as the Oishi and Jollibee brands, have made their presence felt. And these are only from the Philippines.

However encouraging these developments are, challenges remain and need to be overcome. Here in the country, the government finds itself importing rice from Thailand and Vietnam, which learned to cultivate the staple more effectively using techniques developed by the International Rice Research Institute in Los BaƱos, Laguna. Filipinos — professional and otherwise — continue seeking a better life elsewhere, instead on home soil. Goods from Indonesia and Malaysia are entering our markets more than ours entering theirs.

Meeting these challenges, both economic and political, will not be easy. But hopefully, with enough public and private-sector support — and a more equitable environment for all the players involved — the benefits now enjoyed by China and Southeast Asia as a result of ties first forged long before European colonizers entered the picture would be even greater.

See more at: The Manila Times


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item Philippines: China and Southeast Asia: Capitalizing on each other
China and Southeast Asia: Capitalizing on each other Philippines
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