David Cohen and Peter Martin speak with Tang Qifang, Southeast Asia specialist at the Foreign Ministry-affiliated China Institute of International Studies by Peter Martin and David Cohen. This is the first part of an interview conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter.
Alejandro asks: Do you think China will be forced to send soldiers to potential hotspots to protect their investments in foreign countries, such as hydroelectric dams in Burma? Would they send military forces or would they be willing to lose investments rather than fall into a 'US war' trap?
I don't think so. In 2009 there was a very bad conflict between ethnic groups and the then-military government of Myanmar right along the border with China. During the period of that conflict, a lot of Chinese people lost their investments, and their shops, their factories, because that area is very near to the China-Myanmar border. There were about 30 to 40 thousand Chinese immigrants and overseas Chinese in that area, and they had to flee back to China, so that's a very bad situation for Chinese people and the Chinese government. But although it’s very near to the Chinese border, China never thought about sending any troops to help them. We just helped them on the Chinese side, helped our people to come back.
So I think from this example you can see the viewpoint of China: no interference in other countries' domestic affairs. Especially with Burma — you know that when this principle was brought out in 1955, it was during the talks between Chairman Mao and the leader of Burma. So I think we can see that China won't do that.
Ocean asks: What role do ethnic Chinese populations in Southeast Asian countries play in China's relations with Southeast Asia?
In the past, that used to be a very sensitive topic, to talk about ethnic Chinese, especially in Malaysia because of the Malaysian Communist Party in the 1960s and 70s. We can see that there were some misunderstandings…and these kinds of stories had an impact on the relationship between China and Malaysia and Indonesia at this time. But now that we can see that in the last 20 or 30 years, ethnic Chinese have become rich in Southeast Asia.
In 1949, when Communist China was founded, there was a clear policy toward ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia: the Chinese government encouraged them to join the nationality of the local country, because China didn't recognize dual nationality. I think this kind of principle is very good. But later, after the 1970s, overseas Chinese began to find that there were many good opportunities for businesses in China.
Martin/Cohen ask: You said before that China encouraged Chinese people to leave Burma during the 2009 conflict. Could that include ethnic Chinese citizens of Burma in a future conflict?
If something like 1998 happened, I think that's possible. There's a very big difference between immigrants and overseas Chinese — if they have Chinese nationality, China of course has the responsibility to protect them. But if they choose the nationality of the local country they are not Chinese people, they are ethnic Chinese, and the Chinese government should respect their personal choice. But if they want to choose Chinese mainland as a place to be protected, of course we should respect their choice. I think if they choose to ask for protection from mainland China, I think mainland China will try its best to help them.
Alexander asks: In light of the level and the type of language used in Chinese press statements, words such as 'indisputable sovereignty' and 'core interests', does China consider its territorial dispute in the South China Sea to be a domestic issue?
To some extent, because all the parties claim it is their sea, China takes it as a domestic issue. But the fact is that now it has become an international conflict between China and the ASEAN countries. So it’s not only a domestic issue. Considering the way Deng Xiaoping offered to put aside the sovereignty conflict and to focus on cooperation and development in the South China Sea, I think that’s a sign that China doesn’t only consider it as a domestic issue.
Linda asks: How does China assess Indonesia's current trajectory in the international arena? How would China hope to see Indonesia’s role develop in Southeast Asia and further afield?
Indonesia is the biggest country in Southeast Asia, and it has always wanted to take a key role in the region. But the leadership of the ASEAN countries isn’t really held by any certain country. Although Indonesia is very big and very important – not only in Southeast Asia, but in the Asia-Pacific region – so far it hasn't managed to take as important a role as it wants to. Maybe that’s why Indonesia is very eager to have active communications not only in Southeast Asia, but also in other areas of international cooperation, and we can see that especially in climate change, where Indonesia takes a very active role.
Ho Yi Jian asks: Could you describe the state of Southeast Asian expertise in China?
In China, frankly speaking, I don't think there's enough expertise in Southeast Asia to support the corporations and the government. There are specialists in Southeast Asian languages, for example, in the foreign languages universities, but most of them only specialize in language. There’s also very important expertise in the provinces near to Southeast Asian countries, like Guangxi Province and Yunnan Province and Guizhou Province, because they have the advantage of communication. Of course, there are some military institutes, but they are secret. They’re very powerful, but we don't know what they are doing. Even I don’t know. They do very good research, but we can’t share it.
Just last month, I attended an academic conference, and someone said that Southeast Asian countries are not as important to China as in the past, that China is not just a power in East Asia, but also in the Asia Pacific, so it should focus on dealing with other big powers, like the United States, Japan and even countries in Latin America. I will never agree with this kind of analysis — I think your closest neighbours should be your closest friends.
The original version of this article appeared here.