Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Aid From China Builds an Ally in East Timor [New York Times]


This is a little dated, as China’s friendly stance toward the South-East Asian region and Africa to maintain a network of overseas resources have been well know for a while. Elbowing out Western (in particular US) influence has been the name of the game. But attention is being paid to it in Australia recently as East Timor starts to arm itself with Chinese help… ‘China’s emerging presence in a country whose dominant players at the moment are Portugal and Australia has caused speculation among local analysts and in the regional press.’

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Aid From China Builds an Ally in East Timor
DILI, East Timor — It looks like a pleasant place to conduct affairs of state: a broad, palm-fringed compound by the side of the sea with reflecting pools, a rock garden and fluttering flags.

It is the future Foreign Ministry of East Timor, as depicted on a large billboard at the gate of a construction site, and it is a gift from the Chinese government.

Together with a new presidential palace that is also being built by the Chinese, it will be one of the most impressive buildings in this low-rise capital.

The projects are the most visible sign of a growing Chinese presence in this threadbare little country with few natural resources and only marginal geographical advantages to tempt a great power.

“The Chinese government thinks that as good partners, good neighbors and good friends of Timor-Leste, we are obliged to give a helping hand,” said the Chinese ambassador, Su Jian, in an interview, using the country’s official name.

China’s friendly stance is part of a broad diplomatic and economic policy throughout the region to which some people give the gentle description “soft power.” Most analysts say East Timor seems to be of interest less as a prize in its own right than as a natural extension of China’s energetic courtship of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.

On the hunt for natural resources and working to create a friendly neighborhood as it develops its own economy, China for the past decade has been creating a web of bilateral and multilateral partnerships that bind its neighbors to it.

It plays down any self-interest as it increases trade and aid throughout Southeast Asia.

“In a region where there is a historic fear of China, they are promoting the idea that China is a friendly partner,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, the author of a new book called “Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.”

“And they do see these countries as far more strategic than the United States does, and so they are willing to spend resources on them,” he said.

In the longer term, some analysts say, China may want to create its own sphere of influence, elbowing aside the United States in the region. Washington’s preoccupation today with wars and terrorist threats has left inviting openings for China’s advances in Southeast Asia.

“They have been expanding their influence and building their links to governments in a very careful, sophisticated way,” said Daljit Singh, a regional policy analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“They are aware that in the past there was a good deal of suspicion of China,” Mr. Singh said, “and their soft approach is designed to appease, to increase their footprint and their influence through trade agreements, free trade offers, strategic partnerships.”

China is the leading trading partner and investor in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia, where it wields considerable political influence. It recently stepped directly into America’s sphere of influence with giant projects in the Philippines, including an aqueduct and major highways. It is an increasing presence in Thailand and Indonesia.

East Timor, in its very small way, is part of this picture as China cultivates relationships with the poorer nations of Asia and the Pacific.

It is a former Portuguese colony of just one million people that broke away in 1999 from 24 years of Indonesian occupation and has been struggling to stand on its own feet ever since. A large portion of the country is unemployed, about 20,000 are in need of food aid and 100,000 were displaced from their homes by a wave of violence last year.

China was the first nation to recognize the country when it became an independent state in 2002.

“The leaders of Timor-Leste regard China like an elder brother and a most reliable friend,” Mr. Su, the Chinese ambassador, said.

Last year, the total import and export volume between the countries was only $13.6 million, according to the ambassador.

But China is building barracks and providing uniforms for the country’s small military, bringing in medical teams and police officers, training civil servants and farmers, and inviting students and official delegations to Beijing.

“China’s experience is very rich in helping small and developing countries in Africa,” said Mr. Su, who has served in four previous Portuguese-speaking postings, including Angola and Guinea-Bissau.

“The Chinese government knows exactly what these countries need and also can provide them with very pragmatic skills and technology,” he said. “It is very suitable to development of these small countries.”

East Timor does have an oil field, and its location on the sea lanes between Indonesia and Australia could be of interest. The oil is in the Timor Gap, where East Timor and Australia have worked out a formula for sharing revenues.

East Timor’s oil money is being held in a government fund for the future to avoid the economic disruptions such a windfall can cause, particularly in a country with few institutions or trained people able to put it to good use.

Mr. Su said that the Chinese oil giant PetroChina had been given a contract to conduct an onshore seismic survey and that China might become involved in offshore oil field development.

Beyond this, China’s emerging presence in a country whose dominant players at the moment are Portugal and Australia has caused speculation among local analysts and in the regional press.

The ambassador displayed amusement at the idea that China could have larger ambitions in this area.

“I once talked with Timorese friends about many articles and stories that try to give China strategic interests in Timor-Leste,” Mr. Su said. “When my Timorese friends notice these groundless exaggerations, my Timorese friends all laugh at that.”

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Economics, Environment, Foreign aid, Greater China, Influence, International Relations, New York Times, Soft Power, Strategy, U.S.

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