China’s Security Chief Goes on Tour—How Is Asia Reacting?

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China's Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang arrives for a meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, August 17, 2011. (Photo: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)

Over the past week, as I’ve traveled across Asia, I’ve discovered an unlikely partner in my continental peregrinations: China’s security chief Zhou Yongkang. The senior Chinese envoy’s travels have taken him to Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Tajikistan. The final stop is Mongolia, where Zhou is expected to head on Tuesday.

In Zhou’s wake, the narrative has tended to follow the same plot-line: first, China’s state media proclaims “mutually beneficial cooperation” and “longstanding friendship” between Beijing and the local government. Then a raft of trade deals or bequeathing of military goodies is announced. Finally, an undercurrent of unease follows, with regional analysts wondering about China’s growing economic and security might.

Last Saturday, Zhou was in Cambodia, where he met with Prime Minister Hun Sen. In addition to various mining, road-construction and farming deals, China has agreed to supply nearly $200 million in helicopters to Cambodia. Beijing is already the Southeast Asian nation’s largest foreign investor, and Hun Sen, who has quietly evolved into one of Asia’s longest-serving strongmen, has been vociferous in his support of China. His enthusiasm for Chinese largesse stands in marked contrast to his feelings toward Western donors who tend to attach pesky strings like human-rights commitments to their aid. The Phnom Penh Post quoted a local researcher worrying that “Cambodia will become subservient to China.”

Before that in Nepal, Zhou oversaw the signing of more than $50 million in trade and aid. Sandwiched between India and China, Nepal has turned into a kind of proxy ground tussled over by the two Asian giants. The Chinese delegation arrived just days after Nepal’s Prime Minister had resigned. Political dysfunction, though, didn’t stop the caretaker government from trying to profit from what China’s 60-person delegation had to offer. During the Chinese security czar’s stay, members of Nepal’s Tibetan refugee community were warned against expressing any sentiment that might be considered “anti-China.” (Zhou’s previous political duties have included serving on a Beijing committee that deals with Tibet; he helped oversee a crackdown on Tibetan activity in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan.)

Zhou’s travels produced some consternation in India, which shares a long border with China and has skirmished with its northern neighbor over the contested boundary. On August 22, the Times of India reported that the Indian Army was considering the creation of a Mountain Strike Corps to counter a Chinese military build-up in Tibet, which borders India. Ultra-light howitzers and light tanks would possibly be stationed along parts of the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control, according to the Times. Despite such tough talk, however, it’s unclear whether India is really willing to commit financial resources to a military expansion.

Luckily for China, the official reaction to Zhou’s visit was far rosier in communist Laos. According to China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, Laos’ President Choummaly Sayasone announced last week that “China has become a significant force in the international community and is playing a key role in promoting regional and global peaceful development, which reveals the vitality of socialism and greatly encourages the Lao people.” Socialist brotherhood doesn’t get any better than that.