Moments That Made The Year : China lurks behind the Asian tigers

Peking is the key to tensions throughout the continent, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
Asia has seemed almost quiet over the last 12 months: 1995 was a spectacular year which saw terrorist attacks and earthquakes in Japan, nuclear tests in China and the South Pacific and, throughout the region, wrenching commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific war. The crises of 1996 were of a different order: few big splashes, but many inconclusive ripples.

In March, the US 7th Fleet steamed into action after China began a series of war games in the run-up to the first ever democratic elections in Taiwan. But the polls went ahead, the winner Lee Teng Hui prudently chose not to declare independence from Peking, and the battleships steamed peacefully home again.

There were no big wars or natural disasters or dramatic falls from power in East Asia in 1996, and the year ended with displays of high-profile unity at economic summits in Manila and Singapore.

But to take this relative calm for stability, or to assume that the changes that have transformed European security have had an equivalent effect in Asia, would be premature.

Five years after the evaporation of the Soviet threat, Asian governments are in a state of uneasy readjustment. But classic communism is in decline in Asia, like everywhere else. In June the Communist Party of Vietnam held its party congress beneath giant images of Marx and Lenin - but behind the rhetoric the Central Committee's report read in parts like the work of Western management consultants. Even North Korea, the world's last Stalinist bastion, welcomed Westerners in September to its first Free Trade Zone.

But ideological differences are still alive in Asia, as this year demonstrated. For years, students of economics and international affairs have debated the existence of "Asian values" - hard work, strong, supportive families and a willingness to sacrifice the interests of the individual for the good of the group.

Authoritarian states such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have long attracted the concern of Western human rights organisations; the focus for this was Burma, and its democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who maintained herdignity in the face of continued harassment by the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). In July, governments in Europe and America reacted with anger when Burma was welcomed as a probationary member of the Association of South East Asian Nations [Asean].

On the face of it, the Asean decision was understandable - by embracing rather than judging the Slorc, Burma's Asean brethren will have their best chance of setting the nation towards wealth and democracy.

But the appeal to Asian values is looking more and more like an excuse for despots to hold on to their power. Fellow feeling among South-east Asians did little for the Indonesians arrested in the aftermath of the July riots for their peaceful opposition to the government - nor for the inhabitants of East Timor, the former Portuguese territory annexed 20 years ago.

The correspondences between Burma and Indonesia were emphasised in October with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, previously won by Ms Suu Kyi, to Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor.

But at the deepest level, the Burma dispute, like almost all the other tensions in the region, is about China. Peking already has the world's biggest army; in the first quarter of the next century it will have developed the world's biggest economy. Scratch away at most of the incidents, spats and stand-offs which have flickered throughout Asia in 1996 and you will find China.

To the Asean countries, China is a source of fear and opportunity. By maintaining an ambivalent distance from the values of the West, they leave open the option of eventual detente with Peking, while constructing a reassuring cordon sanitaire out of new members such as Laos, Cambodia - and Burma. Increasingly, future Chinese assertiveness was foreshadowed in the form of territorial disputes - from the seemingly trivial squabble over the lonely Senkaku/Diaoyutai chain, claimed by Japan, to sabre-rattling over Taiwan.

In a sense, these disputes will remain unsolved until after the handover of Hong Kong at the end of June. Only then will China's neighbours have a sense of what to expect - or fear.

Tokyo Correspondent