China was a big winner at the recent Southeast Asian Games, and it wasn't even competing.In the completely unofficial category of "greatest use of sporting soft power" China easily took the gold medal.
China offered massive support for the 12-day games, which were hosted by Myanmar for the first time since 1969.
This included 28 Chinese coaches spending a year in Myanmar training local athletes, 176 Myanmar athletes receiving specialised training in China, donation of training equipment, free technical assistance for game-management systems such as time-keeping, and even guidance from 24 choreographers, directors and staging experts on the event’s opening and closing ceremonies.
Also, the engineering and design of the games’ flagship stadium in Nay Pyi Taw was handled by a Chinese firm.
China’s support for the SEA Games is not new.
When the event was held in Laos in 2009, Chinese financing and Chinese developers were used to build the new National Sports Complex on the outskirts of Vientiane.
In return the developers were granted a concession to develop a large block of land in central Vientiane. Unfortunately for the developers, the project was blocked by locals upset at its proximity to an important Buddhist site. They ended up relocating, but not before the venting of strong anti-Chinese sentiment.
Such problems with China’s use of soft power in the region are not isolated.
There was another setback in 2012 after China provided US$500 million in soft loans to Cambodia.
This was seen by many as an attempt to buy Cambodia’s support in China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea.
Clearly, China faces increasing challenges in Southeast Asia to convince the recipients of its largesse that its intentions are purely commercial and not political.
In Myanmar, while China’s economic assistance has greatly benefited the country – particularly in the pre-democracy days when most nations were keeping their distance – resentment at its perceived political influence has grown steadily.
The Sino-Myanmar natural gas pipeline, which became operational in July, attracted criticism, as did two other Chinese-backed major projects: the Myitsone Dam – halted in 2011 due to environmental concerns – and the Letpadaung Copper Mine, which continues to court controversy.
Little wonder, then, that after two decades of intensifying friendship with China, Myanmar is seeking to reduce its dependenceon its big neighbour as it emerges onto the world stage and looks to express its nationhood.
Last month, for example, it was noticeable how little mention Myanmar’s state-run media made of China’s support for the SEA Games, especially compared with the extensive coverage by China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua.
Whether China can convert its latest “gold medal” into more lasting influence remains to be seen.