JAN 30 — As we approach the end of the Year of the Ox, millions of people around the world prepare to meet the Year of the Tiger. The lunar new year is important not only for China but for people and communities across South-east Asia.
In Singapore and Malaysia, so many of us look forward to lion dances, pineapple tarts and ang pows but this year once again we will see festivities muted due to Covid-19.
It’s quite unprecedented to see one of the world's major celebrations muted for years at a time.
One of the key aspects of Chinese New Year is the reunion dinner when families reunite to celebrate the eve of the new year.
In China, people travel back to their hometowns to visit their family but due to Covid restrictions it has proved difficult to do so.
Malaysians living in Singapore have struggled to reunite with family across the Causeway. Families and friends split between Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and China have struggled.
It's hard to feel truly festive without this human connection as people and families are at the heart of any celebration.
At the bottom of this absence is really the absence of China itself. China has imposed such strict controls on people entering and leaving the country that hardly any Chinese have travelled abroad in the last two years. Equally few foreigners have entered China.
After decades of being the number one source of tourists to virtually every country in Asia, the Chinese are absent. Friends and family living in China are now basically behind a solid iron curtain — accessible only on WeChat. And this lack of human traffic has an impact on the role China plays in the region.
China plays a complex but crucial role in South-east Asia. Its trade and investment is valued but its political might and geopolitical ambitions are sometimes feared.
One way or another though, China is a key player and partner in the region — and currently it is making itself felt by its relative absence.
As the Chinese political leadership works to stabilise the economy following a property crash, Covid disruptions and tensions between regulators and China’s powerful tech companies China is looking inwards.
The enormous nation is isolating itself in a way it hasn’t done since the days of Mao. This is troubling for South-east Asia.
China is an engine of growth and creativity — it brings investments, ideas and opportunities.
Without active Chinese engagement, the region is left increasingly dependent on the West. The United States and its allies. If Presidents Trump and Biden have taught us nothing else it's that the US is an increasingly erratic and unreliable partner.
Asian nations need a viable hedge but with China’s increasingly inward-looking stance, we have no alternative.
At the end of the day I can still go to America, I can travel to and do business in New York, London, Paris. I simply cannot access China.
This situation should not be allowed to persist; both China and South-east Asia will lose.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.