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China: The Benevolent Hegemon in S.E. Asia?

China: The Benevolent Hegemon in S.E. Asia?There is a common misconception that China is an actual member state of ASEAN. Indeed, China is not one of the ten member states that make up the organization. An interesting fact about this regional institution is that during its earlier years, two of the member states – Indonesia and Vietnam – had their own ideas of regional dominance through the use of a combination of coercive threats and diplomatic altruism. However, as the Cold War ended and the West’s fear of communism spreading throughout the region dissipated, the organization gradually expanded to encompass ten countries by 1995 with a stated objective to foster economic integration and to promote a positive and peaceful exchange of ideas on social, political, and cultural projects.

Due to the oncoming portent of globalization, and the realization that the global economy was becoming more interdependent and interconnected than ever before, ASEAN integrated even further in 1997 when the “ASEAN Plus Three” was created as an extension of the organization, in order to encompass the three largest east Asian economies: China, Japan, and South Korea. Greater integration amongst Asian states was essential in the wake of the financial crisis that rocked the region during that same year. Most of the ASEAN member states where ill prepared to contend with the increased competition within the global economy, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the ensuing class struggles which have epitomized capitalistic economies in the era of globalization. It must be emphasized that China is not a member of ASEAN but of ASEAN Plus Three. The question I want to focus one was whether China behaves in a “dominating” role as the regional superpower in ASEAN Plus Three, or does it “cooperate” within the confines of the organization’s institutional rules and norms? Perhaps the answer to this question will allow foreign policy analysts to better grap how China may behave when it eventually overtakes the U.S. and becomes an international superpower.

One survey performed in 2006 dismisses the neorealist concept of a zero-sum game played between China and the rest of the members of ASEAN. Conversely, it reinforces the neoliberal idea that greater economic integration leads to greater cooperation and better state-to-state relations. Additionally, a recent report indicates that China’s non-traditional security (threats posed by financial disorder, cyber-attacks, health epidemics, nuclear proliferation, etc.) relations with ASEAN are thriving and inducing further cooperation amongst all actors involved. There is no shortage of evidence that as China has risen to prominence on the world stage, it has engaged in diplomatic benevolence – what some may describe as “soft power” – to craft a widely successful foreign policy on a bilateral basis with individual Southeast Asian states and on a multilateral basis within ASEAN.

The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) is the bedrock upon which the healthy relationship between China and ASEAN is based. As one observer has noted, political leaders in Beijing have been able “to convince its Southeast Asian neighbors that Chinese economic growth is good for them too, and thus increases the degree of interdependence between them.” For a pertinent comparison, take the case of Russia and its fellow members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The economies of Russia’s neighbors in the CIS are irrevocably tied together with Russia and are thus reliant and dependent on planners in Moscow. Russia has prioritized their own interests in their sphere of influence above greater integration, and thus the economies of many of the former Soviet satellite states have suffered during the era of globalization. China similarly views Southeast Asia as its sphere of influence, but it has not engaged in the type of wanton military escapades in zones of potential conflict – economic, ethnic, or ideological — which have come to characterize the Russian Federation’s regional policy in the post-Cold War era.

China and ASEAN’s relationship is mutualistic. China’s incredible pace of industrialization has given Beijing the ability to manufacture scores of cheap goods, resulting in exceptional export numbers. Furthermore, the market for Chinese goods is particularly accentuated in Southeast Asia due to the creation of ACFTA, which has resulted in greater regionalism on China’s part and greater integration between Beijing and ASEAN member states. Foreign policy analyst Evelyn Goh contends that China’s role within ASEAN and ASEAN Plus Three has demonstrated to the organization’s member states that they have nothing to fear from a rising China and, in fact, can expect additional benefits the larger the role China takes on:

Southeast Asians have responded to a decade of Chinese regional activism with open arms. It is a deeply pragmatic region, and its reaction to China’s rise is colored by geographical location and historical experience. Because of their proximity, these small- and medium-sized states accept the inevitability of living in China’s shadow. While they may be wary of Chinese domination, many Southeast Asian leaders believe that the region suffered when China was weak and divided, and they are more optimistic about a growing, self-confident China that embraces capitalist values. In spite of its optimistic rhetoric, ASEAN started engaging China in the early 1990s with relatively low expectations. Since then, China has not only engaged in ASEAN’s dialogues and institutions but has surpassed the bloc with its own trade and diplomatic initiatives.

Most importantly, Southeast Asia has been enthusiastic about Chinese regional activism because it advances the region’s two critical strategic imperatives. First, because of an intense post-independence struggle for regional leadership between Indonesia and Malaysia, the core regional security principle of ASEAN has always been the prevention of intramural hegemony. In addition to preventing the exercise of regional hegemony by any one external power, ASEAN has been committed to diversifying the region’s dependencies. While acknowledging that they cannot avoid being part of the ambit of the big powers, Southeast Asian nations share a desire not to fall within the exclusive sphere of influence of one great power.

However, China’s predilection towards cooperation is not to say that the country has been a rollover amongst its weaker neighbors. One example of China’s aggressiveness in its sphere of influence is manifest in Beijing’s antagonism towards several Southeast Asian states in the dispute over the Spratly Islands, a collection of sandbars, reefs and atolls sitting right in the center of the South China Sea and surrounded by no less than six countries – all of whom claim at least part of the archipelago chain. China has maintained that the sea has been its sovereign territory for centuries, but several states dispute that argument. The Philippines and Vietnam, for example, who have dispatched drilling tankers to the area to search for oil and natural gas reserves, cite the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea and the treaty’s clause pertaining to exclusive economic zones as evidence that China is violating international law. In mid-2011, there were several incidents and public exchanges between China and other parties to the dispute which renewed hostilities to their highest levels in years. Chinese naval and fishing vessels had unpleasant exchanges with oil rigs belonging to foreign actors, and Vietnam even announced that it was hold live-fire naval exercises of its coast, a clear step aimed at heightening tensions with China.

The disagreement presents an interesting example of applied international relations. A neorealist theoretical framework suggests that each state will be concerned with relative power and gains. Due to the unknown intentions of the adversary, conflict would seem to be inevitable. On the other hand, neoliberalist thought has some merit too, as there does exist a regional organization, ASEAN, as well as many other legal international institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, which may be capable of adjudicating the dispute.

Recent reports suggest that China is intent of resolving this dispute through ASEAN’s regional conflict resolution mechanisms. The world’s rising superpower’s decision to engage in cooperative efforts with its neighbors runs in contrast to the world’s former superpower, Russia, which has displayed a propensity to dominate the weaker states in its sphere of influence through economic exploitation and military intervention. In addition, China’s regional policies will not be conflated with the type of bargaining that has come to characterize the role of the world’s current superpower, the U.S., with respect to their behavior within international organizations. China is not in an economic position at the moment to attempt to exert more control in institutions in which they shared membership with the U.S., such as the international financial institutions. Thus, it remains to be seen that when China inevitably supplants the U.S. in terms of GDP – estimated to be by 2016 according to the IMF – whether or not they will mimic Washington’s dominating role within the organizations, or if they will pursue the type of cooperative and nuanced approach that they have taken with their Southeast Asian neighbors in ASEAN. But Beijing’s proactive approach to regionalism should give one hope that the Chinese could become a benevolent hegemonic actor on the global stage, and that certainly would be a good thing.



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.

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