China’s ASEAN Benevolence?

China has frequently worked well with ASEAN nations. Is it a sign of its likely approach on the global stage?

China’s ASEAN Benevolence?
Credit: Flickr / poeloq

Back in 1997, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formed ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ as a way of including East Asia’s three largest economies – China, Japan and South Korea – in the 10-member body.

Greater integration amongst Asian states was seen as essential in the wake of the financial crisis that rocked the region that same year, a crisis most ASEAN members were ill-prepared to cope with. More than a decade on, the most interesting question is arguably the role of China in the organisation, and specifically whether it plays a ‘dominating’ role or a ‘co-operating’ with other members.

One recent report on the issue notes that China’s non-traditional security (financial disorder, cyber-attacks, health epidemics, nuclear proliferation etc.) relations with ASEAN are thriving, and encouraging further cooperation among all involved. Indeed, there’s no shortage of evidence that as China has risen to prominence on the international stage, it has engaged in diplomatic benevolence – what some dub ‘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 foundation on which China-ASEAN ties are based upon. As one observer has noted, political leaders in Beijing have been able ‘to convince its Southeast Asian neighbours that Chinese economic growth is good for them too, and thus increases the degree of interdependence between them.’

A telling comparison is with Russia and its fellow members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The economies of Russia’s neighbours in the CIS are tied to Moscow, and are thus reliant and dependent on Russian planners. Russia has prioritized its own interests above greater integration, and so the economies of many of the former Soviet satellite states have suffered during an era of globalization.

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China and ASEAN’s relationship, in contrast, is mutualistic, and the ACFTA has resulted in greater regionalism on China’s part and greater integration between Beijing and ASEAN member states. Foreign policy analyst Evelyn Goh goes as far as to say 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:

‘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…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.’

Still, China has shown that it won’t simply roll over when it feels its interests are threatened, the clearest example being China’s aggressiveness in the dispute over the Spratly Islands. China has maintained that the sea has been its sovereign territory for centuries, a claim disputed by a number of ASEAN countries. The Philippines and Vietnam, for example, have dispatched drilling tankers to the area to search for oil and natural gas reserves, and they 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. As has been noted in recent months in The Diplomat, there have been several incidents and public exchanges between China and other parties to the dispute, raising tensions to their highest levels in years.

So, are the parties involved doomed to conflict? Not necessarily. Recent reports suggest that China may be willing to resolve this dispute through ASEAN’s regional conflict resolution mechanisms – a stark contrast with Russia, which has tended to try to dominate weaker states in its sphere of influence through economic exploitation and military intervention.

Another question is whether, as its economy continues to grow, China’s regional policies will follow a similar approach to that of the United States within international organizations – will it try to dominate organizations the way Washington has sought to do, or will it follow the more cooperative and nuanced approach that it has taken with its ASEAN neighbours?

Beijing’s generally proactive approach to regional ties give at least some hope that  China could, as it rises, become a benevolent actor on the global stage – which would surely be a good thing.

Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.