With the launch of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” neighborhood diplomacy has become a priority for China. China has many neighboring countries, but from the perspective of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” Southeast Asia has a place of prominence. It is the preferred region for the construction of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” as both proposed routes of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” will go through this area. At the same time, the China-Indochina Corridor for International Economic Cooperation is one of the six major corridors to be constructed under the “Silk Road Economic Belt.”
So what kind of diplomacy should China adopt in the Southeast Asian region? China will need to tailor its approach based on each individual country in Southeast Asia.
China and Southeast Asia already have strong ties. ASEAN is currently China’s third largest trading partner. With the implementation of the upgraded version of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, ASEAN may overtake the EU as China’s largest trading partner in the future.
From the perspective of people-to-people and cultural exchange, bilateral personnel exchanges between China and ASEAN in 2016 exceeded 30 million, and there is still much room for growth. ASEAN students received the largest share of Chinese government scholarships. These close ties are unmatched by other sub-regions around China.
Politically, the relationship between China and ASEAN has been stable and friendly, with no strategic contradictions. From participating in the post-war reconstruction of Cambodia in the 1990s to joining the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, ASEAN has always been the premier stage for China’s participation in multilateral diplomacy. ASEAN is also an important platform for China to propose and implement its new security concept. Many new security initiatives from China are announced at ASEAN or its platforms. The South China Sea disputes cause some friction between China and some ASEAN member countries, but they are generally under control. A large-scale war is unlikely to break out.
Despite these strong ties, ASEAN has some disadvantages when it comes to competing for China’s diplomatic attention. The population of ASEAN is not as large as that of South Asia, and security cooperation between ASEAN and China is not as good as that between China and Russia. Political relations between ASEAN and China are not as close as China and Pakistan. Even ASEAN’s enthusiasm for the “Belt and Road Initiative” may not be as strong as that of Kazakhstan. However, overall, ASEAN remains an important dimension for China’s neighborhood diplomacy. And in some aspects of China’s diplomacy, ASEAN is a predominant area (such as in the development of the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road).
Considering the large number of states involved, it is best to put Southeast Asian countries into two categories for this analysis: “island countries” (Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, and Singapore) and “peninsula countries” (including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam). Among island countries, Malaysia is the top cooperation partner for China. Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia are key cooperation partners; Timor-Leste and Brunei are general partners. Among peninsula countries, Thailand is the top cooperation partner; Laos and Cambodia are key cooperation partners; Myanmar and Vietnam are general partners. Accordingly, Malaysia and Thailand are expected to become China’s pivot countries, thus becoming part of a strategic supporting belt.
China and Southeast Asia’s ‘Island Countries’
There are a number of reasons Malaysia is the most attractive partner for China among the island countries. Malaysia’s economic development level is second only to Singapore’s. Malaysia also hopes to obtain strategic support from outside the region in order to compete with Indonesia for influence within ASEAN. It has a population of 31 million, of which 21 percent are ethnic Chinese. Ethnic Chinese in Malaysia have a relatively higher political status than ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1975, the Malaysian government has been friendly most of the time to China. And the Najib government is especially friendly to China. It has adopted a low-key, pragmatic, and bilateral approach to the South China Sea dispute.
Looking at the other island countries, neither Brunei nor Timor-Leste has much systematic importance. Plus, neither is very enthusiastic about the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Hence their cooperation with China is limited.
The Philippines and Indonesia both have large populations, political stability, and rapid economic growth. They are more enthusiastic about the BRI and are cooperation partners with great potential. However, it is hard for them to pursue a top-level partnership with China. There are territorial and maritime disputes between the Philippines and China. In addition, Manila’s policy toward China is greatly affected by the preference of the president, and the presidency changes hands every six years. As a result, the Philippines’ policy consistency and stability are insufficient to make it a top partner for China. Meanwhile, Indonesia, the largest member state of ASEAN, is committed to becoming the leading nation of ASEAN and tends to limit the influence of other countries. For internal and historical reasons, Indonesia is particularly sensitive to China’s rising influence within ASEAN.
Singapore has established itself as a center for commerce and has rapidly become the only developed nation within ASEAN. As a business state, Singapore’s domestic and foreign policies have a strong orientation toward defending its position. To maximize its security, Singapore relies on the United States externally and acts as an “ASEAN adviser” to magnify its international influence. It vigorously promotes ASEAN integration in order to exert its comparative advantages in investment and technology in a larger market. Culturally, Singapore tries to be the spokesperson for “Asian values” to highlight its own cultural autonomy. Singapore enjoys getting commercial benefits from China and serves as China’s “true friend,” but Singapore refrains from forming a special relationship with China, especially on security issues. Coupled with its status of a city-state, it is very difficult for Singapore to become China’s primary partner. However, Singapore can be an important partner, especially in the economic and cultural fields.
China and the ‘Peninsula Countries’
On the Indochina Peninsula, Thailand is expected to be the “pivot country” and number one partner for China. Thailand is relatively large and it shares no border with China. Since China’s reform and opening, Thailand has maintained friendly relations with Beijing. In the face of the competitive pressure brought by the rapid development of Vietnam, Thailand is ready to consolidate its position on the Indochina Peninsula and within ASEAN by strengthening its relations with China.
Of the other peninsular countries, Cambodia is very friendly to China and also facing strategic pressure from Vietnam, but it has limited capacity. Laos borders China and is highly dependent on China economically, but the country is too small to be a top partner and it depends more on Vietnam politically and for security.
Historical memories and territorial disputes have made Vietnam less enthusiastic about the Belt and Road Initiative, and Vietnam’s defensive attitude against China is obvious. Myanmar has some enthusiasm for the BRI, but its domestic political situation is not stable enough and it has also kept its guard against China. However, these two countries, Vietnam and Myanmar, are relatively large and developing rapidly. Although China cannot consider them as key partners, it is still necessary to identify some key cooperation projects with them.
Dr. Xue Li is Director of Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Li Yongke is a researcher at China Foreign Affairs University.
Dr. Zhao Hai of IWEP/CASS provided useful comments on a draft of this piece.