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Potters wheel

Why the region has given up on ‘shaping China’

By Huong Le Thu

ASEAN’s waning regional influence has been a subject of debate, if not conviction, for some time. Its inability, or unwillingness, to deal with matters of regional security involving China has been the main reason for this concern. Many have discussed China’s tactics of divide and conquer. But the question that remains to be answered is: whether ASEAN has given up on ‘shaping’ China’s behaviour. And if so, is this irreversible?

Apart from ensuring peace, stability and prosperity for the South-East Asian region, ASEAN’s ambition has also been to engage great powers. In fact, the scholarship on ASEAN matured around its ability to ‘socialise’ major powers into its multilateral framework. One of the key tools was its ‘convening power’, through which it not only brought to one table neighbours with problematic intermural relations, but also distant and remote major powers.

Even though the power gap between major powers and ASEAN has always been the determining factor for the organisation’s conduct, there was a level of ‘reciprocity’ in the relationship. Even Chinese assessments acknowledged ASEAN’s ability to shape China, along with adapting to China’s rise. The very fact that China, like other dialogue partners, acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), testified that Beijing accepted ASEAN’s normative role. ASEAN and its regional frameworks have been instrumental for China’s regional engagement in the post-Cold War. Multilateralism was something relatively new for China’s foreign relations; engagement with ASEAN-led institutions was a helpful learning process.

That was the story from the 1990s until the late 2000s. Now the spell seems all gone. Today, ASEAN centrality is hardly mentioned by China, and the very phrase invokes doubtful confidence. Several intertwining factors explain this. In Beijing, there is a recognition of the declining importance of ASEAN. It now needs China more than China needs it. Feng Zhang found out that “Beijing no longer needs ASEAN in the same way that it did in the past. Now a great power, China has completed its necessary integration into the world and possesses the leverage and leeway to drive territorial settlements.” This only emphasises that ASEAN served its purpose for a limited period of time. It was useful for China when its diplomatic network was limited and was constrained in its relations with the West. ASEAN platforms served a purpose of normalising China’s presence in the regional setting. Engaging with ASEAN and being a friendly neighbour was a part of the image of a benign giant that was rising peacefully.

Factor one: inducement and coercion

China has successfully prevented any collective balancing through the platform of ASEAN. While rhetorically always supporting ASEAN regionalism, the risk for Beijing was that the group of smaller countries could unify enough to present a formidable balancing force, particularly diplomatically.

However, preventing ASEAN from playing the role of an effective regional actor has been achieved through long-term sophisticated efforts. This is the case in the South China Sea (SCS) disputes as well as on Mekong River issues. Despite involving several ASEAN member states, having significant implications for other states and having diplomatic consequences for ASEAN collectively, these issues are dealt with on a bilateral basis (the SCS) or in a mini-lateral setting (China-Mekong meetings). By preventing them from becoming “an ASEAN issue”, and hence receiving multilateral treatment, China exploits the power gap and maximizes its bargaining power.

Bilaterally, China’s ability to assert claims is much larger. This has been displayed in a variety of forms of coercion. A recent example is the Chinese deployment on May 2, 2014 of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY-981) oil rig – known in Vietnamese as Hai Duong 98 (HD-981) – within Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The deployment provoked strong reactions in Vietnam and across the Asia-Pacific. The positioning of HYSY-981 by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s mainland coast (and 18 miles off Triton Island in the Paracel Islands group) sparked a national security alert. There was a tangible threat of escalation into an open confrontation. The Philippines has experienced China’s hardline politics in the maritime domain, including the Scarborough Shoal fishermen confrontations. Individual coercion can invite pushback. Demonstrations in Vietnam and the Philippines only confirm that the harder China pushes, the more agitated the responses from smaller countries. The territorial disputes, but also some economic and environmental controversies, fuel nationalist sentiments in those societies.

To further amplify the divergent interests and divide ASEAN, China applies simultaneously dual tactics of coercion and inducement to assert its position regionally and globally. In its direct neighbourhood – South-East Asia – these practices are most evident in the region’s collective response (or lack of it) towards some key security issues. As a result, the faith in an ASEAN institutional regional role and relevance are diminishing. China’s dual approach combines economic inducement through a variety of trade, infrastructure and investment projects with coercive action – be it the threat of use of force or more diplomatic and psychological pressure. The economic card has proven to be a very effective one, particularly with much smaller economies in South-East Asia.

China’s world-wide power projection has been largely successful. For the neighbouring South-East Asian countries, China’s rise presents opportunities that may outweigh concerns. The varying ratios of coercion and inducement deployed by China provide the South-East Asian states with divergent options from which to choose. However, one conviction is rather uncontested: their perception that, either way, China’s influence will prevail. The economic might of China is recognised rather unambiguously across the region – there is little if any contestation about this. It is fair to say that the South-East Asian economies watch Chinese economic growth with some degree of anxiety, but certainly with admiration. John Lee argues: “The belief that China’s economic importance in the region will translate into greater strategic clout seems self-evident. After all, the highest priority for South-East Asian states is prosperity and economic growth.” Even active claimant states are not immune from the economic inducements, and the non-claimant ASEAN states have less reservation to jeopardise their bilateral relationship with China.

Factor two: China changes the gameplan

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a new era has set out new principles of ‘peaceful co-existence’, rather than simply echoing ASEAN ones. While the willingness to be shaped by the ASEAN norms has always been questionable, there has been a clear change in the importance that Beijing attached to the role of neighbours.

Under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Beijing made frequent references to the friendly neighbour ties: “yi lin wei shan, yi lin wei ban” (‘becoming friends and partners with neighbours’). This was a time when the focus was on the economic opportunities related to embracing China’s growth. Responding to China’s free trade agreement proposal, the ASEAN reaction was that “a friendly posture should be responded to in a friendly way.”5 Other examples of a more collaborative nature included the Declaration of Conduct signed in 2002, China signing on to TAC in 2003, the elevation of the China-ASEAN relationship to a strategic partnership and several frameworks on economic and trade cooperation. ASEAN also brought China into its ASEAN Plus diplomatic frameworks.

However, since Xi’s rise to power in 2013, China has been much more inclined to articulate visions, norms, and values in foreign policy than under his predecessors. Summarised under the banner of Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, the country now has a vision of attaining global power status, asserting its “rightful place” in the international system and creating a prosperous and beautiful China. The realisation of the first goal is a combination of new geo-economic plans, like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with more vigorous assertion of China’s territorial claims and secure access to critical infrastructure routes around the globe. That means that the ASEAN centrality concept of focusing regional politics around the group of smaller South-East Asian states is not a preferred option for a much stronger and more confident China. Xi, in his rhetoric, still pays attention to the neighbours by acknowledging ASEAN’s work and norms and outlining new guiding principles of ‘amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness’. But the ‘new era’ is very China-centric with neighbours expected to achieve peace and prosperity, a ‘win-win’, provided they comply to China’s vision.

Factor three: ASEAN is losing its charm

There are also changes within ASEAN unrelated to China which have had a detrimental effect on the organisation, further emphasising its weakness vis-à-vis the powerful neighbour. Domestic turbulence and leadership changes across the member states has contributed to an overall reduced enthusiasm for regionalism. More worrisome is that a lack of regional leadership, even if informal, leaves many issues to situations where there is no one to lead the discussion. One of the most important changes is the visible distancing by Indonesia - ASEAN’s largest actor – away from the regional group, particularly since President Joko Widodo assumed power in 2014.

At the same time, ASEAN’s principle of consensus is being abused. It is becoming easier for China to exploit individual interests of member states, including economic interests, in a way that often can eclipse institutional fidelity. The infamous 2012 ASEAN Summit chaired by Cambodia is seen as a point of no return for ASEAN’s reputation because of the way the ten members we unable to reach consensus over including South China Sea concerns in the joint statement. Phnom Penh broke an ASEAN tradition by failing to issue the final statement and has continued in many instances since to abuse the organisation’s principle of consensus.


The combination of these changes explains why ASEAN no longer even attempts to ‘shape’ China’s behaviour. From an active setter of regional diplomatic norms, it is becoming a passive actor responding to China’s economic initiatives or military muscle. But the response is also a matter of individual member state circumstances, rather than an ASEAN-wide decision. South-East Asia is busy either attracting China’s investment, or negotiating best possible conditions for investments (Malaysia under Mahathir 2.0), maintaining proper relations, or at best responding to its coercion selectively (Vietnam). The negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea are the evidence that ASEAN confidence, and unity, have declined. Not only has little concrete progress been made in 16 years, but ASEAN remains reticent or reluctant to call out Chinese military activity and open disregard for the Arbitral Tribunal ruling from 2016. In the most recent development, which is a single draft of the CoC, China’s proposals are much more forceful, for example demanding that resources exploration activity by ASEAN’s littoral states is “not conducted in cooperation with companies from countries outside the region”.

Today, it is hard to find in the official language further elaboration on ASEAN norms shaping, socialising or integrating China. Without leadership, or even a sense of solidarity, ASEAN lacks negotiating power vis-à-vis a much more powerful China, let alone the ability to shape its behaviour. ASEAN let its socialising power slip, and it is now only adapting to Beijing’s growing influence.

The remaining question is whether it is reversable? Yes, it could be. But this depends on future factors that are too dependent on external confidence in ASEAN, rather than only finding the power and confidence within ASEAN. This begs another discussion about the value of ASEAN to its own members. The first step is for ASEAN to socialise the new generation of leaders – from Indonesia’s Widodo to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte in ASEAN traditional norms and to continue this with future new leaders. Without successfully shaping its own members’ behaviour – it’s only reasonable that ASEAN will struggle to socialise and shape much larger countries’ behaviour. In other words, ASEAN needs to start with addressing the factor 3 internal change, which would result in addressing factor 1 on regional rules. Factor 2 could only be indirectly addressed, but ASEAN leaders need to bear in mind that regional responses (or the lack of them) either increase or temper Beijing’s ambitions. That’s the power of shaping.

Originally published by: Asia Society on 19 Dec 2018