Mainstream assessments of the evolution of the relationship between China and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would lead one to think regional order is at risk, if not already in disarray. Disagreements over the South China Sea, dormant for decades since the end of the Second World War, made a comeback with the Philippines’ initiation of an arbitration case against China in 2013, which in turn led fellow ASEAN member states to have to publicly side with either Manila or Beijing. Some ASEAN states even agreed to upgrade their military ties with Japan, which is involved in its own maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea. Furthermore, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, launched in 2016, sees China consulting with the five Indochinese states of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar as a sub-group of their own, in spite of them being also members of ASEAN. Overall, when it comes to preferences for regional order, there is the constant debate – however tactical on the part of the Southeast Asian actor – about having to side with either Washington or Beijing.
Yet, it would be overly simplistic to view Southeast Asia as little more than an object for geostrategic competition between Beijing, on one hand, and Washington and its allies in Asia and beyond, on the other. Indeed, it could be argued that this binary mode of analysis helped justifying military conflicts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, leading to the loss of millions of lives.
Post-WWII Southeast Asia, with its rapid economic development out of the destructions of war, functioned as a source of inspiration for China when the latter emerged out of the self-imposed destruction of the Cultural Revolution. The potential for trade – both as a final destination and as a conduit to wider markets around the world – and investment opportunities that Southeast Asian markets could offer was a practical motivation for China to select its four coastal cities of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen as “special economic zones” in 1979. China supported the businesses of the ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia to help them develop their ancestral hometowns: along with human ties came a transfer of practical know-how for the further attraction of foreign direct investment. In the early 1980s, the thendeputy prime minister of Singapore Goh Keng Swee worked as an economic advisor of the State Council of China. The value of Southeast Asia as a source of human and social capital to China can also be seen in China’s selection of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand as countries belonging to the first batch of approved tourist destinations in 1990.
When ASEAN countries launched the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in 1992, China was recommitting itself to keeping the country open to international competition, “to learn from capitalism” as Deng Xiaoping urged during his famous southern tour that year. China arguably did siphon off some of the Western investment capital that would otherwise go to Southeast Asia, given the overlapping levels of sophistication in worker skills and other forms of input. Yet, come the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis and China’s choice not to devalue its currency (given the level of overlap in export commodities between Chinese and Southeast Asian sources), China earned a valuable currency of a different type from ASEAN: societal goodwill. In 2002, China and ASEAN entered into a Free Trade Area agreement (ACFTA). lt is worth noting that the basic methodology of ACFTA is a carbon copy of that in AFTA. Also in 2002, during the same China-ASEAN summit that witnessed the signing of the ACFTA, the Declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea was signed after a decade of negotiations.
At this juncture, it is useful to note that unlike the European Union, ASEAN is an inter-state grouping neither making pretense of exercising authority aver its member states, nor disciplining the relations that these entertain with non-member states. Member states relate to each other by observing the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. Measured against standard definitions of power and diplomacy in the trans-Atlantic world, ASEAN almost seems like a “talking shop”.
Yet, one of the unique initiatives ASEAN has developed to be taken seriously is its Dialogue Coordinatorship program. A full dialogue partnership carries with it a level of status in relating to the group, which does try to speak with one voice on matters of regional concern. Each ASEAN member government assumes the role of coordinator in relating to the group’s ten dialogue partners. Such an arrangement helps to increase the chance for member states preferences to be taken seriously without causing individual members to have to deal with potential external pressure on their own.
It was not until July 1991 that China managed to be introduced to the group-diplomacy exercise of ASEAN. China’s foreign minister attended the annual meeting among his ASEAN peers as a guest of the Malaysian government. Five years later, China was accorded full Dialogue Partner status. As a point of reference, it took the United States four years to be granted the same status with ASEAN (in 1977) against the backdrop of military withdrawal from Vietnam. In other words, in the realm of diplomatic practice, ASEAN is not as small and feeble as it is often made out to be.
A notable case of difficulty in political diplomacy between ASEAN and China in recent years dates back to 2012 when, for the first time in its history, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting ended without the issuing of a joint statement, the sole cause of disagreement being about the wording of SCS issues. The Cambodian chair of the group meeting was understood to be under pressure from Beijing not to allow wording that may paint the Chinese position in a negative light. Against the larger background of wondering whether the successor to Barack Obama in the White House would be as committed to the ‘pivot to Asia’ (widely interpreted to be containment of China with a different phrasing), it was imperative for ASEAN not to appear to have to cave in. China tries to explain away the criticism by noting that the nature of its disputes with some member states of ASEAN is territorial ownership, and, since ASEAN – as a group – traditionally refrains from taking positions on territorial disputes among its members, it should not be taking a position on the SCS either. At the same time, China did not leave ASEAN feeling discarded: the two sides continue to negotiate toward a legally binding code of conduct on the SCS.
A short conclusion to draw is that since China and ASEAN have a fairly short history of formalizing governmental level interactions with each other, it is natural that each side continues to find ways of relating to the other. As geographical neighbors, in the end, the means to build on resilience from the past have to prevail. How much such a process adds up to the larger question of regional order? Questions like this are perhaps of a greater level of interest for observation and commentary from outside the region.
Zha Daojiong is a Professor of International Political Economy and Non-traditional Security Studies at the School of International Studies of Peking University.