The place of China as a leading actor in Asian regionalism is increasingly understood today and seems almost inevitable for the future. The only controversy about China’s role in regional leadership is not whether it can lead but whether it will dominate others and displace America’s hegemony.
This commentary was featured in Russia in Global Affairs on 24 Sep 2011.
The place of China as a leading actor in Asian regionalism is increasingly understood today and seems almost inevitable for the future. The only controversy about China’s role in regional leadership is not whether it can lead but whether it will dominate others and displace America’s hegemony. China has participated in the G20 and has emerged as one of the most important members among the large economies. But questions remain about how China will be both a rising global power and a regional Asian partner to help the smaller and medium sized economies relate equitably to global governance.
The idea of ASEAN leading Asian regionalism seems, on the other hand, something that defies gravity. ASEAN comprises member states that remain relatively small, poor, or weak, or all three. Many Americans do not see the group, let alone prioritize it. To Americans, only China and perhaps India register in their consciousness. Yet it is ASEAN that has been central to free trade and economic agreements among Asians, and ASEAN that has been the acceptable host of the key meetings and agreements that mark Asian diplomacy. Americans will need to recognize the role that China and ASEAN have played in Asian regionalism and find ways to deal with them. More broadly, countries need to re-emphasize mindsets of interdependence and cooperation in the face of the crisis. To seek prosperity and peace in the years ahead, we must embrace the word and.
UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHINA AND ASEAN
This summer, tensions flared in the South China Sea when China detained nine Vietnamese fishermen in disputed territory. After China refused to send the sailors home until the captain paid an additional fine, Vietnam raised the diplomatic stakes and demanded they be released immediately and without conditions. China released the fishermen a week later, but not before the incident had highlighted sensitivities in the South China Sea and the concern that China’s regional “charm offensive” was becoming “frown diplomacy”.
But through both the 1997-98 and 2007-09 crises, China has made a long-term and multipronged effort to win friends and influence Southeast Asia. This goes beyond economics, tourism, and language lessons and into questions of foreign affairs and security. For ASEAN, there have been fewer concerns about Chinese aggression. The ebb of Communist ideology in China has been marked by the end of the insurgency movements in Southeast Asia. China is not a democracy, but few in Asia (unlike those in the United States) see that as an obstacle to closer relations. This is especially since China has signed onto the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). The TAC promises, among other things, that countries should use peaceful means to settle disputes. For ASEAN, the TAC has been a touchstone for closer friendly ties not only among its member countries but in the wider region.
This comes back to the South China Sea. In 2002, China agreed to a code of conduct with ASEAN states. While the Code is nonbinding, China has shown its acceptance of a framework in dealing with its neighbors. While I was in Beijing, the Chinese ambassador to ASEAN, Xue Hanqin, told me that China will continue to discuss issues on the substantive questions of sovereignty on a bilateral basis with the claimants – Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This, from the Chinese perspective, is preferred so that the discussions – which will be sensitive – should not involve the whole of ASEAN, although some of the Southeast Asian claimants preferred a multilateral approach. The tensions over the rocks still simmer with nationalism and potential energy resources and sea routes at stake. But the handling to date has shown China’s concern to avoid poisoning the overall relationship of cooperation.
China does not yet have the strongest aspect of soft power – the one that makes others want to emulate its system and be accustomed to following its lead. No one in Asia wants to be China, at least not in its political system. Instead, an increasing number of societies in Asia value and uphold democracy – most notably and recently Indonesia, in an about-face from the authoritarian Suharto years. But over the long term China has successfully found ways to downplay concerns over the South China Sea and its booming economy and play up the benefits of working together, even if tensions flare up every now and again.
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