Chinese diplomacy under President Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ has been aimed at achieving dominance over the countries along its borders. In particular, Xi has strengthened China’s structural and discursive power. Structural power means domination: that is, the weaker state accepts its asymmetrical disadvantages vis-à-vis the stronger state, and subordinates its own interest to the stronger state’s, even without coercion from the latter. Discursive power is the use of discourse to create meaning, and constitute identity and interest. Below I outline how structural and discursive power have been used by China in south-east Asia and discus the impact of COVID-19 on these processes.
Infrastructure and Chinese power
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Infrastructure and Chinese power in south-east Asia
China’s success in wielding structural and discursive power is most clearly demonstrated in the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative in south-east Asia. For instance, the Lao and Indonesian governments have gone ahead respectively with the Vientiane-Boten railway and Jakarta-Bandung railway, ignoring warnings from international institutions and experts. They hope that by aligning with China and receiving financial as well as technological aid, their countries will develop. In the process, they have potentially compromised their countries’ sovereignty, particularly in the case of Laos, and carried on unviable debts and social risks. They have accepted the trade-offs and asymmetrical disadvantages in making such decisions. China’s master narrative of progress, wealth, and inclusion constrains all other narratives that warn of the costs, risks, and challenges that the railway projects entail. China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has not dented the appetite for infrastructure in the region; projects have forged ahead after short delays.
However, dominance does not mean that south-east Asian countries accept an exclusive partnership with China or that south-east Asian countries have no agency. While there is admiration for the Chinese model of growth and broad agreement with the idea that infrastructure brings development, south-east Asian leaders are hesitant about appearing to acquiesce to a Sinocentric world order. For instance, while Laos and Cambodia have signed on to China’s ‘community of common destiny’, ASEAN as a whole has resisted Chinese proposals for an ‘ASEAN-China community of shared destiny’ because the idea implies the creation of a Sino-centric network of relations. South-east Asian countries continue to pursue regionalism and multipolarity.
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The impact of COVID-19
Countries within the region remain deeply concerned about Chinese influence, both in their domestic politics and foreign policies. China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have aggravated these concerns. China is perceived as taking advantage of that fact that south-east Asian countries are focused on containing the virus. In the face of Chinese dominance and aggression, south-east Asian states have sought agency in the form of resistance, seeking alternatives through international law or other major powers, deft diplomacy and agenda-setting.
China’s handling of COVID-19 has exacerbated two pre-pandemic trends. First, the trend towards diversification away from the Chinese economy, which started with the US–China trade war, has continued to intensify. Second, south-east Asian countries’ distrust of China has increased over the years as the expansion of Chinese power was not accompanied by measures to sufficiently reassure its neighbors. Chinese aggressive foreign policy in the midst of the pandemic is likely to increase distrust of China.
South-east Asian countries’ worries and concerns over China are however not similar to the West’s. On a governance level these countries are semi-authoritarian, led by authoritarians of various shades, or newly democratic states. Regional concerns are thus not ideological or about political systems and human rights. Rather, they are defined by national interest: territorial disputes, over-reliance on the Chinese economy, China dominating their foreign policies and even indirectly influencing domestic politics as well as the societal impact of Chinese workers and businesses.
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Implications for other major powers
What does all this mean for the United States, Japan, and Europe? Chinese aggression has created maneuvering space for other major powers. South-east Asian countries resist a Sino-centric world order, and do not want an exclusive partnership with China. For the United States, the incoming Biden administration needs to restore US credibility and step up engagement in the region. South-east Asian states want more US presence and leadership in the region, particularly economically. The United States also needs to give south-east Asian states breathing space and policy options by de-emphasizing ideology and not making them choose sides. Getting COVID-19 under control in the United States and providing assistance to countries in the region would help restore US leadership and counter China’s vaccine diplomacy.
For Japan and Europe, the desire for diversification in the region means that they stand a better chance of winning infrastructure projects. Increased economic engagement through trade, investment, and aid will align with the regional desire for balance.
Selina Ho is Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Her article ‘Infrastructure and Chinese power’ was published in the November 2020 issue of International Affairs.