China's Rising Soft Power in Southeast Asia
Eric Teo Chu Cheow (Council Secretary, Singapore Institute of
Political turmoil in Taiwan, following the March 20 presidential election and
"defensive referendum," is causing some unease in Southeast Asia, as tension
increases in cross-Straits relations following the slim margin of victory of
incumbent President Chen Shui Bian. In fact, before the election, Taipei was
already concerned that it was "losing out" in Southeast Asia to Beijing,
especially if ASEAN countries were to choose sides in the unfortunate event of
hostilities across the Taiwan Strait. Now with the Taiwan elections over and the
situation to be pacified soon, Taipei will have to come to terms with this
"loss" and take action to arrest sagging Taiwan-ASEAN relations.
ASEAN-China relations are consolidating, as Beijing "advances" into Southeast
Asia to balance the region's relations with Japan and the United States. The
successful strengthening of ASEAN-China relations, despite recent historical
animosities and initial economic hang-ups, could be attributed to China's
successful cultivation of ASEAN. But more important, China's "soft power" has
risen substantially in Southeast Asia, which has boosted Beijing's clout,
influence, and standing in ASEAN countries. At the close of the annual
parliamentary (NPC-CPPCC) session in Beijing recently, Prime Minster Wen Jiabao
described China as "a friendly elephant," which poses no threat to ASEAN.
The Emergence of Benign China
From a historical perspective, China used to pose two sorts of threats to
Southeast Asia. There was a "communist threat" in the 1960s and 1970s, as
experienced by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Burma.
On the other hand, Beijing represented a "war threat" to Vietnam in 1979, when
Chinese troops crossed the Sino-Vietnamese border to teach Vietnam a lesson over
its invasion and occupation of neighboring Cambodia.
Southeast Asian countries have lately witnessed a major perception change of
China, from what was termed a "China threat" (in economic, trade, investment,
social/job terms) just three years ago, to one of a "benign China with
opportunities (for ASEAN)." Three factors have come into play.
First, Beijing's pragmatic policy of political stabilization has reassured
ASEAN countries. This is a stark contrast to the previous policy of "ideological
destabilization" of the region.
Second, China is perceived today as an economic opportunity for ASEAN, thanks
first to Beijing's political decision to maintain (or not competitively devalue)
the RMB during the 1997-98 Asian crisis, and then to the latest "bonus" of
surplus trade accorded to ASEAN countries by Beijing.
Key to this perception shift has been China's strategic policy of
down-playing ideology, and moving toward pragmatism, which ASEAN countries have
detected in both China's domestic policies and external relations. ASEAN
countries now appreciate the normalization of Beijing's relations with the
region. With greater sophistication in its foreign policy, Beijing has
deliberately changed its strategic engagement with Southeast Asia and extended a
hand of "strategic friendship" to ASEAN countries. Ideology is abandoned both
domestically and externally, which has greatly assuaged fears and concerns. A
more pragmatic and "normalized" China has re-defined the geopolitical
relationship between Beijing and ASEAN, as China seeks stability and equilibrium
for its own economic and political development, based primarily on its current
slogan of "Stability, Development, Reforms." The common feeling in Southeast
Asia is that it can now do business with a more pragmatic generation of Chinese
leaders and this "new" emerging China.
Economically, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or "10+1" has
effectively linked China closer to ASEAN. Furthermore, China has accorded
unprecedented surpluses to ASEAN economies and increased Chinese investments to
ASEAN. China is investing in oil and gas in Indonesia through CNOOC and has
voiced interest in manufacturing investments in Vietnam and Thailand; Chinese
investments could fuel further economic growth in ASEAN in the coming years. But
competition could also increase for natural resources world-wide, thanks to
China's growing appetite for oil, gas, steel, other minerals, and agricultural
products, with possible negative repercussion on world prices, especially for
ASEAN economies that do not produce such commodities.
China's human resources are also moving to Southeast Asia. Chinese tourists,
students, expatriates, and lower-level workers are fanning out to ASEAN,
bringing new opportunities and revenue to ASEAN economies. The Chinese presence
in Southeast Asia could thus increase and have a major financial and social
impact on ASEAN. Finally, there is a rise in Chinese economic and social
assistance to regional countries: regional cooperation in the Greater Mekong
Sub-Region, as well as in their common fight against SARS and avian flu will
The Rise of China's Soft Power
Commensurate with China's rise as an economic and political power, has been
as concurrent rise in China's "soft power" in Southeast Asia. Chinese culture,
cuisine, calligraphy, cinema, curios, art, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and
fashion fads have all emerged in regional culture.
Fascination for popular Chinese culture among ASEAN youth in films, pop
music, and television has been noticeable, even though such popular culture may
in fact have emanated from Hong Kong (its films, actors, actresses and
"Canto-pop") or Taiwan (like Meteor Garden television series, or boybands, F4 or
5566), and not necessarily from China. Joint "Chinese" film production, such as
"Hero" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (thereby pooling together the best
acting talents from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) have hit international
box-offices and given popular Chinese culture a big boost. Chinese cinema idols,
like Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, are beginning to command a following. Furthermore,
mainland Chinese consumer brand-names (like Hai-er, TCL or Huawei) have spread
and become popular in ASEAN societies.
But probably more important is the rise in the role and influence of ethnic
Chinese within Southeast Asia. Formerly resolutely anti-communist and
anti-Beijing, this group has swung around to accepting a more benign China.
Chinese New Year 2004 has been symbolically feted by ethnic Chinese in Southeast
Asia, and signifies the rise of these communities, which appear to be riding the
coat-tails of an emerging China further north. In Thailand, there is a rise in
Thai-Chinese power and influence, not only in commerce and business (as had been
traditionally the case), but also in politics (the ruling Thai Rath Thai Party),
the bureaucracy, and the intelligentsia. Indonesia has "rehabilitated" its
Indonesian-Chinese community, as the Lunar New Year or "Imlek" has since 2003
been designated an official Indonesian public holiday; public "Metro TV" even
reads some of its news bulletins ("xin wen") in Mandarin. In the Philippines,
Filipino-Chinese movies have captured the top prizes in the Metro-Manila Film
Festival for the past two years. There are also more "chinovelas" (Chinese
serials) on local television stations in the afternoon and the Taiwanese
boy-band, F4 is currently the Philippines' biggest craze. Vietnam is following
the "China model" economically and even politically, as returning viet kieu (or
overseas Vietnamese) are expected to lead Vietnamese economic recovery, like
overseas Chinese 15 years ago. In Malaysia, Chinese tycoons are playing an
increasingly prominent role both domestically and externally, especially in
leading economic recovery and the current reforms in Malaysia "against" its
In Southeast Asia, the "pai hwa" (or anti-Chinese) sentiment has subsided to
a large extent, just as many ethnic Southeast Asian Chinese are now
"re-discovering" their Chinese culture/identity; Mandarin classes have boomed in
The most significant change in Southeast Asia has perhaps been in the
attitude of these ethnic Chinese, who have become less biased, less
anti-communist, and less anti-Beijing in their thinking. But over-playing this
China connection could be a double-edged sword if these same overseas Chinese do
not share or better distribute their acquired wealth locally, and especially
when they are perceived to have prospered thanks to their China connection.
Beijing must also be aware of this potential danger.
"Stabilized" ASEAN-China relations should help stabilize the Asia-Pacific
region, which is what both ASEAN and China seek to develop and prosper together.
This ASEAN-China entente could also help create better regional conditions for
development within the "ASEAN+3" framework. But "enhanced" Sino-Japanese
relations would still clearly be the primary key to this future "ASEAN+3"
entity; otherwise, no Asian entity would ever take off!
(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)