Tag Archives: soft power

On the Rocks: China’s expected response to tribunal decision threatens to undo soft power gains

South_China_Sea

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to rule tomorrow on a case brought by the Philippine government over China’s attempts to claim almost the entire South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing has boycotted the tribunal and betting the odds are that the verdict will not be in China’s favor.

Whatever happens tomorrow at the tribunal, Chinese state media is going to claim victory. But within the walls of Zhongnanhai, there ought to be some soul searching. This assumes of course that anyone who works in Zhongnanhai still has something approaching a soul.

Should the tribunal rules against the PRC — as it is expected to — and if the Chinese government chooses to use the tribunal’s ruling to, for example, wipe the ass of the nearest stray dog — as they will almost certainly want to do — the repercussions will ripple far past the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.

Internationally, China has worked hard over the previous two decades to present itself as a good global citizen. As the US and their allies engaging in what many around the world see as reckless military adventurism, China positioned itself as a semi-sane alternative to the failed — and sometimes disastrous — policies of the West.

Choosing to ignore the tribunal’s ruling jeopardizes this concerted effort at image building. China can point all it wants to the way the US especially routinely ignores these sorts of hearings and decisions, but if the Chinese government is serious about being the voice of reason in a world gone mad they have to better than the US. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach. “You did it first” isn’t going to fly.

The second issue is domestic. Chinese media routinely demonizes the United States and the West for their actions around the world. Implicit in this coverage is the idea that most of the world — those countries who don’t burn summer palaces and invade Middle Eastern nations for sport — see China as the good guy in world affairs.

The Chinese government wants to present every issue as China (and by extension, the rest of the world) versus the West. It’s the US and their allies who are the odd ones out in the world. In some ways, that might be true. But it doesn’t mean that China’s neighbors see China as any less of the threat.

In the case of the South China Sea, Beijing is opposed by countries, like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who ought, by virtue of geography and a shared history as victims of colonialism, have common cause with China.

One reason the Chinese government has been so insistent on the US being the real impetus behind the decision to take the South China Sea case before the tribunal is that it helps soften an awkward truth: China isn’t as beloved around the world — and particularly in asia — as the Chinese state media wants people to believe.

Talking with folks in Beijing, there is the persistent belief that the Philippines and the other countries opposed to China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea are being hoodwinked into becoming the pawns of the usual suspects: The United States and Japan.

The Chinese government has made the South China Sea a core strategic interest. But one wonders if Chinese leaders have thought through the downfield implications of digging in on this issues. Maybe they have and have decided that they are fresh out of fucks to give about what Vietnam thinks of them.

The callous cynic in me might suggest that while China’s actions in the South China Sea represent a challenge to America’s leadership and strategic position in the Western Pacific, Beijing’s refusal to accept the tribunal’s decision could be seen as an opportunity to undermine some of the gains China has made in global public opinion over the past two decades.

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Who’s afraid of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative?

A month ago China unveiled an action plan for China’s controversial One Belt, One Road initiative. The action plan introduces a series infrastructure development projects and trade related agreements along three Silk Roads emanating from China and reaching as far as Europe, Africa, and South America. It undoubtedly will be the subject of scrutiny as analysts and pundits on both sides of the Pacific chime in to make hasty comparisons to China’s 14th century maritime expansion and the more recent U.S. led Marshall Plan.  Some may even go as far to equate the One Belt, One Road to Japan’s pernicious WWII era East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – this analogy, to the Chinese, is ultimately insulting.

Scrutiny and false comparisons aside, China and the world will be made economically better off by a successful implementation of the One Road, One Belt initiative.  China estimates the total benefit stream for investors and firms that participate in the initiative to reach an astronomical USD 21 trillion. Moreover, the prospects of such benefits are particularly timely at a time when global aggregate demand is on a downslide.   During a series of fall 2013 visits to Asian neighbors, China’s president Xi Jinping first announced the One Road, One Belt proposal as an umbrella concept describing three economic belts extending westward from China toward Europe and Africa.  The three economic belts roughly follow historical trade routes linking China with the West and are known as the New Silk Road, South Silk Road, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (See map).

One Belt One Road

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the initiative seeks to strengthen economic collaboration, improve road connectivity, promote trade and investment, promote currency conversion, and bolster people-to-people exchanges.  The timing of the initiative is critical.  China’s current development trajectory requires an infusion of economic growth emanating from its under-developed interior using an outward focused plan to export its finished products abroad while importing much needed raw materials and foodstuffs from the rest of the world.

The catchword among the planners of the Belt and Road system is youwai zhinei (由外至内) or ‘to bring the outside in.’ This concept reveals the actual logic of the plan as an outward looking plan that fills domestic economic needs first. Xi Jinping is betting his political future, and by extension, the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, on this plan to solve China’s economic woes and deliver successful reforms.  Thus, criticism should not pontificate on how the initiative is China’s grand strategy for global domination, but rather focus on assessing the efficiency of the various related project and prognosticating whether Xi can drive the initiative’s benefits home in time to stave off an economic slowdown.

To address current criticism, pundits are quick to draw historical comparisons to when Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, a court eunuch whose naval fleets, sailed as far as the east African coastline collecting tribute and expanding China’s sphere of influence.  To be sure, Zheng He’s ships were equipped with soldiers and were not simply diplomatic missions.  However, historian Jeremiah Jenne Executive Director of The Hutong in Beijing says, “Zheng was not trying to conquer or colonize in the name of the Ming Court. China gets into a lot of trouble in contemporary diplomacy because there seem to be elements in the foreign policy and military establishments and a whole swath of the general population who have trouble separating tributary arrangements from actual control and sovereignty.”

Jenne’s comments are generally made in reference to China’s historical claims to most of the South China Sea, many of which are based on Zheng He’s naval explorations.  However, on equal measure, Western detractors of the One Belt One Road plans should also not claim Zheng He as a world conqueror or challenger to the status quo.

Some analysts suggest the cheap financing and aid packages attached to the One Belt One Road plan are part of a political strategy for China to placate its neighbors over territorial disagreements with trade incentives and cash.  China indeed ill-advisedly attempted this strategy in the mid 1990s with its economic cooperation strategies vis-à-vis mainland Southeast Asia, but its track record with this strategy, particularly with Vietnam and Indonesia is spotty and has not produced desired results.

Yun Sun, resident fellow and Chinese foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. does not quite agree with the view that One Belt, One Road is motivated primarily by strategic and political calculations. She says, “The plan is primarily an economic campaign designed to serve China’s economic restructuring and export needs. It will benefit the region, as well as China.”  She admits the initiative will inevitably have a political impact and Beijing conceivably sees the political benefit as a part of the package.

“Using the counter-factual approach,” continues Sun, “China would still pursue One Belt, One Road without South China Sea disputes, so we can’t really say that the South China Seas or mending ties due to disputes there is the cause of China’s One Belt One Road.”

The post-WII Marshall plan which successfully lifted both the US and Europe out of its post-WWII economic woes and acted as the keystone to US led global restructuring models such as the Bretton Woods system indeed serves as a useful comparison to the One Belt, One Road initiative.   While we should be mindful that there is no guarantee the plan will deliver the local and global economic benefits that China hopes for, we should be more mindful that unlike the Marshall Plan, China has no economic restructuring model to offer the rest of the world, its stock of soft power is not necessarily improving, and this plan, still in its proposal stage, will be no easy sell.

To provide a comparison, China’s scorecard in regard to economic belt and road development in mainland Southeast Asia is murky and has contributed much to its current reputation rising regional power with unclear intentions.  Vietnam has stringently followed China’s export-led growth model and as a result is currently heading toward dire and inexorable economic straits unless it considers other alternatives.  Even in poor countries like Laos, where mid-to-high-value Chinese exports are not preferred to Thai or even Vietnamese products, scant evidence exists to demonstrate the “Made in China” image is improving.

The record of Chinese firms abroad in regard to environmental protection and labor practices is abysmal in countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia with no evidenced improvement in corporate social responsibility practices. Tied to this, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown will reveal deep corruption and graft in many of China’s overseas infrastructure development projects.  Moreover, Xi Jinping is pledging to break-up the monopolies of many of China’s powerful state firms – construction and energy firms are already in his sights – thus, it is unclear who will build the One Belt, One Road projects.

To reiterate, these are the issues that deserve scrutiny and attention rather than the high-level rhetoric of China’s grand strategy.

Liu Jinxin, regional logistics expert and chief architect of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor (a westward stretching leg of the South Silk Road – see map), says that the greatest challenge facing the One Belt, One Road strategy is in China’s public relations strategy.  “Too many out there misunderstand China’s intentions, and factions, particularly within democratic countries, will misinterpret the benefit flows that this plan will deliver.”  Liu also cites the need for harmonizing legal structures between cooperative partners in sectors related to trade, commerce, and logistics.  “China will learn the most from this process, specifically through interaction with countries in Europe where the rule of law is strong.  However, since China’s legal system is not based on rule of law, it will be difficult for China to emerge as a conversation leader on this initiative.  In many ways China’s role is passive.”

Thailand’s refusal to pass a regional cross-border transportation agreement sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (which China and other mainland Southeast Asian states have ratified) is reflective of Liu’s commentary.  The ratification of this agreement would require the break-up of many entrenched factions within Thailand’s customs and inspection agencies as well as the military – a move these powerful groups are unwilling to budge on despite Thailand’s overall enthusiasm for economic cooperation with China.

When applying a critical eye to the One Belt, One Road initiative, its best to begin with a consideration toward the feasibility of such a project and looking at China’s real capabilities. Many worthwhile questions arise amidst such an inquiry, and certainly no one should take for granted that China can pull such an endeavor.  The functionality of the initiative is to push China successfully through its next wave of economic reforms promising further stability to East Asia and delivering a substantial contribution to global economic growth.

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Missed Opportunity? Barack Obama Cancels Southeast Asia Trip

obama

Earlier this week US President Barack Obama cancelled his historic visits to Malaysia and the Philippines but made good on his promise to attend regional leadership meetings in the coming days where key trade agreements and hard power deals are likely be negotiated and fortified.  However, domestic pressures over the budget crisis and government shutdown in Washington have caused the President to scrap his trip entirely.

Will Obama’s absence be a game-changer for regional relations and the US’s strategic pivot to the Asia Pacific?  Will Tea Party-infused political brinkmanship in the US offer Chinese president Xi Jinping, also attending the summits, a golden opportunity to expand China’s regional footprint?

Obama’s strategic “pivot” and return to the Asia Pacific, by and large, has utilized Southeast Asian states as a springboard in developing a program of political and economic laurels that open up Southeast Asian markets for foreign direct investment and international trade.  From a 1,000 foot view, the US pivot looks similar to China’s foreign policy to Southeast Asia, thus the US’s program both complements and competes with China’s regional rise.  It is important to remember that due to its proximity to Southeast Asia and its fast-tracked economic expansion, China’s investment and trade volumes with Southeast Asia will always exceed that of the United States.  However another hard reality is that US power in Southeast Asia, both soft and hard, will always eclipse that of China’s.  It will take major restructuring in the US (for the worse) and in China (for the better) to reverse this relationship.  Despite the best efforts of the Tea Party in the US and potentially of an equally challenging New Left movement down the road, the status quo in terms of the channels that express US military, economic, and cultural power in Southeast Asia are unlikely to weaken.  For China, we are uncertain of Xi Jinping’s economic reform platform likely to unfold at year’s end, but we can be assured that his platform will focus on strengthening China’s domestic economy first, with foreign policy and other considerations taking a backseat.

In terms of soft power choices between China and the US, the consistent preference of Southeast Asians is to side with the US or at the very least, against China.  Wealthy Southeast Asians, like the Chinese, send their children to top US universities for robust skilling; Southeast Asians, like Americans, go to China to learn Mandarin. Middle income consumers in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia refuse to purchase Chinese made smart phones (and their apps and operating  systems), those who have the means to purchase cars in Laos choose Japanese Toyotas or refurbished Korean used cars, and with the Chinese mainland’s crowding out of the Hong Kong and Taiwan entertainment industries, no one in Southeast Asia listens to new music or watches new films coming out of China. Continue reading

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The logic of China’s economic strategies in Southeast Asia

In so many ways, China’s strategies for its involvement in Southeast Asia are much more pragmatic, more predictable, and considerably less nefarious than any other rising global power that previous laid sight on region.  Moreover, those strategies, born in the 1990s, make even more economic sense now than at the time of their inception due to the current needs of its development trajectory.

Energy consumption and the speed of urbanization in China are rising at ever-increasing rates.  To keep pace, the central government must secure energy resources and safe, low-cost agricultural goods. Southeast Asian states, in a complementary fashion, have robust food export markets, as in the case of Thailand or Malaysia, or as in Laos and Myanmar, have abundant endowments of energy resources.  Chinese state owned enterprises and private business interests seek to access and integrate into these markets and new infrastructure linkages such as highways and high-speed railways are indicators of deeper market integration abroad. Continue reading

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About East by Southeast

WRITE FOR US!  JOIN THE ExSE TEAM, contact us at eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

 

WHY WE WRITE:

There are many good blogs about China and many from Southeast Asia, but it is surprising that there are few blogs looking at the connections between China and Southeast Asia given shared development challenges, centuries of historical and cultural interaction, and rising volumes of trade and people movement between China and Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s, nations and ethnic groups that were cut off from cross-border interaction during the Cold War began to reunite as peace spread throughout the region, and arguably, China’s rise has reinforced stability within the region to deliver deepened integration.  Fast forward twenty years, the region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world and rapidly changing urban spaces. It is also known for its abundance in natural resources and biodiversity, and development trajectories are converting those resources into cash crops and energy commodities for trade and consumption. On mainland Southeast Asia, a lack of policy coordination and communication between governments and stakeholders has already created a variety of trans-boundary issues like fisheries depletion in the Mekong watershed.  As a result, for the first time, the region faces threats to food security and a potentially gross mismanagement of its resource endowment.

In addition to the growing connections between China and Southeast Asia, the East by Southeast blog team will examine China’s footprint across its southern borders to provide answers to some of the big questions surrounding China’s global rise. We seek to understand the effect and return of China’s outpouring of aid and investment to its Southeast Asian neighbors and monitor changes in China’s approach to foreign policy as its interests spread across the region. We want to know how China’s neighbors are adapting to its rise and how effectively China’s soft power is spreading. There is much room for discussion and exploration of the gaps between China’s rhetoric on its peaceful rise in the region and its ability to continue expanding its resource base to feed the needs of a rapidly growing economy. Lastly, we are concerned with China’s adaptation and response to a new and concerted US foreign policy toward Southeast Asia.

From a different perspective, the blog team will look at how the space between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors is decreasing at a rapid rate as transportation infrastructure, advances in information transfer, and trade linkages reach across borders and states use what Yale scholar James C. Scott calls in his 2009 watershed work The Art of Not Being Governed, “distance demolishing technologies” to connect areas that were once the frontiers beyond all frontiers. For example, energy from hydropower plants is sent from Laos to the China’s east coast development zones, you can now drive a container truck from Kunming to Bangkok in less than a day on what was once previous non-navigable terrain, and in 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community promises to drop the barriers to the movement of labor and goods through the region. In addition to understanding the trajectory and obstacles of regional integration,
we want to explore how rapid and sudden improvements in connectivity reshape individual livelihoods, communities, and regional relationships.

There are so many stories to tell of the people who are shaping the region for better or for worse and of the people who are affected
by regional decision making. Narratives from the varied and violent histories of the Cold War, colonial, and pre-colonial eras can help demonstrate how history can inform the present challenges. In addition, the blog will expore many regional question marks such as the tenuous path to democratization in Myanmar (and Thailand and Cambodia), Kunming’s rise as the Bangkok of the north, a high-speed rail system through Laos, and the effects of salinization in the Mekong Delta.  Can cities and rural areas in the region learn how to provide each other with sustainable solutions to development challenges? Are there lessons to be taught as countries like Thailand, China, and Indonesia seek to escape the middle income trap?

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

If you’d like to join the discussion, feel free to leave a comment after our posts, or if you’d like to contribute to the blog by becoming a team member, send us a message to eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com.

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