In the dynamics of China-ASEAN relations, China has often been blamed for taking advantage of disagreements within ASEAN in order to maximize its own interests. China has frequently used its economic leverage to divide ASEAN countries, thus preventing ASEAN from developing some sort of unity in its approach to China.
One frequently cited example was when ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2012, because Cambodia did not agree on the inclusion of references to incidents in the South China Sea in the final communique. Hence, it is believed that while Chinese economic power may help to avoid the formation of a coherent ASEAN stance on the South China Sea issue, it has also weakened ASEAN’s cohesion.
But the point here is that there is a gap between China’s expectations and ASEAN’s actual willingness and ability to act as an independent and coherent actor. This is also evidenced by ASEAN’s reluctance or inability to reach a consensus on how to deal with China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative.
After China proposed the MSR initiative in 2013, Southeast Asian infrastructure has emerged as a main beneficiary, with Chinese companies accounting for 17 percent of infrastructure investment across the region in 2015.1 Some mainland ASEAN countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have responded positively to the MSR initiative and began to place their connectivity projects under the broad framework of the MSR.
In May 2014, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a public statement during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, expressing full support for the MSR initiative. Although Laos does not have coast line, “the five-year Laos-China Railway Project will ensure that the Lao PDR has strong economic infrastructure that meets its vision of transforming from a landlocked to a land-linked country and help Laos achieve external cooperation and connectivity strategies that it has envisioned having with ASEAN member countries and China.”2
But recent years have also shown that many railway construction projects and joint-run industrial park developments under the MSR initiative have been conducted bilaterally between China and some ASEAN member states individually — not with ASEAN as a whole. Consequently, there is a worry that China has the power to set the terms of the agreements and could then shape the economic and political future of some ASEAN member states, especially some CLMV countries.
For example, as Chinese capital expands in Laos and Myanmar, these two countries are becoming more incorporated into China’s supply and demand chains, buying immediate goods from its factories and selling consumer items such as foods, clothes and electronic products that are often made by companies owned or funded by the Chinese. In 2015, Myanmar’s and Laos’ imports from China accounted for 38 and 30 percent in their total imports respectively, and their exports to China accounted for 40 and 20 percent respectively, signaling these two countries’ growing dependence on China as their import and export markets.
A crucial principle of the ASEAN Way, which is the set of operational norms that have formed from the years of practices accumulated since the establishment of ASEAN, is consensus-based decision-making.
This reliance on a narrow production and export base may prompt the emergence of a chain of disparate market, thus jeopardizing the unity of ASEAN as it attempts to create its single market. Moreover, regional connectivity is a long-term goal of the ASEAN Community, and ASEAN has its own agenda, including the ASEAN Integration Work Plan and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025.
Regional connectivity and infrastructure building between China and Southeast Asia is not a new phenomenon. Since the early 2000s, Yunnan Province and Guangxi Autonomous Region have prioritized inter-regional physical transport connectivity with ASEAN countries and initiated the Gateway Strategy and Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Zone respectively.3 The MSR initiative will doubtless add new dynamics for boosting the development of the Beibu Gulf Zone and link China’s vast inland central and western regions to global maritime trade through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Beijing’s long-term goals for infrastructure development within the framework of the broader MSR include the ambitious plan to build a Pan-Asia Railway Network that will see three 4,500-5,500 km long railway lines linking China and Southeast Asia. The central, eastern and western routes of this planned railway network will run from Kunming through Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Singapore.
It is possible that China’s infrastructure investment may not be necessarily in consistency with ASEAN’s agenda and initial intentions, as the new infrastructural connections — which would tie Southeast Asian nations individually to China, rather than connecting China with ASEAN as a whole — would pose a threat to ASEAN connectivity, a key principle in the strength of the organization.4 In this sense the MSR initiative could at the same time as it brings benefits, also erode ASEAN’s unity and undermine its vision of a single market.
But this exposes a structural problem within ASEAN. As Suos Yara has pointed out: “ASEAN’s main issue is its lack of common foreign policy vis-à-vis major power and its inability to reach any consensus on certain political and security issues.”5
A crucial principle of the ASEAN Way, which is the set of operational norms that have formed from the years of practices accumulated since the establishment of ASEAN, is consensus-based decision-making.6 Although the principle helps ASEAN maintain its unity and makes member states feel comfortable about their participation in the association, it also weakens ASEAN’s capacity to act effectively on certain major issues, as “a single nation can resist the development of a common position and demand concessions for the price of achieving consensus”.7
This is precisely why ASEAN as a group has yet to reach a consensus on how to deal with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and did not send a delegation to attend the first BRI Forum which was held in Beijing in May 2017.8
It seems ASEAN needs to make substantive adjustments to meet new challenges and adapt to new situations. They need to discuss and communicate with Beijing and come up with a role for ASEAN that plays to its strengths in the process. China needs to have policy consultation, co-ordination and collaboration with ASEAN as a whole, in addition to bilateral policy cooperation for infrastructure construction and production capacity cooperation. ASEAN will also need to adjust its policies to reflect these potential interests in a realistic manner. Their interactions may then indeed aid the emergence of ASEAN as a regional economic power and further boost China-ASEAN relations.
1. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN-China dialogue relations at 25”, China Brief, Volume 16, Issue 12, 1 August 2016.
2. Report of Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transports, quoted in “Laos-China railway to benefit various areas, boost investment: gov’t report”, China Daily, 24 August 2016.
3. Li Chenyang and Lye Liang Fook, “China-ASEAN connectivity: China’s objectives, strategies and projects”, EAI Background Brief, No. 674, 17 November 2011.
4. Truong Minh Vu, “The geopolitics of infrastructure: ASEAN’s China challenge”, 13 February 2017.
5. Suos Yara, “The way forward for the ASEAN Community”, East Asian Forum, 12 May 2017.
6. Mie Oba, “ASEAN and the Creation of a Regional Community”, Asia-Pacific Review, Volume 21, No. 1, 2014, 63-78.
7. Zhang Hongzhou, “Managing fisheries in troubled waters: can an SCS body work?” RSIS Commentary, No. 046, 19 March 2018.
8. Interview with an Indonesian expert in Beijing in May 2017.