On a recent episode of the China in the World podcast, Paul Haenle spoke with Sharon Seah, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, about Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN)’s views of China. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
Paul Haenle: You wrote recently that ASEAN leaders are unlikely to subscribe to China’s new Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative, especially if it leads to a loss of autonomy and independence for their own foreign policy priorities. What do you think China needs to do to persuade ASEAN countries to join these initiatives or, at least, to not push back? How will these initiatives impact the power balance between the United States and China?
Sharon Seah: I think for this region, anything that will force them to take a side is not welcome. Whether it is the United States or China knocking on the door to ask the region to take their offerings, their response will be the same. We saw this when AUKUS was announced two years ago, and the reception was cold. It was seen as a way to force sides.
In the same way, on the Global Security Initiative, it has been met with a kind of a polite reception. I think ASEAN leaders will be wary that they might have to trade something in order to get Chinese security guarantees. The question is what that trade will be. This also shows up in parts of the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey. Tools that are used to coerce or to cause a loss of autonomy and independence are always viewed negatively, so China needs to address this.
Despite what China has done in the region for decades—building infrastructure and bringing the Belt and Road Initiative—China’s soft power is still relatively low, and this is something that perhaps Chinese policymakers can think about improving. All of that hard infrastructure hasn’t translated into an equal increase in soft power. How will it impact the power balance? I think it will continue to be in a state of push-and-pull and the dynamics will keep evolving. I think that the tightrope ASEAN must walk is only going to get harder.
The region has always cast an eye on China and an eye on the United States in the prism of U.S.-China rivalry. What really surprised me in this year’s survey is that even though the worry over China’s economic and political influence has always been present, the level of concern decreased this year, whereas in the past there was always an increase. So that shows that maybe the needle is moving. Where people had been wary, they are a little bit more embracing of the kind of political influence that China has in this region.
Source : Carnegieendowment