Does China get what it wants in East Asia?

by Evelyn Goh,/ 17 October 2016 / East Asia Forum

East Asia’s regional order is in the throes of a remarkable transition, but the nature and potential results of this transition are deeply contested. By mobilising developing countries, a constituency that has been too often neglected, China seems to be altering the regional balance of influence. But how much influence over these countries’ choices and policies does China actually have?China has cultivated apparent patron–client relationships with small peripheral states that can play ‘spoiler’ roles in regional initiatives. Cambodia and Laos played this role within ASEAN in 2012 and 2016 to forestall a collective stance on the South China Sea territorial disputes with China. Politically motivated Chinese trade deals, favourable lending and targeted investments in surrounding developing countries help Beijing to buy favour and cultivate dependence.

In contrast with the United States’ security-focused approach, China’s intensifying ties with Asian developing countries privilege their shared developmental imperative — the strong commitment to generating economic growth and development — as the key means to ensuring the domestic legitimacy and therefore sustainability of the ruling regimes within these states.

China’s security relations with these neighbours are therefore more explicitly nested within wider political and economic relationships. The economic relationship is also more strategically pliable because state-owned enterprises spearhead Chinese regional investment, in contrast to US, Japanese or South Korean private investment.

When analysing the impacts of China’s rising influence on the regional order, there are five key aspects that must be considered.

First, there are not many cases in which Beijing tries to make its smaller and weaker developing neighbours do what they otherwise would not have done. Instead China exercises its power by leveraging shared economic development imperatives and meeting many of these governments’ demands for quick and non-transparent bilateral investments. So China’s influence often results in more continuity than change: rather than being revisionist, China often mobilises and reinforces these developing states’ existing preferences.

Second, in taking a developmentalist approach, China’s broader strategic intent is to invest in its future influence in Asia. Since the mid-1990s Beijing’s consistent aim has been to foster stability in its immediate periphery and promote economic growth opportunities to ensure the security of its regime and support efforts to recover its international position and status. Avoiding attempts to coerce its small neighbouring states helps China mask the risks associated with its growing resources and hoard goodwill as a hedge against future opposition. Read more…

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