Meeting China’s Rise: Proposing A New Rebalancing Strategy for ASEAN

What are the overall trends in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states’ attitudes towards China? Are they one of rebalancing against the Dragon or one of politically endorsing its rise (bandwagoning)? It seems neither both were evident, but the ASEAN states’ unwavering support of the “ASEAN Way” since its birth in 1967 — defined as a type of “soft regionalism” (soft diplomacy) characterized by the making of consensus in tackling regional issues (Zhao, 1998; Archaya & Layug, 2012) — probably suggested that members of the Association maintained a prudent and pragmatic diplomatic posture towards China, which lies between the two extremes of firm rebalancing and full endorsement (of China’s rise).

Yet, with China’s unstoppable rise and with its ever-growing activism in ASEAN-sponsored multilateral frameworks, including the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and the still-under-negotiation ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, the ASEAN states have intrinsically shifted their China posture from one of political distrust and distancing (in the 1970s and 80s) to one of rapprochement and increased cooperation since the 1990s (Lanteigne, 2009, pp. 119-122). To date, only two states, at most, in the region were in outright opposition to China’s rise (the Philippines and Vietnam). The rest were receptive of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic ascension, albeit with varying degrees of warmness. This reminds us of Henry Kissinger’s (2014, pp. 216) famous “osmosis” metaphor in characterizing Chinese influence — defined as the permeation of Chinese culture into neighboring regions through “soft” (non-military) means, in the form of concentric circles, as opposed to Western (US) rebalancing posturing towards the Asia-Pacific, characteristic of the Hegelian dialectics which undergirds Samuel Huntington’s (1993) infamous “clash of civilizations” thesis. With the paramount importance of Southeast Asia to the two superpowers of the United States and China and with the intensifying US-China trade conflict, it is only thinkable that the two geostrategic processes of cultural diffusion and geopolitical rebalancing could play out in an ever-magnifying and ever-mesmerizing fashion in the region of Southeast Asia.

Two central tenets characterized China’s peripheral diplomacy in Southeast Asia: uncompromising sovereign claims (Sokolsky, Rabasa & Neu, 2001; Moore, 2018) and joint economic development, or, using the Chinese term, 战略对接 (zhan lüe dui jie) or the “alignment of developmental strategies” (Xinhua, 2017a; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 2018). For reasons of ease, I term Chinese foreign policy in Southeast Asia (strict sovereignty claims plus joint economic development) the “Chinese Way”.

As the Chinese Dragon soars towards the world’s centre stage, Southeast Asia could experience increasing permeation of the “Chinese Way” into the region. As Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew had observed, the goal of the Chinese is arguably to push the Americans 200 miles off its Eastern shores (Lee, 2013, pp., 36) or, according to the findings of RAND (an American non-governmental and non-profit think-tank), the excluding of American influence from China’s first- and second-rings of insecurity, which includes the Greater China region and all of its immediate periphery in the Asia-Pacific (Scobell, Lin, Shatz & Johnston, 2018, pp. 24).

Figure 1. China’s four rings of insecurity (source: Scobell, Lin, Shatz & Johnston, 2018, pp. 25).

Should the time arrive that the Americans (American influence) are ejected from the Chinese periphery, or, according to Lee Kuan Yew’s description, the “equaling out” in the US-China political power equation (in 20 to 30 years’ time, according to his 2013 prediction) (Lee, 2013, pp. 43), the principal mechanism of ASEAN — the “ASEAN Way” — may have to shift from seeking a balance of interests vis-à-vis external powers to accommodate a scenario which David Kang coined as “sovereign inequality”  — a historical East Asian regional institution which saw China’s peripheral states retaining informal (de facto) independence vis-à-vis the Central Civilization (China) but formally recognizing the pre-eminence of the Chinese civilization (Kang, 2010).

Hence, successive generations of ASEAN leaders must be wary that China might reclaim its supremacy (in the region), and they must not rely solely on ASEAN’s “soft diplomacy” (consensus-driven diplomacy) which has, for the past, enabled the Association to muddle through a region of uncertainty and volatility. Once ASEAN’s “softness” (astute diplomatic skills but lagging behind in economic development) is revealed and its innate fragility discovered, the dream of building an “ASEAN Community” (Severino, 2006; Letchumanan, 2015) upon a region so rich in its potentiality and diversity might have to burst asunder. As Lee Kuan Yew had pointed out in an interview some 50 years ago, it would be thoroughly unlikely for Southeast Asia to encounter a situation where China would invade and attempt to “eat up” the entire region (PublicResourceOrg, 2011). His views might prove insightful, especially as we are seeing an increasingly powerful and acute Chinese leadership determined to re-take its place in the world through self-sponsored initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which stresses the leadership’s commitment to the epochal themes of peace, development (he ping fa zhan; 和平发展) and win-win cooperation (he zuo gong ying; 合作共赢) (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 2015c; Embassy of the PRC in the USA, 2018).

  1. Rajaratnam, ex-Singaporean foreign minister and one of ASEAN’s founding fathers, assessed that ASEAN was created due to member states’ shared vulnerability and their “common fear” of regional uncertainties, such as (possible) intervention from outside powers (Rajarantam, 2003). Driven by post-independence uncertainties, the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia signed the “Bangkok Declaration” (also known as “The ASEAN Declaration”) on August 8, 1967 to formally establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The overarching goal of the Association is to safeguard its member states’ hard-won independence and facilitate cooperation between them (see “ASEAN Declaration,” in Siddique & Kumar, 2003, pp. 520-523). The Association takes pride for its skillfulness in conducting diplomacy (by getting external powers to subscribe to the “ASEAN Way”), but little has been achieved in terms of economic integration, let alone political integration. The economic history of ASEAN shows that only when there exists an external power capable of instigating and facilitating region-wide cooperation will economic integration in Southeast Asia bear fruit. For instance, the establishment of Japanese manufacturing bases (mainly automobiles) throughout Southeast Asia in the late 1980s has seen a brief period of flourishing in ASEAN economic integration due to the tapping of regional economies of scale (Gill, 1997, pp. 148; Narine, 2002, pp. 29).

The Japanese economy has receded ever since the early 1990s. If there exists, or rather emerges, an external power that is able, willing and committed to re-instilling region-wide cooperation, then Southeast Asia might witness another fundamental shift in its geopolitical and geo-economic outlook. Put bluntly, should the “Chinese Way” prove to be a viable alternative to safeguarding the ASEAN states’ sovereignty whilst uplifting their levels of cooperation (on a regional scale), then Southeast Asia may ultimately witness a paradigmatic change in the ways it (the Association) has hitherto conducted and organized regionalism.

In effect, it is arguable that further advancement in ASEAN-China cooperation is mainly impeded by the region’s competing territorial claims and the phenomenon that China is hard-pressed in terms of its territorial claims in the South China Sea (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 2015b; Kawashima, 2017). China’s unyielding stance on the South China Sea is arguably illustrative of the shallowness behind its repeated claims of it being a “responsible great power” (fu ze ren da guo; 负责任大国) (Duggan, 2006, pp. 156), for it shows that it is either unwilling or unable to accommodate diverse voices on the South China Sea issue. Ironically, the more inelastic China is (with its claims), the more it speaks to China’s lack of inner confidence to safeguard its interests vis-a-vis foreign nations, large and small alike. The fear of losing territory may also be the underlying rationale behind the building of the Great Wall of China in the Qin dynasty.

Overall, I consider the initiation of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea as an example of ASEAN’s statecraft in regional diplomacy, as it invites China to embrace the “ASEAN Way” of consensus-driven diplomacy before the Dragon becomes too powerful to be grouped against. China’s enthusiasm in pushing forward the COC with ASEAN ministers also exemplifies its honoring of the principle of respecting states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, which also is the first principle within the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) 1954 “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 2014a). Should China become less sensitive to its territorial claims, it may have come closer to achieving its “Dream of National Rejuvenation” (zhong hua min zu wei da fu xing de zhong guo meng; 中华民族伟大复兴的中国梦) (Xi, 2015, pp. 236-241), where the world shall see a China not only dedicated to its global interests and promises, but also confident that its propositions will be cherished and respected elsewhere.

Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat of Singapore and Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore (NUS), argued that it could be naïve for China to claim the “Nine-Dash Line” in the South China Sea as part of its territory, for such an act is poised to jeopardize China’s relations with ASEAN states which has been rapidly “warming up” (Mahbubani, 2012).

Yet, there is arguably little reason for China to concede (in its territorial claims), for where is the hard power from competing states that could lead the Chinese into a concession? This is not a dismissal of alternative voices in the South China Sea territorial disputes, but a sincere reminder for ASEAN and particularly its member states to live-up to present-day realities — that there is simply much for the ASEAN states reflect and learn, such as from China’s continuous growth experience, to be more determined, more all-round and more long-term oriented in their developmental strategies. 

Drawing from the insights of yin-yang-ism, I opine that ASEAN should cooperate with China, or indeed with any power, in order to compete, and remain competitive.


Two score years ago, then Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited the three Southeast Asian capitals of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and he was staggered by the Asian Tigers’ (Thailand and Malaysia) and the Little Dragon’s (Singapore’s) accomplishments (Lee, 2013, pp. 30). Today, the reverse seems inevitable — that Little Tigers and Dragons are increasingly numbed by the Chinese Dragon’s unstoppable innovations and economic development, particularly its relentless dedication to fulfill its pledge to the world — to build a “Community of Common Destiny” for humanity which rests on long-lasting peace (chi jiu he ping; 持久和平) and all-inclusive development (gong tong fa zhan; 共同发展) (Fei & Ban, 2017).

What lies ahead for ASEAN? Shall we unilaterally, or rather unanimously, succumb to the Dragon’s magnanimous rise or is there a different future? Might we retain some degree of autonomy while we partake the Dragon’s striving to resuscitate a long-celebrated achievement of humanity?

If China may introduce new concepts to the increasingly competitive arena of international relations (IR), such as the “New Type of Great Power Relations” (NTGPR) (Zeng & Breslin, 2016) and the “New Security Concept” (NSC) (Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN, 2002), why couldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, ASEAN renovate its diplomatic strategy to meet its new-found challenges? However, ASEAN’s renewed strategy should not be aimed at constraining the Dragon’s rise, but only to ensure the “going concern” (ongoing viability) of the Association — the guaranteeing of member states’ sovereign rights as well as the making of peace, prosperity and progress for every people in the region of Southeast Asia — enshrined in “The ASEAN Declaration” of 1967 as the joint-dedication of every ASEAN member state (see “ASEAN Declaration,” in Siddique & Kumar, 2003, pp. 520-523).

Drawing on the yin-yang dialectics of Chinese humanism (Qin, 2016; Chang, 2018), I sketch a brief outline for imagining a new kind of rebalancing for ASEAN’s diplomatic strategy, where the “new rebalancing strategy” (NRS) is, in essence, neither wholly cooperative (full endorsement) nor wholly competitive (firm rebalancing), but “simultaneously-competitive-and-cooperative” in its spirit (dialectics) (Chang, 2017), reflecting the yin-yang dialectics of yin zhong you yang, yang zhong you yin (阴中有阳,阳中有阴), which literally means brightness (yang; 阳) exists in every manifestation of darkness (yin; 阴), and darkness (yin; 阴) prevails in any manifestation of brightness (yang; 阳). Put metaphorically, it means there is hope (yang; 阳) in every moment of despair (yin; 阴), and so are there dangers (yin; 阴) in every moment of rejoicing (yang; 阳). Superimposed onto the context of ASEAN-China relations, it means to expect (possibilities of) competition in every cooperative aspect of the dyadic relations, as well as to foresee (opportunities for) cooperation in every competitive element of the same relationship. Overall, it suggests anticipating as well as welcoming competition and cooperation occurring concurrently in ASEAN-China’s dyadic relations, or indeed in any pair (or group) of state-to-state relations, in the ever-entangling, ever-evolving and ever-exhilarating world of international relations.

Since President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, his administration has pushed the incorporation of (the concept of) “comprehensiveness” (quan mian; 全面) into nearly every piece of China’s developmental grand strategy, both within and without China. They include the strategy of developing “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership(s)” (quan mian zhan lüe he zuo huo ban guan xi; 全面战略合作伙伴关系) in China’s international relations (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 2014b; 2015a) and the use of Xi’s “Four Comprehensives”, or the Four-pronged Comprehensive Strategy (si ge quan mian zhan lüe bu ju; “四个全面” 战略布局) for the governance of China (Du, 2015). The Xi administration’s grand strategies were geared towards achieving China’s “Twin Centennial Goals” (liang ge yi bai nian fen dou mu biao; “两个一百年” 奋斗目标), which sets out a twofold vision for the Chinese nation: (i) the attaining of the living standards of a moderately well-off society (xiao kang she hui; 小康社会) by the year 2021 — the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and (ii) the building of a “fully modernized (developed) socialist state” (she hui zhu yi xian dai hua guo jia; 社会主义现代化国家) by the year 2049 — the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Xinhua, 2017b). According to Xi’s government, the country is now experiencing its third and possibly last phase of internal transformation — from the first-phase of winning independence (zhan qi lai; 站起来) to the second-phase of becoming wealthy (fu qi lai; 富起来) to the final-phase of becoming powerful (qiang qi lai; 强起来) (Li, 2017).

As the old saying goes: if you cannot beat them, join them. If China becomes, or indeed is, too powerful for ASEAN to “beat”, then ASEAN must consider joining China’s “beat”. Drawing from the insights of yin-yang-ism, I opine that ASEAN should cooperate with China, or indeed with any power, in order to compete, and remain competitive. The ASEAN states should make full use of the opportunities the Association have earned through the molding of a friendly and cooperative regional environment. They must recognize that hard-earned peace in Southeast Asia is at best impermanent and should they miss the chance to develop and strengthen themselves, they may fall behind quickly with other regions and players whom were determined to catch up. Therefore, the ASEAN states must remain open to learning from, and cooperating with, other global and regional players in the spirit of amity and friendship, while clinging onto its own virtue of determination and perseverance. To achieve its potential on a regional scale, ASEAN must also re-discover its long tradition and wisdom of celebrating diversity.

Bo Yuan Chang

Bo Yuan Chang earned his Master of Arts in International Relations and International Business at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China. He is pursuing his PhD studies in strategy.