Monday, May 31, 2010

China -- Panda or Dragon?

What follows below is a reproduction of a term paper I wrote for my "China's Foreign Policy" module.

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes the world will shake”. This observation or warning, widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, about China would appear to be most relevant in today’s context, in light of how China’s re-emergence as a major regional, if not international, power in the twenty-first century has been accompanied by increased concern, if not fear, in various countries around the world that China will become a belligerent hegemonic power.

This concern or fear about China’s increasing power and clout is, given their proximity to China, perhaps felt most acutely amongst its geographical neighbours, which will include but are not limited to: Japan, India, Korea, Taiwan and the countries in Southeast Asia.

However, is this apprehension of China’s increasing might by its neighbours justified?

In response to this question, this paper will argue, focusing mainly on China’s relations and interactions with the countries in Southeast Asia, that although China’s re-emergence as a major power politically, economically and, most significantly, militarily may grant it the capability to threaten or behave belligerently towards its geographical neighbours, it arguably does not have the intention to do so as it is aware that this will not only jeopardise its foreign relations with them but, more importantly, also its own strategic goals. Yet, this does not imply that all will be well and peaceful between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours.

But before this paper moves on to discuss and analyse China’s relations and interactions with the countries in Southeast Asia, it should first be noted that such analysis may occur on the following three levels.

I) Analysis of China’s bilateral relations with the ten Southeast Asian countries separately

II) Analysis of China’s relations with the region of Southeast Asia as a whole

III) Analysis of China’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

While this paper will be focusing mainly on the latter two levels of analysis, it will however, perhaps inevitably, also introduce examples from the first level of analysis whenever necessary or appropriate.

China – a re-awakened dragon?

China’s ascension to the status of being a major power in the modern world, while originating with the “open door” policy reforms undertaken under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, arguably acquired a greater degree of saliency in recent years.

Specifically, on the economic front, the economic reforms undertaken by China since the late 1970s have allowed it able to achieve rapid and steady economic growth, with its economy managing to maintain constant double-digit growth almost every year.[1] In fact, “while the rest of the world struggled, China managed an 8.7 percent rise in its gross domestic product last year, capped by 10.7 percent growth in 2009’s last quarter”.[2] Also, latest figures from the World Bank estimate China’s economic growth in 2010 to hit a high of 9.5%.[3] It would also appear that China “is poised to overtake Japan this year as the world’s second-largest economy after the United States”.[4]

Building on its immense increase in economic strength, China has thus been able to bolster both its political and military strength. Evidence of China’s increasing political influence may be seen in their initiation of a “charm offensive” to foster economic and diplomatic relations with not only its regional neighbours but also with various countries in Africa.[5] Suggestions have also been made that China’s rise is offering an alternative model of development, rival to that provided by the United States, to developing countries.[6]  The increased political significance of China is perhaps most evident in how it is widely deemed as being a key actor in various international meetings and discussions, examples include but are not limited to: the World Economic Forum and last year’s Copenhagen Summit on climate change.

On the military side, China has, over the years, congruent with its drive to modernise its military, been steadily increasing its military spending and thus allowing it to acquire increased and modernised military capabilities in various aspects.[7]  Although the recent announcement by China that it will, in 2010, only be increasing its military budget by 7.5% would seem to indicate a slower rate of growth when compared with the past trend of double-digit increase in Chinese military spending, this is nonetheless a sizable increase in Chinese military spending.[8] It is also pertinent to note that “Although academic experts and outside analysts may disagree about the exact amount of military expenditure in China, almost all arrive at the same conclusion: Beijing significantly under-reports its defense expenditures”.[9]

Hence, with its significantly increasing political, military and economic strength, China has become recognised as a major Asian, if not global, power.

China-Southeast Asia relations – Long Shadow of the Past

In light of the above and their past historical relations with China, it would perhaps appear justified that China’s Southeast Asian neighbours should be wary of it.

Specifically, while the formalisation of relations and interactions between China and ASEAN as a regional organisation may only be traced back to 1991 when “Qian Qichen, [then] Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, attended the opening session of the 24th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 1991 in Kuala Lumpur as a guest of the Malaysian Government”,[10] relations and interactions between China and Southeast Asia as a region can however be traced back to several centuries ago when China was still an imperial power which had a certain degree of patronage, if not suzerainty, over Southeast Asia.

Later, after China became a communist state in 1949, it instigated and supported communist subversive activities in several Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. China’s policy of providing support for Southeast Asian communist parties only ceased by 1980.[11]

In 1979, following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (then known as Democratic Kampuchea), China launched a limited military offensive against Vietnam which the former labeled as a “punitive action” undertaken to punish the latter.[12]

Also, interestingly enough, with regards to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, China and ASEAN adopted a relatively united front in their demands for Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia and in their support for resistance groups within Cambodia fighting against the Vietnamese occupiers.[13] However, it may be noted that this cooperation was motivated by strategic considerations on both sides.

Hence, in light of the above, the argument made by some observers is that China, given its re-emergence as a major power, may seek to re-establish its dominance, if not hegemony, over the region perhaps through belligerent means.[14]

China’s strategic goals

However, while it may be true that China’s increasing power may grant it the capacity to re-assert its dominance over Southeast Asia, the pertinent question that needs to be asked is: Does China actually intends to re-assert dominance over Southeast Asia?

Admittedly, it is not possible to ascertain with complete certainty what are China’s true intentions towards Southeast Asia and ASEAN but an assessment of China’s strategic goals, both generally and with regards to Southeast Asia, and its recent interactions with the region would suggest that while China may seek to increase its influence in Southeast Asia, it is however not likely to do so through belligerent means or move towards re-establishing a regional hegemony.

It is perhaps evident that one clear strategic goal that China has is to maintain its significant pace of economic growth. This is not only to achieve any economic or developmental aspirations that China may have but is also aimed at maintaining the continued political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. This is considering that with the declining role of the communist ideology as the basis of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party, it has to increasingly turn to its ability to produce significant economic growth and prosperity as a means of legitimising its continued governance of China as a one-party state. In fact, as top Chinese leaders themselves have pointed out, it is necessary for China to continue to maintain an economic growth rate of 8% in order to avoid any social unrest which will not only disrupt the stability within China but also threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s continued political rule. It may also be noted that while the coastal provinces of China may be surging ahead in terms of economic development, its inland provinces however continue to lag behind, thus adding to the need for China to maintain its pace of economic growth.

Another strategic goal of China would be its desire to allay concerns, if not fears, that its re-emergence as a major power would disrupt the existing international order or that it will become a malevolent power. To this end, China has repeatedly attempted to assure the international community that its re-emergence as a major world power would be a peaceful process; in fact, as part of its endeavour to allay the concerns of the international community, China coined the term “peaceful rise” to describe its re-emergence as a major power (interestingly enough, China later modified this term to “peaceful development” as the original term still sounded fairly threatening to outside observers). At the same time, China has moved to create and project an image of itself as being a responsible and benevolent power.

China’s strategic goals in Southeast Asia and ASEAN

Moving on to look at China’s strategic goals with regards to Southeast Asia and ASEAN, it is arguably the case that these goals are extensions of China’s overall strategic goals as described in previous section of this essay.

Specifically, it is evident that in order to maintain its significant pace of economic growth, it will be highly necessary for China to possess a steady and large supply of energy resources to power its industries. It was projected that, in 2008, China’s oil consumption will increase by 470, 000 barrels per day.[15] Thus, “Energy security is now a major focus of the leadership in Beijing, which has been trying to secure supplies of petroleum from around the world”.[16]

Here, it can be noted that China obtains a significantly large proportion of its energy resources, in the form of petroleum, through the maritime route which passes through the waters of Southeast Asia, particularly the narrow waterway that is the Strait of Malacca.[17]

Admittedly, China has been attempting to reduce its dependence on this maritime supply route by embarking on projects to have the petroleum it requires transported through overland pipelines from Russia, Central Asia and Myanmar. However, it remains that the main supply route through which China obtains the energy resources (and other resources) necessary for its growing economy continues to be the route traversing through the Strait of Malacca.

In addition, when discussing China-ASEAN relations and interactions, it is arguably necessary to consider the important role of the United States. This is considering that other than China, the other major power which is a key dialogue partner of ASEAN and has significant relations with the various Southeast Asian countries would be the United States. Thus, it is perhaps clear to China that should it alienate ASEAN, this will most likely push ASEAN into the arms of the United States. Such a development, in light of Chinese concerns that the United States may be attempting to encircle or contain it through building up ties with its regional neighbours, will evidently not be desired or welcomed by China.[18]

Furthermore, it may be noted that, with other countries repeatedly criticising China’s lack of political democracy, China “finds comfort in Asean’s reluctance to join the ideological game. In its own interest, Asean has played a valuable role in reducing the sense of threat among the major protagonists involved in the region. Its efforts to minimise ideological thinking emphasising differences have been reassuring”.[19]

Hence, in light of the above, it is arguably most clear that China will have a strong preference to keep Southeast Asia as “a regional security and economic environment conducive to its domestic development and regional stability”.[20] It will thus be most careful to not act in a manner which may potentially disrupt its relations with Southeast Asia as a whole or with ASEAN or to upset the stability in the region.

China’s Panda Diplomacy

Besides refraining from acting in a manner that may potentially disrupt its relations with Southeast Asia as a whole or with ASEAN, China, at the same time, has been actively engaging in a “charm offensive” targeted towards Southeast Asia as a means to not only foster better relations but also to allay concerns about it becoming a belligerent hegemon or threat to the stability of the region.[21]

Specifically, to this end, China has moved to provide significant amounts of foreign assistance to ASEAN countries, having already committed US$25 billion in 2010; there is, of course, criticism that China has been using foreign assistance as a means of exerting influence over recipient countries.[22]

Notably, China has also significantly increased the amount of economic cooperation and relations it has with ASEAN. As of 2009, it may be noted that while ASEAN is China’s fourth largest trading partner, the latter is ASEAN’s third largest trading partner.[23] And with the recent conclusion of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area agreement, economic relations between the two sides, despite concerns from certain ASEAN countries that the agreement may result in their markets being flooded with Chinese goods and will thus undermine the growth of their own domestic industries, are set to blossom even further.[24]

And it may be noted that China has stepped up its participation in regional forums hosted by ASEAN, with examples including but not limited to: the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Plus Three dialogue process. This increased participation by China in multilateral regional forums has improved its image as a power which is willing “to identify concerns through consultation rather than to act unilaterally”.[25]

Furthermore, China was the first non-ASEAN major power to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN in 2003. In the same year, China also signed the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity with ASEAN.[26] The signing of these two agreements has elevated China-ASEAN relations to a higher plane.

In addition, China has moved to expand “people-to-people ties with ASEAN, through its Confucius Institutes, and [providing] scholarships to ASEAN students to pursue higher education in China”.[27]

Lastly, another move by China which has arguably bolstered ties between China and certain Southeast Asian countries would be its loaning of pandas to countries such as Thailand and, most recently, Singapore for exhibition. This is perhaps significant in that China very rarely loans out its pandas, having only so far sent them to seven countries (including the two ASEAN countries mentioned above).[28] Thus any decision on China’s part to loan out its pandas to another country may be interpreted as an indication of improving relations between the two sides or as a move by China to improve relations.

Enter The Dragon

However, while it may be true that China has been actively engaging Southeast Asia and ASEAN to improve its relations with them and has been refraining from behaviour which may alienate them, it would be inaccurate to say all is peaceful between the two sides.

Specifically, it must be noted that China remains still very particular about its own national interest, especially with regards to its sovereignty.[29] Hence, although China may be seeking to improve its relations with ASEAN and the individual countries which form it, it will perhaps not hesitate to react strongly if it deems ASEAN or any of its member states as challenging or violating its national interest or sovereignty.

One example of the above would perhaps be China’s strong rebuking of Lee Hsien Loong’s, who was then Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister-designate, unofficial and private visit to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, in 2004.[30]

Lee had to later placate the negative sentiments of the Chinese through devoting a significant portion of his first major political speech, broadcasted to a national audience, as Prime Minister to unequivocally reiterate Singapore’s One China policy, to explain why he had to make an unofficial and private visit to Taiwan and shared his unflattering, if not negative, observations about the state of Taiwanese politics and media behaviour.[31]

Masters of the South China Sea – Stormy Waters?

Continuing from the above, another major problem area in China-ASEAN relations would evidently be the maritime and territorial dispute over the South China Sea region between China and several ASEAN member states, such as Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

With regards to this issue, observers and analysts perhaps agree that relative calm have set in as the various claimants have agreed to shelve aside their dispute over the area in favour of joint development and exploration. Tensions, heightened during the 1980s and 1990s with assertive actions undertaken especially by China, have perhaps been on the wane with the signing, in 2002, of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by all the ASEAN member states, even those which are not directly involved in the dispute, and China.[32]

Significantly, by signing the Declaration, the eleven signatories commit to “resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea” and “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.[33]

However, at the same time, it must be noted that the Declaration, as astutely pointed by observers and analysts, “does not establish a legally binding code of conduct: it is simply a political statement”. The Declaration is also “unable to prevent territorial clashes or other possible sources of conflict such as the arrest of fishermen by foreign navies and the expansion of military structures on already-occupied reefs”.[34]

And, even more importantly, China continues to be adamant that the South China Sea is part of its sovereign territory. Specifically, in response to a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam in 2009, to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, on claims on the South China Sea, China responded the very next day claiming that it “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof” and that the joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam “has seriously infringed China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea”.[35] China’s written note also included a map that showed it having sovereignty over a region which “extends as far as the waters off East Malaysia and the Natuna Islands of Indonesia”.[36]

In addition, as was recently claimed by a Chinese naval Rear-Admiral, several Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, have been increasing their submarine capabilities as a means to acquire control over the South China Sea region. The same Rear-Admiral also expressed concern about the military relations and joint exercises between the United States and several Southeast Asian countries; he implied that these were perhaps targeted against China.[37]

While the above may not be representative of top-level thinking within China with regards to the South China Sea issue, it however arguably is indicative of opinions within China policymakers, or at least within Chinese military circles, that favour being more forceful or assertive over the South China Sea issue.

Furthermore, there have been recent reports that China will, for the first time, be providing armed escorts “to protect their country’s fishing vessels in the Spratly Islands region of the South China Sea” in an apparent move to step up its sovereignty claim over the region.[38]

Hence, while tensions may have relatively declined between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea issue, it however remains as an area of potential conflict with the overlapping claims of sovereignty by China and the abovementioned ASEAN member states.


In conclusion, China, in light of its strategic goals, is most aware that it cannot afford to behave belligerently towards Southeast Asia or ASEAN as this will most likely not only jeopardise its relations with them but also upset its own strategic goals. However, that said, it cannot be assumed that thus China will be a totally benevolent and peaceful power, despite its attempts at portraying itself as such a power. It remains the case that China will not hesitate to act should it perceive ASEAN or Southeast Asia as challenging or violating its national interest or sovereignty. In the end, it is imperative to recognise that China’s recent proactive engagement of ASEAN or Southeast Asia is not purely based on any inherent altruism or friendliness on China’s part but also on its strategic calculations. Hence, should these strategic calculations change or be disrupted, we may witness a fundamental shift in China’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia.



[1]Naughton 1996
[2]Wines 2010
[3]Wassener 2010
[5]Zakaria 2008, pp. 116-121
[6]Ibid, pp. 126-128
[7]Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009, p. 31
[8]Wines and Ansfield 2010
[9]Office of the Secretary of Defense 2009, pp. 31-32
[10]ASEAN Official Website 2009
[11]Lee 2000, p. 667
[12]Ibid, pp. 669-670
[13]Ibid, pp. 374-380
[14]Bitzinger 2007, pp. 5-6
[15]International Crisis Group 2008, p. 1
[17]Ho 2005, pp. 2-6
[18]Li 2007, pp. 7-13
[19]Wang 2010
[20]Saw and et al 2005, p. 5
[21]Ho 2005, pp. 22-23
[22]Walker and Cook 2010
[23]ASEAN Official Website 15th September 2009
[24]Goh 2010 and Tong 2010
[25]Leheny 2005, p. 238
[26]ASEAN Official Website 2009
[27]Teo 2010
[28]Lim 2009
[29]Wang 2010
[30]Zhang 2004
[31]Lee 2004
[32]Emmers 2005, pp. 11-12
[33]ASEAN Official Website 2002
[34]Emmers 2005, pp. 12-14
[35]Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations 2009
[36]Teo 2010
[37]Lianhe Zaobao 2010
[38]The Straits Times 5th April 2010



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