COVID-19 has not suspended tensions between America and China but exacerbated them. That much, at least, is clear from the recent spat arising from the Donald Trump administration’s use of the term “China virus” or “Wuhan coronavirus,” which was denounced as “racist” and “xenophobic” by Chinese officials. In returning fire, Beijing branded the American response to the pandemic as “sloppy” and “inadequate” and lauded its own draconian measures in locking down much of the country as evidence of the superiority of its authoritarian system.
That boast is better understood as an attempt to deflect attention away from the fact that failures in accountability and governance allowed COVID-19 to spread throughout China and the rest of the world in the first place. Moreover, it is arguable that governments in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong responded more effectively than China without the draconian measures adopted by Beijing.
Still, the point is that propaganda is an important, perhaps even decisive, weapon in shaping the environment to one’s liking. And it is China, not America, that has been winning the battle of narratives in the region.
Nowhere is this more apparent, and important, than Southeast Asia, the geographical heart of the Indo-Pacific and primary strategic battleground between America and China.
As a response to rising Chinese power and revisionist behavior, America has put forward the concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). This concept reaffirms the security and economic rules-based order that has existed since after World War II—especially as it relates to freedom of the regional and global commons such as sea, air, and cyberspace, respect for state sovereignty, respect for international law, and the promotion of free and open trade and investment environments.
There was once confidence the FOIP would gain strong buy-in from maritime states within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. China has constructed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily developed these military assets in a highly contested maritime area. Beijing continues to construct military buildings, port facilities, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles brought to these artificial islands, airstrips, and aircraft hangers, as well as significant storage facilities for fuel, water, and ammunition.
To entrench its de facto control over contested areas, Beijing has blocked other states from exploiting natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones, including by threatening economic punishment and actively deploying maritime law enforcement and militia to the area. All this is occurring despite previous promises not to militarize the artificial features and the handing down of a binding arbitration award in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which largely invalidates the claims China has made to most parts of the South China Sea.
Moreover, the FOIP directly supports the highest and most enduring strategic priority for the small and/or vulnerable maritime Southeast Asian states: to avoid being dominated by another great regional great power. It offers a vision of enhanced and entrenched sovereignty for large and small states alike against external domination and coercion—of relations ordered by rules, not by superior force—in contrast to Beijing’s seemingly Sino-centric and hierarchical vision of order in Asia.
The FOIP should also be attractive to these Southeast Asian states as the basis on which U.S. strategic presence can be entrenched in the region. It should serve as a complementary framework for alliance and defense relationships between the United States and its allies and partners, and should underpin closer defense relationships between Southeast Asian powers, as well as between Southeast Asian states and regional countries such as Australia and Japan. It was thought that these denser security networks would assist in keeping the United States fully engaged in the region and make it more difficult for China to challenge or alter the preferred strategic status quo for the six Southeast Asian states.
And yet, contrary to American expectations, the embrace of the FOIP by Southeast Asian states has been equivocal and underwhelming. The record over the past couple of years has been disappointing for those hoping there would be a more unified and robust response to Chinese strategic and defense activities and policies emanating from Southeast Asia. This is despite increasing concerns with the latter’s policies and behavior, and strong individual support for the American naval presence in the region. Even as China has extended its militarization and hold of artificial islands, Southeast Asian nations have been mostly silent on the importance and legally binding nature of the PCA Award in the face of continued and flagrant Chinese violations. Instead, the ASEAN states have been co-opted by China in taking the focus away from United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) principles and international law and toward concentrating on the completion of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct (CoC), which is neither binding nor places any significant restraint on Chinese actions.
Whereas there were some criticisms of the Obama Administration when it showed inadequate resolve against China, there are now widespread Southeast Asian apprehensions that the Trump Administration is taking too confrontational an approach to China and becoming too eager to force Southeast Asian nations to “choose” between America and China. This is occurring even though it is Chinese, not American policies that present the greater threat to the preferred status quo of these Southeast Asian nations. While some of the Southeast Asian criticisms of decisions taken by the Trump Administration (such as its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the President’s failure to attend the East Asia Summit in 2019) are understandable, the deliberately non-confrontational policies adopted by Southeast Asian states prior to the Trump Administration have undoubtedly provided diplomatic cover for China to appear as a constructive player while simultaneously extending its reach and presence in the region.
What explains the failure of small Southeast Asian states to support the FOIP as a counter-dominance approach to China? Purely transactional accounts based on material incentives offer only a partial explanation. An equally important factor is China’s use of grand narratives to manipulate and influence the hedging strategies of these countries. The effect of these narratives is to weaken the appetite of Southeast Asian states for a counter-dominance response with respect to China, causing them to make decisions that are detrimental to the interests of the United States and its allies.
Before Xi Jinping, China was desperate to emphasize its sense of vulnerability and the scale of its domestic challenges in order to counter fears about its accumulation of power. Since around 2014, however, China has moved toward promoting (rather than downplaying) strength and concealing (rather than highlighting) vulnerability.
This is evident in its 2019 Defense White Paper which is as much an instrument of propaganda as it is a doctrinal or policy document. For example, unlike the previous nine Defense White Papers, the 2019 version is proudly littered with examples of PLA activity even when referring to contested regions such as the South China Sea. While the 2019 Defense White Paper is open about the military and technological gap the PLA must narrow to become a global military leader, the document is nevertheless boastful about the increasing breadth, tempo, and sophistication of PLA activities.
Similarly, Beijing prefers to overstate rather than understate the expansiveness and ambition of flagship economic industrial policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Made in China 2025. With respect to the BRI, projects involving Chinese firms in the 65 or more countries along the BRI are often counted as BRI projects even if that project was not conceived with the BRI in mind or preceded the formal announcement of the BRI. While the BRI began as a policy framework to mitigate domestic economic problems (for example, by creating external markets for the excess capacity generated by chronic over-investment), Xi’s May 2017 speech at the First Belt and Road Forum framed the Initiative as emanating from the enduring greatness of Chinese civilization.
More broadly, Xi makes the case for the inevitability of Chinese success and dominance to an external audience, unlike all his predecessors since Deng Xiaoping, who stressed the scale and depth of Chinese vulnerabilities and challenges. One can see this in the way Beijing actively promotes its authoritarian capitalist model as superior to the liberal democratic one of the United States. An important corollary of this narrative is that the United States is a regional interloper whose interest in Asia is strategically “optional”—plus, the United States will always be distracted by other global priorities (such as in the Middle East) or else taken in inconsistent directions by the vagaries and irrationalities of domestic politics. As a result, Washington is undependable and always at risk of “abandoning” individual Southeast Asian states. By contrast, China is permanently in the region, focused first and foremost on Asia, unchanging in its objectives, fundamentally undeterrable, and prepared to pay any cost to achieve its goals.
One can debate whether hubris or artifice drives the confident promotion of these narratives. Either way, their acceptance is essential for Chinese strategic success. For small states, the will to resist even a revisionist great power is greatly diminished if there is consensus that the great power will dominate regardless of whether other states disapprove of its behavior. Striking an unequal accommodation or removing oneself from the fray is preferable to balancing against the future dominant power. Small states figure they can’t fight the future—so why not make the best of it?
If China relied too heavily on coercion, Southeast Asian states might be more likely to embrace the FOIP and countenance more active balancing measures against the prospect of Chinese dominance. But the CCP has been proactive in persuading Southeast Asian states to hedge rather than balance against Beijing, by promoting norms and practices that support its accumulation of power and influence.
Beijing is cognizant that the significant powers in the region will not become Chinese allies in the way that Japan and Australia are allies of America. Indeed, its 2019 Defense WP reaffirms that Beijing will not seek alliances with any country. For that reason, “dominance” based on overwhelming material superiority is probably not possible, not to mention exceedingly costly should it be attempted. Moreover, constant coercion of other states might eventually convince them to balance against Beijing. Threats and coercion cannot be a sound future basis for Chinese power and influence.
It is for these reasons that Beijing is attempting to enhance its “authority” and “legitimacy” as its power grows in relative terms. Whereas coercion relies on threats or actual punishments to shape or change the behavior of others, the notion of authority is based on the “legitimate” exercise of power—that is, the acceptance of unequal power relations in the belief that the inequality is justified. If achieved, such authority is a more efficient and enduring way to exercise power because it induces compliance from smaller powers based on the recognition or acceptance of the “right” of China to impose obligations on them.
That “right” might be understood in moral terms, or based on a long-term material calculation that takes account of the emerging (Sino-centric) structure of the system. Either way, the point is that smaller countries come to accept that there is one set of rules for China, and a different set of rules for themselves. Unlike the FOIP framework, the Chinese approach is inherently and overtly hierarchical. If accepted, it reduces the need for China to rely on mere threats or punishments.
Consider the primary forms of diplomatic messaging China uses for Southeast Asia as opposed to Western liberal democracies. With the latter, China promotes the notion of “mutual benefit” and “win-win,” ideas outwardly respectful of sovereign equality. With Southeast Asia, by contrast, there is increasing emphasis on the permanence and greatness of Chinese civilization as the enduring basis for hierarchical—but stable and benevolent—relationships with smaller states. Importantly, according to the Chinese message, the benevolence and fairness of Chinese rule over centuries is a guarantee that the contemporary CCP overlords will be just and fair. This, rather than support for the abstract notion of a FOIP, is designed to enhance Chinese authority and leadership.
China has attached these narratives to actual policies. For example, the BRI is designed to spur “common development” through the strengthening of infrastructure, markets, and networks. To Southeast Asians, Beijing is not apologetic that the BRI is China-centric or even that Chinese entities are the primary beneficiaries. Countries are often flattered by being told that they form essential nodes for a vast China-centric network. But the overriding message is that benefits can flow to the entire region only if the great Chinese civilizational state is at the center of economic, political, and diplomatic life in the region. As Xi Jinping puts it, “When the big river is full of water, the smaller ones never run dry.”
In selling the material virtues of a hierarchical Chinese-centric order, the main drawcard is the guarantee of benefits to smaller states, in comparison to the uncertain benefits of the FOIP’s liberal rules-based order. Whereas impersonal and ruthless market-based principles create short-term winners and losers based on profitability and economic efficiency, embracing the Chinese system will guarantee the participants benefit, albeit in an uneven, unequal way. Southeast Asian countries are well aware that Chinese investment in their respective states is based more on Chinese “largesse” than the impersonal market forces that drive Japanese, American, and Australian economic activity in Asia. But that is the point: Only by submitting to a Sino-centric world can one secure that largesse for oneself. China is thus making a normative and material case for its unique hierarchical authority, underpinned by the argument that a Sino-centric world is the natural and historic state of affairs.
China also realizes that any smooth and peaceful transition to a China-centric system requires the co-optation of ASEAN. Since China became an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1996, it has established almost 50 mechanisms with ASEAN. Common to all these mechanisms is the aim of establishing Chinese normative authority and legitimacy by providing stability and security through economic development. A prominent example is China’s attempts to integrate the BRI with ASEAN’s connectivity agenda. As Singapore’s Bilahari Kausikan warns:
China’s natural gravitational pull is being enhanced by various infrastructure projects. . . . These projects have geopolitical consequences, intended or not. They could in effect merge southwest China and mainland Southeast Asia into one economic space. International boundaries will . . . remain as lines on maps. But they could be relegated to inconveniences or irrelevancies.
When one analyzes China’s steady upgrading of institutional mechanisms with ASEAN—from the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area to a Special ASEAN-China Defense Minister’s Meeting to ASEAN-China Cultural Cooperation—the fundamental approach and message is the promotion of China-centric economic opportunities that underpin political, security, and cultural advancement for all. The same is true of mechanisms at the sub-regional level that are not explicitly ASEAN projects, such as the Pan-Asian (or Kunming to Singapore) railway or Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. For example, the Chinese message at the September 2018 China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning was that “China welcomes ASEAN countries aboard the express train of China’s economic development . . . and will share the dividends of economic growth with ASEAN.” It is all about connecting the material—and therefore political and security—destiny of these nations to China.
These Chinese messages are neither universally accepted nor uncritically received, and Southeast Asian officials frequently complain to America about Chinese actions. At the same time, they publicly demand, and have received, support for “ASEAN centrality” and the organization’s principles of “neutrality” and “inclusiveness.” Individual countries, including claimant states, insist they must never be forced to “choose sides” when it comes to disagreements between Washington and Beijing, even though they take a clear-eyed view of what the latter is really up to in the South China Sea. They remain extremely reluctant to openly support any action by the United States or allies that would enrage Beijing.
In practice, however, “neutrality” is itself a strategic decision, one with long-term consequences for the regional balance of power. And when ASEAN member states focus on the short-term benefits of cooperation, they are effectively sacrificing their long-term economic and strategic sovereignty. Moreover, Chinese policies are being promoted as a kind of “natural evolution,” while U.S. actions are presented as disruptive and costly. Central to conditioning ASEAN states to accept their new “normal” is a narrative of moral restitution in which China is just restoring what Western powers took from it, returning to its “natural” borders. Any attempts to counter that new normal are thus taken to be inherently disruptive and illegitimate.
Beijing hopes that by shaping the interests and perspectives of elites, it can influence its neighbors in a way that serves China’s interests. This influence campaign is far more sophisticated and extensive than America’s, which focuses more on abstract principles than behavioral and psychological manipulation. This has allowed China to exert far more sway over smaller states than should be the case.
In any emerging contest between great powers where the outcome is uncertain, smaller states tend to hedge rather than balance. Southeast Asian states will seek to maximize strategic options in the longer-term (or avoid making any strategic choices now from which it might be difficult to retreat) because of geostrategic uncertainty. This often entails making short-term choices even though many Southeast Asian states (incorrectly or else ingenuously) remain adamant that no such short-term choices are being made. The less strategic nations focus on securing short-term gains without thinking too deeply about long-term costs.
In this context, pressuring Southeast Asian states to explicitly reject the BRI or sign on to longer-term strategic blueprints to counter China will be less effective. The better approach is to work with the hedging mindsets of Southeast Asian states rather than force them to balance. In particular, it is better to shape the short-term decisions by Southeast Asian states in a way that explicitly maximizes their freedom of action in the future and minimizes the prospect of them being inadvertently locked into Beijing’s strategic or economic orbit in the longer-term. The aim should be to assist with “dominance denial” approaches rather than enlist them as balancers against China.
For example, the FOIP should emphasize economic and governance principles of sustainability for developing and middle-income countries, rather than focus too heavily on security and great power (zero-sum) competition. The purpose is to encourage ASEAN states to support minimal standards of transparency, commerciality, and debt sustainability, and push for these principles to be included in ASEAN and bilateral economic frameworks. The overt rationale ought to be that it is in the American interest that the strategic and economic options of ASEAN states are never permanently or structurally bound to any country—America’s or China’s.
It is also more important to deepen practical military-to-military relationships with these countries than to seek high-level agreement on strategic outcomes, which is unlikely to occur. For example, in recent times, U.S. cooperation on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency with the Philippines has caused the Filipino defense establishment to push back against President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to deemphasize the American alliance in favor of closer relations with China. In countries such as Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, the high value placed on the practical mil-to-mil relationship with the United States has acted as a partial “stabilizer” in preventing these countries from leaning too far toward China.
Finally, shaping smaller states’ hedging strategies means respecting their need for information about various American policies. This is evident in the ongoing economic dispute between America and China. Without more information about what sort of deal might be reached, or the ability to provide any input into the terms of the deal, it is difficult for smaller states to calculate what effect any deal would have on them. Furthermore, while the relative size and importance of the U.S. economy would likely limit retaliatory actions by Beijing, Southeast Asian states could feel disproportionate economic pain if they were to take a side—even one on principle and not action.
When it comes to international institutions, smaller states are more concerned about preserving seriously flawed or ineffective institutions than America. For example, even though many Southeast Asian countries recognize the flaws of the World Trade Organization (WTO), they will nevertheless seek to preserve the relevance and integrity of the institution, because of the benefit it offers smaller economies. In contrast, the Trump Administration’s frustrations with the fundamental inability of the WTO to address Chinese economic practices—such as the massive subsidies provided to state-owned enterprises and national champions, its “Made in China 2025” indigenous innovation drive, and intellectual property violations—has led Washington to downgrade the importance of the WTO and attempt a bilateral re-ordering of the economic relationship instead.
The point is that America needs to offer Southeast Asian states an indication of what the intended institutional outcome might be: reform of the WTO, a parallel multilateral economic regime, or something else entirely. Without that information, they will remain neutral or even support a Sino-centric institution over an alternative about which they have minimal information.
Shaping hedging behaviors cannot be separated from grand narratives, since one’s perception of the “shape” of things to come will inform assessments of risk, cost, benefit, and lost opportunity. In a country such as Thailand, where most elites don’t seem to question Chinese narratives, there’s a temptation to develop a “special relationship” with China. The contrast is Vietnam, where there is more profound understanding of the CCP’s strengths and weaknesses, and therefore much more willingness to pursue a dominance denial hedging strategy.
There are four counter-narratives which immediately come to mind and for which ample evidence can be presented.
First, it is widely believed that the more assertive policies of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party begin from a position of unprecedented strength and national resilience—stemming, in part, from an authoritarian politics that contrasts favorably with the chaos and dysfunction of liberal democracies. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Xi and the Communist Party are engaged in a high-risk and high-cost approach to pursuing growing Chinese ambitions abroad, whilst concealing internal weaknesses and vulnerabilities. One could point to growing concerns about the rapid accumulation of debt in the domestic financial system, or to the deteriorating capacity of local governments to fund public and social goods.
Second, a common perception is that China does not need America and other advanced economies to achieve its objectives. In fact, China cannot achieve its external objectives without the cooperation of America and other major advanced economies. Despite its economic size, its economic tools and levers in the world are surprisingly limited in important respects. Even the resilience of its domestic economy is enormously vulnerable to U.S. policies. For example, China’s currency is neither free-floating nor freely convertible, which limits the extent to which it can become a “store of value” and therefore a genuine reserve international currency. It also means Beijing effectively outsources the value of its currency to other countries—and to the United States most of all. Moreover, China still relies heavily on importing high-tech components, machinery, know-how, and intellectual property from other countries.
Third, many believe that the United States and its allies have little ability to influence domestic Chinese politics, especially when it comes to challenging Xi’s authority. In fact, Xi’s risk-tolerant approach is causing immense angst. The more failures are attributed to Xi’s actions, the more pressure he will likely feel to retreat and take a more cautious approach. As with virtually all major economic developments in China, the Party soaks up the praise when things go well and will wear the blame when the reverse occurs. Xi himself has been openly accused of mismanaging the relationship with America, and of overreaching in his aggressive promotion of the BRI; his purging of more than 1.5 million officials, including more than 100 top generals and Party members, may come back to haunt him.
Fourth, although the United States fought two global wars in the previous century to prevent the emergence of a Eurasian hegemon, the Chinese narrative that the United States is a distant, unreliable power needs to be addressed. One counter-narrative could be that the geographical distance of America means Washington must negotiate the terms of its forward presence with smaller Southeast Asian states, while a “resident” power like China does not. Because it requires the acquiescence of smaller states to maintain its forward presence, the United States is less likely than China to bully and coerce states. In that sense, it is a much more trustworthy partner for small countries when it comes to dominance denial.
Finally, the United States and others must continue to contest the argument that a Sino-centric economic and strategic order will be benevolent and guarantee material benefits for all participants. A greater willingness to talk about Chinese “debt traps” for vulnerable economies has made countries more cautious about taking on Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. This ought to be placed in the broader context that reciprocal benefits are less likely to flow to countries within an order where China sets and enforces the rules; indeed, Chinese industrial policies have contributed to a more than three-fold increase in ASEAN’s trade deficit with China over the past decade. In addition, China is more a taker of technology than a source of it, unlike the United States and other developed economies.
It is also important to contest Chinese official history about its record of benevolence. Like all great nations and empires, China has expanded and contracted through war and conquering. The “Middle Kingdom” is not a uniquely benevolent or unchanging entity. It is an expansionary power that will ultimately extend its influence through coercion and force if it is able to do so.
In taking the comprehensive challenge of China seriously, America tends to focus too much on the former’s size and strength and not enough on its vulnerabilities, thereby playing into Beijing’s hands. The examples above are not exhaustive, but are offered as useful illustrations of messages that will help refute deliberate Chinese attempts at narrative control. The point is not simply to “bash China,” but to influence the hedging strategies of Southeast Asian states by giving them incentives to pursue dominance denial.
For small states in a region dominated by great powers, ensuring that one is not on the losing side is as important as choosing principles that will protect one’s sovereignty and freedom of action. Convincing them they do not need to prematurely choose China over America is an essential first step.