Interview about “Swords into Ploughshares? China’s Soft Power Strategy in Southeast Asia and Its Challenges”, with Tung-Chieh Tsai

1) Do Southeast Asian countries see their cooperative relations with China as a means of bargaining power in the world stage? Or do they fear that China’s rapid rise in multilateral agreements would become a possible threat? How does this relate to Chinese soft power strategy principles and the proposal of a new security concept?

First, as a result of similar historical memory (the endurance of pressure from European expansion) and shared goals (completion of modernization and transformation of international political status), Southeast Asian states and China did share cooperative relations, especially in the decade from 1997 to 2007. However, the logic that served as the foundation for cooperation — an international political status comparable to national economic capability — also became the uncertain factor in current interactions between China and Southeast Asia. The condition is a result of China’s successful rise and closing in into the ranks of world powers while Southeast Asia continues to linger on the level of middle powers. Besides Beijing’s immediate goal of reducing Southeast Asia’s growing hostility towards China, the fact that Southeast Asia’s geographic position makes up the first stairwell in China’s “walk out” strategy is worth noting. In order to realize the strategic goals aforementioned, for Beijing, the exploitation of a soft power policy to strengthen communications with Southeast Asia has become a pressing diplomatic priority.

2) Does the presence of other major powers in Southeast Asia balance the establishment of Chinese sphere of influence? Considering a bipolar power structure between China and U.S. in the region, which security threats the U.S. can impose to the countries? And to China?

At the moment, Washington’s re-balancing strategy towards Asia since 2009 serves dual purposes. While Washington aims at securing America’s hegemonic status in the region, it also manipulated the previous mentioned conflict that emerged between Southeast Asia and China due to the latter’s rise, and successfully stifled Beijing’s efforts to vastly increase its influence in the region. Despite the realization of the China-ASEAN free trade agreement in 2010, until now, China remains subdued. In fact, perhaps it may be too early to speak of East Asia as being dominated by a bilateral structure led by the U.S. and China, as China’s strategic military capability, before the establishment of its aircraft carriers, lags far behind the U.S. In contrast, Washington’s military advantage, alliance network and actual policies continue to provide it with a higher influence than Beijing in the region.

3) In face of last years’ Chinese slowing economy and recent regional territory disputes in South China Sea, can China still carry out its soft power strategy? Which are the causes of the enduring lack of Chinese attractiveness? And how do North American, European and Japanese soft powers restrain China’s regional (and perhaps global) intentions?

First, although in recent years (and perhaps over the next few years), China has come across a bottleneck in terms of economic growth, besides domestic challenges of imbalanced development, the problem also comes from the enduring structural impact of the global financial crisis. Clearly, the impact was not solely aimed at China. In other words, while other states experienced similar economic impacts (perhaps even worse in some cases), the very condition of general depression enabled China to continue to maintain certain “comparative advantages.” Of course, factors such as China being the focus of attention in the recent South China Sea dispute (due to its “catch all” proposal, which overlaps the interests of China with other claimants in the region); continued debates and suspicions over the China threat; and efforts by great powers such as the U.S., Japan and India to expand their influence in Southeast Asia, all influence China’s soft power policy in Southeast Asia to a certain extent. Yet, as long as other states, including the U.S. and Japan, continue to depend on China economically, the logic that China’s international status increases with its hold on global economic “lifelines” such as great market potential and foreign reserve will continue to be viable. In this sense, China’s soft power strategy will continue to retain its usefulness.

4) Is it important that an alternate view on China – other than northern countries’ – is being published in southern countries like Brazil? Why?

Personally, I think that until this day, our observation of historical developments and prediction of changes in the international society continue to be dominated by a Northern or Western perspective that centered on concepts such as competition, zero-sum competition or “rise as a revision to the status quo and as a threat.” Therefore, we can say that not only in terms of views on China’s development, but also in terms of the future development of international politics, the South can and should bring about different perspectives, in search for more rational answers and guidelines.

Read the article: 

LIU, Tony Tai-Ting; TSAI, Tung-Chieh. Swords into ploughshares? China’s Soft Power strategy in Southeast Asia and its challenges1. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000300028&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  18  Oct.  2014.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400203.

Dr. Tung-Chieh Tsai is professor and chair of the Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University. He is also the director of the Center for Contemporary China Studies at National Chung Hsing University.

Mila Pereira Campbell is member of the Program of Tutorial Education in International Relations at University of Brasília -PET-REL and of the International Relations Analysis Lab – LARI (mpcampbell10@gmail.com )

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