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  • China and Southeast Asia: Strategic Interdependence in the Making?
  • Kai He (bio)

If we had to choose one word to describe the relationship between China and the Southeast Asian states, it would be “asymmetric.” China’s population is 2.2 times the combined population of the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).1 Its GDP is 4.3 times these countries’ combined GDP,2 while its 2017 military expenditure was almost 6 times the amount they spent collectively.3 Some scholars like to use the metaphor of Gulliver and the Lilliputians to compare China and the ASEAN states in world politics.4 The hope is that the Lilliputians can somehow tie up Gulliver if they work together.

In the post–Cold War era, the ASEAN states successfully constrained China’s behavior through multilateral institutions, especially the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). After the 2008 global financial crisis, China’s assertive diplomacy in the South China Sea indeed caused some worries and suspicions in the region. However, the overall relationship between China and the ASEAN states has not fundamentally changed. Since 2013, China has continued its “charm offensive” to woo the ASEAN states with the proposal of the Maritime Silk Road—a massive infrastructure investment project that is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the one hand, Chinese investments, especially in the infrastructure sector, are largely welcomed in Southeast Asia despite some ups and downs, such as Malaysia’s [End Page 17] cancelation of two BRI-funded projects. The ASEAN states have, on the other hand, kept a nuanced and balanced attitude toward U.S. competition with China.

I argue that a relationship of strategic interdependence has taken shape between China and the ASEAN states. Each side views the other as an indispensable actor in pursuing its strategic interests. Although the power asymmetry between China and the ASEAN states makes the latter more vulnerable than the former, the U.S. factor increases the sensitivity of China’s strategic dependence on ASEAN. Multilateral institutions have played a vital role in shaping Chinese-ASEAN relations. The more institutionalized relationship will empower both parties to reduce vulnerability and sensitivity levels in their nascent strategic interdependence in the future.

Economies, Institutions, and Norms

The asymmetric relationship between China and the ASEAN states poses some interesting puzzles to international relations theory. According to the logic of either balance-of-power or balance-of-threat theories, the ASEAN states, as the weaker party, should collectively seek to balance against a stronger China, especially when facing its assertive diplomacy in the South China Sea.5 No ASEAN state has militarily challenged China, though some have chosen to strengthen their security cooperation with the United States. China’s policy toward its neighbors in Southeast Asia mainly features economically driven attractions rather than security-oriented coercion. Although China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea became a focal point in the early 2010s, some scholars suggest that it might be “triggered by proactive efforts by other claimants to legalize their claims through declaration and actions relating to the UNCLOS.” 6 In other words, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is an anomaly in its diplomacy toward Southeast Asia. It seems unusual for China to restrain its behavior [End Page 18] toward the ASEAN states in a Thucydidean world where “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”7

Economic liberals argue that the deepening economic interdependence between China and Southeast Asia contributes to their good relationship.8 Institutional liberals suggest that multilateral institutions, such as the ARF and the East Asia Summit (EAS), facilitate cooperation between China and the ASEAN states.9 Constructivists argue that China has been enmeshed and socialized by ASEAN norms, especially the principle of nonaggression.10

Although these existing arguments reveal some aspects of the truth, there are a few analytical problems. First, many studies have proved that the causal linkage between economic interdependence and peace is unconvincing at best and misleading at worst.11 A relatively high level of economic interdependence among European states in terms of trade and investment did not prevent the outbreak of World War I. In a...


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