China’s “model” relationship with Southeast Asia has the effect of constraining the foreign policy options of these countries by prescribing the elements it would like to see in the relationship. A more realistic approach is for countries to grow their ties based on each country’s national interests.
China has described its ties with several Southeast Asian countries as “model” relationships. The twin industrial park collaboration between China and Malaysia has been called an innovative model of economic cooperation. Beijing has hailed China-Singapore ties as “forward-looking, strategic and exemplary” and as a benchmark for countries in the region. Similarly, China sees its friendship with Cambodia as a model for international relations. The appeal of such “model” relationships seems to have grown amid rising tensions in U.S.-China ties and growing wariness of China in other countries.
According to China’s rhetoric, countries in a “model” relationship should treat each other with respect and equality regardless of their size, wealth or strength; respect each other’s interests and not engage in activities that undermine these interests; focus more on strengthening cooperation and less on divisive issues; and pursue an independent foreign policy and refrain from taking sides.
Generally, China’s definition of a “model” relationship appears non-controversial. On closer scrutiny, however, China is prescribing how other countries ought to conduct their external relations, in ways with which they may not necessarily agree. For example, merely focusing on cooperation between states while ignoring their differences does not make for sustainable relationships. A more realistic approach is to cooperate while simultaneously taking steps to address differences, with a view towards managing and ultimately resolving them. For example, a key reason why the Philippines has become warier of China is Beijing’s failure to deliver on the promises it made on infrastructure development under the Rodrigo Duterte administration and its aggressive behaviour towards Philippine vessels in the South China Sea.
Despite its rhetoric that all states are equal, Beijing behaves like any other big power, either resorting to coercion or interpreting international laws and norms in ways that suit its interests. Beijing accords different degrees of importance to individual countries in Southeast Asia. The most important is Cambodia with its “close ironclad friendship” or “impregnable ironclad friendship” with China, a status equivalent to Beijing’s “indestructible iron-clad brothers’” ties with Pakistan.
Beijing’s call for its partners to respect each other’s interests belies the fact that to China, its own interests are paramount. An obvious example is China stepping up its presence and harassment of other claimant countries’ vessels or nationals within its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea (SCS). Indonesia has had run-ins with Chinese vessels in waters off the Natunas islands, which belong to Indonesia. China was even miffed with Singapore, a non-claimant state, for taking a principled stand on upholding international law in supporting the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal decision, which was overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines and concluded that China’s nine-dash line had no legal basis. Chinese media platforms derided Singapore for “hugging the American thigh” and for being more anti-China than the Philippines on the SCS issue. China completely ignored Singapore’s interest as a small country that relies on the rule of law and freedom of navigation for its own survival.
Beijing’s exhortation to Southeast Asian countries to pursue an independent foreign policy can be seen as a warning not to stand with the United States against China. However, there are certain issues on which Southeast Asian countries would prefer to bring in the U.S. and other key players so that they have more room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis China. Presently, seven countries in ASEAN, namely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam make up half of the 14 countries in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Apart from exploring economic opportunities in areas such as digital economy, supply chains, and clean energy, the Southeast Asian countries clearly would like their key partners to have a stake in the region.
In Southeast Asia, which comprises largely of small countries, a premium is attached to the sanctity of a rules-based order and international law. In general, these countries do not wish to take sides with any major power but would like to be friends to all.
On military engagement, Southeast Asian countries generally welcome the U.S. as a potential counterweight against China’s assertiveness in the region. In April 2023, the Philippine announced four more military bases that U.S. forces will have access to under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Although Philippine President Marcos Jr. attempted to assuage China’s concerns by clarifying that the Philippines would not allow its bases to be used for offensive action, he reportedly alluded to Beijing by saying that “if no one were to attack us, they need not worry because we will not fight them”.
Relations between China and Southeast Asia are complex and constantly evolving. The Philippines has shifted from being friendly under Duterte to a more guarded relationship with China under his successor. Even within Cambodia, perceptions of China are subject to change. The State of Southeast Asia 2023 survey indicates that Cambodia’s confidence in China in maintaining a rules-based order and upholding international law saw the biggest drop (in Southeast Asia) from a high of 65.4 per cent in 2022 to a low of 2.2 per cent in 2023. The survey attributed this dip to China’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia and Beijing’s failure to condemn Moscow after it invaded Ukraine.
In Southeast Asia, which comprises largely small countries, a premium is attached to the sanctity of a rules-based order and international law. In general, these countries do not wish to take sides with any major power but would like to be friends to all. To shape an order that is amenable to more countries, big powers like China may wish to better understand the perspectives of small countries and to be seen to do so. Model bilateral relationships may be possible and could even be more lasting, if they include elements acceptable to both parties rather than to China alone.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow and Assistant Director at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.