The Chinese Communist Party’s outreach to political parties in Southeast Asia, regardless of ideology, underscores the pragmatism in President Xi Jinping’s plan for regional influence.
The recent return of ideology to China’s domestic politics and Beijing’s increasing confidence in the Chinese model of politics have elicited growing attention to how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conducts its outreach abroad. Given Southeast Asia’s critical role in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy, party-to-party exchanges have featured prominently in Beijing’s approach towards the region, especially since President Xi Jinping assumed power. The CCP has engaged with political parties in Southeast Asia through high-level conferences and summits, seminars and forums, and training sessions. The growing prominence of China’s party diplomacy in the region begs the question of whether it is driven by ideological zeal — harking back to its export of communist revolutionary ideology to Southeast Asia in the 1950s-1970s — or pragmatism.
Due to the blurred line between party and state under China’s one-party system, the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP, founded in 1951, complements the role of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in managing China’s external affairs. China’s party diplomacy is considered an indispensable component of President Xi’s Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics plan.
On its part, the ILD claims to have connections with over 600 political parties and organisations from more than 160 countries and regions. According to its website, in the past two years, the CCP has sought to strengthen its fraternity with the communist parties of Vietnam and Laos, and to forge ties with non-communist secular and religious parties across Southeast Asia despite the Covid-19 pandemic (see Table 1). The authoritarian turn in politics in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines over the past decade provided a golden opportunity for the CCP to enhance ties with their ruling parties, which helped China to further consolidate its political and economic influence in the region. Yet China continues to maintain relations with parties in most Southeast Asian countries, reflecting its pragmatic approach to party diplomacy, which is aimed at ‘transcending differences in ideology and political systems’ and ‘building a global political party partnership network.’
Table 1: CCP’s Contacts with Political Party by Country, January 2020 to May 2022
The pragmatism of China’s party diplomacy is also manifest in the key messages it conveys to Southeast Asian political parties. First, instead of preaching communist doctrine, China promotes its governance experience in party building, economic development, pandemic prevention and poverty alleviation. These were attributed to the strong leadership of the CCP with President Xi as its core. The ILD has introduced Xi Jinping: The Governance of China — a collection of Xi’s speeches and writings on state governance — in its meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, launching vernacular versions of Xi’s book in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s Xinhua News Agency touted that the book launch drew ‘scores of readers from the Senate, the National Assembly and all ministries’ in Cambodia. Nop Kuch, head of the Cambodian Senate’s Human Resources Development Department, said that learning about China’s experience would enable Cambodia to synthesise its development strategy with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thailand’s prime minister General Prayut Chan-ocha is also reported to have asked his cabinet to read the book.
Second, the CCP regards its interactions with political parties in Southeast Asia as a crucial channel for promoting its economic agenda, especially the BRI. Between January 2020 and May 2022, the CCP established BRI Political Parties Joint Consultation Mechanisms with parties in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand; and convened the BRI Joint Consultation Conference to engage parties in South Asian and Southeast Asian countries collectively. What is the added value of these consultation mechanisms? The CCP’s understanding of the difference between ‘state diplomacy’ and ‘party diplomacy’ means that while governments must abide by diplomatic protocols in state-to-state exchanges, inter-party contacts are not constrained by such protocols and are more flexible. Establishing such mechanisms thus allows the CCP to promote normative aspects of the BRI such as open regionalism, multilateralism, developmentalism and win-win cooperation.
Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival.
Third, the CCP has sought to rally moral support from Southeast Asia to buffer itself against Western criticisms of China’s handling of sensitive political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Covid-19 origin-tracing. Portraying China as friendly and benign, the CCP has criticised Western narratives as groundless ‘accusations’ that discredit China’s achievements and interfere with China’s internal affairs. The ILD’s coverage of meetings with political parties in Cambodia and the Philippines underscored the latter’s firm support of China’s stance on these issues. From China’s perspective, such moves serve to cement its solidarity with Southeast Asian political parties and enhance its reputation.
China’s governance model, rooted in the one-party system, is certainly not an attractive example for all the Southeast Asian nation-states. However, the CCP’s success in tightening its political grip through party-building and digital surveillance, while alleviating poverty and achieving economic growth, likely holds significant appeal for some regimes which are eager to entrench their political control while stirring economic recovery post-pandemic. Particularly for illiberal leaders who have engineered democratic backsliding in their own countries and have incurred criticism from Western governments, the CCP’s diplomatic and economic support could provide resources for political survival. Ultimately, the efficacy of China’s party diplomacy in Southeast Asia is contingent on the tangible benefits it can deliver.