Transformations in China’s Soft Power toward ASEAN

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 22

Among U.S.-led like-minded alliances, a nascent China policy position has been formulated based on the idea of “international socialization” [1]. The idea is to enmesh states in a compound network structured by international organizations, conventions and norms. Accordingly, the process of socialization will push China to comply with the normative values of the international society. For countries like the United States, an “internationally socialized” China has become a necessity for at least two reasons. First, international norms constraining any potential irrational behavior of this rising power will ease the threat perceptions emanating from its rise. Second, engaging China—rather than isolating it—in the near term may be more constructive and plausible to ensure greater transparency of a regional hegemony. The propositions reflect, undeniably, the universal anxieties over China’s emerging threats and the uncertainty that its rise poses to regional and international regimes.

This “taming China’s rise” strategy, however, overlooks the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “agency” of influencing world politics. Even though China evinces its appreciation of multilateralism, what really concerns China is not the matter of its “internationalization” to the status quo but ways to improve Beijing’s international reputation while securing its national interests. Beijing has been more practical in making strategic arrangements with partners and more flexible in attracting international supporters [2]. New policy initiatives such as “smile diplomacy” (weisiao waijiaou), “public diplomacy” (gonggong waijiaou), and “good neighbor diplomacy” (mulin waijiaou) have been instrumental in Beijing’s pursuit of a benign hegemony. These initiatives have one thing in common: a sophisticated use of soft power resources.

Take China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) relations for instance:  China and ASEAN established official links since 1991. For China, ASEAN is a close neighbor and encompass a strategically important region for China’s national security. ASEAN also serves as an ideal platform for China’s participation in East Asian international politics, while China provides ASEAN states’ an option to hedge its dependence on the United States and Japan [3]. This relationship had all the trappings of a win-win partnership. Although ASEAN has been long aware of the possibility for China’s potential dominance over regional issues, most of its members believe that a regional socialization process is capable of regulating this rising power [4]. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, however, it has become increasingly difficult for ASEAN states to resist China’s overwhelming influence in economic assistance and soft power. Moreover, in recent years, most ASEAN states have been assuaged by Beijing’s assertion of “peaceful ascendancy” and its image as an amiable supporter [5].

Beijing’s Soft Power Strategies toward Southeast Asia

Soft power is an art of persuasion—and Chinese wielding of soft power has expanded its Western definition as well as extended its scope. Since the 1990s, China had advanced its relations with ASEAN states in fields of foreign aid, trade, finance, infrastructure, business, labor, environment, development as well as tourism. China’s strategies for soft power diplomacy are intricate and comprehensive. Beijing’s soft power diplomacy can be broken up in three levels: first, establish solid political and fiscal connections with Southeast Asian governments via increasing foreign aid; second, explore comprehensive cooperative framework through FTA-plus plans; third, enhance cultural attractiveness and promote pro-China understanding among ASEAN states through quasi-governmental projects. Foreign aid, comprehensive economic networking and cultural transmission form the core of its soft power resources.

A Reliable Partner or Laissez-Faire Politics?

China’s transformation from a development aid recipient to a bilateral donor is a recent development and a significant mark of accomplishment for a nation of 1.3 billion. According to Chinese official statistics, its annual aid figure is $970 million, but the real number is probably more [6]. In Southeast Asia, the sum of Chinese foreign aid has surpassed the amount of the United States. For example, in 2002, China’s aid to Indonesia was double that of the United States. In 2006, China’s aid to the Philippines was four times that of the United States, while the amount to Laos was three times the U.S. aid [7]. Most of this financial assistance contributes to local infrastructure and capacity-building programs. More recently, Beijing provided over $10 million to the government of Burma to assist regional reconstruction in areas that were devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 [8]. Through foreign aid, China has set itself up as a reliable partner of its Southeast Asian neighbors. On the other hand, this government aid has facilitated Chinese state-own-enterprises (SOEs) in commercial navigation within Southeast Asia, such as the exploration of Indonesian natural gas reserves, the investing in infrastructure in the Philippines, and the establishment of transportation links through Cambodia, Thailand to Singapore [9]. Ostensibly, these projects, based on Beijing’s guideline of “going out,” seem to align with local economic and developmental needs, but the lack of transparency casts a cloud over China’s underlying motives as its geo-political and geo-economic interests expands.

Opportunities for Co-prosperity and Co-development or Economic Mercantilism?

A comprehensive economic network is another soft power resource of China since the substance of China-ASEAN relations is mainly based on trade. For ASEAN states, China is regarded not only as the center of economic gravity but a potential market with business opportunities as well. Therefore, China leverages its comparative advantage by employing economic diplomacy with soft power resources to formulate a multilateral framework based on free-trade agreements. Beijing attempts to chart a win-win partnership based on China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA) for the purpose of easing regional anxieties about the intensified competition in the export market (i.e. high-valued manufacturing goods) [10], and foreign direct investments (FDI). In 2007, the GDP of China-ASEAN FTA has exceeded $2 trillion while its total trade figure was more than $200 billion. According to China’s official statistics, from January to September 2008, bilateral trade between China and ASEAN has reached $180 billion, an increase of 23 percent compared to last year (Xinhua News Agency, October 22). These large numbers are used by Beijing to demonstrate China’s crucial role in regional integration.

China’s economic diplomacy toward ASEAN is highly sophisticated. It straddles business investment, tourism and new development initiatives. Within the business realm, expanding China’s business network is correspondent to Beijing’s economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia. In October 2008, China held the 5th China-ASEAN Expo and China-ASEAN Business & Investment Summit, fruitfully inviting 1,154 ASEAN-based companies to participate in the exhibition, signing 1,372 investment agreements, and attracting a turnover of $1.6 billion. Meanwhile, people-to-people interactions among young leaders and business elites from ASEAN and China are conducted through 16 different forums and meetings (Xinhua News Agency, October 25). Strategically, this annual China-ASEAN Expo promotes various business links with with the goal of helping Chinese SOEs and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) invest in and cooperate with the Southeast Asian business community. This expo, as along with other PRC government backed initiatives, is very important for Beijing’s soft power diplomacy. That is, by linking with local business in Southeast Asia, these bottom-up efforts have successfully drawn more attention from ASEAN states, promoted China as a window of commercial opportunities and expanded Beijing’s sphere of economic influence in the ASEAN markets.

Besides business and investment, promoting tourism is another way to bolster Chinese soft power. In the 1980s, there were only tens of thousands of Chinese (per year) traveling to Southeast Asia. However, China’s rapid economic growth has resulted in more than 15 million arrivals/per year in ASEAN region (especially in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia) during the 2000s. Over the last decade this figure has experienced an annual growth of 30 percent. In 2007, there were 3.4 million Chinese tourists visiting the ASEAN region, a number that, for the first time, has surpassed the amount of Japanese tourists [11]. Although such a rapid influx of Chinese tourists has created problems, for ASEAN, increasing amount of voyagers represent flowing capitals which have become important income sources of the region (International Herald Tribune, October 21, 2005). Moreover, a flourishing tourist industry will provide a sound basis for ongoing projects such as the Open Sky Initiative, ASEAN Common Area, and ASEAN Cruise Tourism. For China, its activism in tourism cooperation seems to create a win-win situation of co-development.

Currently, several China-ASEAN cooperative programs are proceeding. For example, the ASEAN-China Center for trade, investment and tourism promotion (the MoU) is currently being negotiated and will be established in the near future [12]. This Center is expected to work within the current ASEAN+3 track in order to upgrade the quality and collaboration of tourism. Otherwise, initiatives of cultural and eco-tourism are emerging domains of further cooperation. In the region of Mekong River basin, for instance, China publicizes to comply with ASEAN states in the project of ADB-GMS-Xishuangbanna Biodiversity Conservation Corridors. This corridor project will connect 9 ecological zones scattered in the Indochina Peninsula to ensure economic, cultural and environmental development in a sustainable manner. Beijing, having abundant economic and political resources in hand, keeps reminding Indochinese states of its importance in shaping the network of the eco-tour complex.

As bilateral relations progress and recession in the advanced economies elongates, ASEAN states will need more Chinese participation in its economic development. Take Singapore for instance, Singapore has worked upon an “eco-city” project with China since 2007. This ongoing project aims to build a modern town in Tianjin based on the idea of ecological sustainability. This new initiative represents an integral plan of economic, environmental and investment collaboration for both sides. For Singapore, this joint project will both gain considerable profits and consolidate political partnership with China. For Beijing, the Singaporean experience in economic advancement is of particular interest to its enthusiastic investment in sub-regional economic zones. The increasing amount of similar proposals not only accounts for a closer relationship between China and the ASEAN region, but also illustrates China’s practice of “economic first” approach which integrates geo-economic strategy and domestic needs.

In 2008, the global financial crisis caused, in part, by the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis has resulted in financial and market turmoil in Asia. Leaders from ASEAN states such as Cambodia, Laos, and Philippine have called upon China to invest more in ASEAN so as to stabilize the economic growth of the region. Such appeals from ASEAN states signify that a rising China has been regarded as a promising land of many economic opportunities. Whether Beijing can guide this regional bloc through the global financial tsunami is still in question, the demand from ASEAN, nevertheless, delineate that one cannot overlook the growing influence of China’s soft power in Southeast Asia.

A New Cultural Center or Cultural Imperialism?

For China, in particular, the core of soft power is the promotion of Chinese culture and language. Since 2004, China has built more than 295 “Confucius Institutes” in 78 countries. A total of 500 will be established before 2010. Just in Southeast Asia there are 21 Confucius Institutes providing language courses. Thirteen of these institutes are located in Thailand, with others scattered throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, and Singapore [13]. These Institutes perform as sites for cultural transmission, intercultural exchange, and Chinese learning, thereby enhancing China’s soft power capabilities.

Specifically, the overseas Confucius Institutes have at least two purposes. For educational ones, the Institute has a function similar to that of Alliance Française, Goethe-Institute, British Council, and Insituto Cervante, which mainly deal with language and culture learning affairs. Although Beijing carefully heralds that the Institute operates as a non-profit and non-governmental organization, its principle and budget are guided and sponsored by “the Office of Chinese Language Council International” (Hanban) affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of Education. Such an orientation would naturally draw the association with the underlying strategic implication of Confucius Institutes, that is, an attempt to promote Chinese culture and thereby increase China’s soft power influence. Some thinkers have referred to such a policy as “cultural imperialism” [14].

In terms of cultural imperialism, a great power will both employ its cultural commodity to exploit an economic market, and aim to reconstruct a popular culture in pursuit of ideological hegemony. Undoubtedly, the statement reminds us of the U.S. foreign policy since the 1950s. The U.S. government advocated public diplomacy by the United States Information Agency (USIA). The USIA exerted influence on information sharing and made efforts in broadening dialogues between the United States and the rest of the world. Moreover, it has sponsored exchange programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship to nurture overseas grantees with American cultures and values.   

Thus, public diplomacy and cultural promotion is another mission of the Confucian Institutes. There are at least three kinds of soft power resources employed. First, the very notion of Confucius Institute is to nurture a worldwide cordial atmosphere which favors Chinese learning. Second, this instrumental appeal for language learning will shape a popular culture characterized by Chinese art, cinema, cuisine, fashion, and lifestyle. The pop culture itself may forge a sensational pro-China ambiance (i.e. the fervor with Chinese language learning, with supporting 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and etc.), and reinforce the influence of Chinese soft power. Second, the Institute also provides “Chinese Bridge Fund,” sponsoring college student exchange program and supporting the research and development of overseas Chinese education. These funding programs and activities will intensify Beijing’s international cultural attractiveness and magnify its influence of soft power at the grassroots level. Third, since 2004, China has dispatched more than 2000 volunteers and teachers in 35 countries to work on Chinese education abroad, inclusive of ASEAN states such as Indonesia, Lao, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam [15]. These “civil diplomats” become vital human resources in wielding cultural and social influence in the region.

Beijing has continually reiterated the politically neutral standing of the Confucius Institutes. However, political and ideological strings continue to remain evident in organizational governance, and relevant activities and publications. For example, the grantees of “Chinese Bridge Fund” determined by the Hanban may reflect Beijing’s strategic consideration based on national interests. In addition, the disposition of 21 Confucius Institutes and hundreds of volunteers in Southeast Asia are also decided in accordance with cultural intimacy and political amity. China has made great efforts to project cultural transmission to its neighbors in Southeast Asia in order to increase China’s centrality in this region. It is plausible that the “China Fervor” intensified by Confucius Institutes and relevant projects will continue to lay the solid foundation for the perception of a “benign China” and foster an even closer relationship between China and ASEAN states.


The discussion above unveils China’s sophisticated soft power diplomacy toward Southeast Asia. Beijing’s non-military inducement to ASEAN states, encompassing comprehensive cooperation and collaboration between different sectors and policy areas, seems efficacious. By providing foreign aid, Chinese government has maintained its indispensable leadership in cooperating with Indonesia, Philippines, and Laos. In addition to assistance aid, China’s economic foreign policy with the help of the Chinese business community has triggered a large scale economic and market integration with ASEAN strengthening China’s importance in this region. More critically, Confucius Institutes and thousands of language teachers demonstrate Beijing’s flexible cultural diplomacy of promoting Chinese social and cultural values to its southeast neighbors. Carefully employing these soft power resources, China will obtain more policy choices to engage with ASEAN and its members, develop more channels of communication with Southeast Asian people, and assiduously participate in various issue-areas of regional affairs without sacrificing its economic and political interests, China is no longer a “clumsy elephant” to its southeast neighbors, but an “agile dragon” in the quest for restoring its regional hegemony.


1. Alastair Iain Johnston, “Socialization in International Institutions: The ASEAN Way and International Relations Theory,” in G. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno, eds., International Relations Theory and the Asia-Pacific (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 110.
2. As Dominic Ziegler argues, the main concern of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to secure peaceful development of China which needs stable relations with its neighbor states. Without achieving these objectives, the legitimacy of CCP will be questioned, see Dominic Ziegler, “Asia’s Great Game: ‘Soft’ Power Counts for More Than Hard,” The Insight Bureau, No. 16 (2007), available at: (accessed on 2008/11/8).
3. Herman Joseph S. Kraft, “Japan and the United States in ASEAN-China Relations,” in Saw Swee-Hock, Sheng Lijun, and Chin Kin Wah, eds., ASEAN-China Relations: Realities and Prospects (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), pp. 90-109.
4. S.D. Muni, “China’s Strategic Engagement with the New ASEAN,” IDSS Monoraph, No. 2, (2002), p. 17; Alastair Iain Johnston, ibid, p. 110.
5. Eric Teo Chu Cheow, “ASEAN+3: The Roles of ASEAN and China,” in Saw Swee-Hock, Sheng Lijun, and Chin Kin Wan, eds., ASEAN-China Relations: Realities and Prospects (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), pp. 61-63
6. Thomas Lum et al, “Comparing Global Influence: China’s and U.S. Diplomacy, Foreign Aid, Trade, and Investment in the Developing World,” CRS Report for Congress (2008), p. 33, available at (accessed on 2008/11/7).
7. Joshua Kurlantzick, “China’s Charm: Implications of Chinese Soft Power,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Brief, No. 47 (2006), p. 3.
8. Pang Zhongying, “Playing By the Rules? China’s Growing Global Role,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, (2008), available at  (accessed on 2008/11/7).
9. Elizabeth Economy, “China’s Rise in Southeast Asia: Implications for Japan and the United States,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, (2005), available at (accessed on 2008/11/7).
10. Rahul Sen and Sanchita Basu Das, “ASEAN’s FTA Negotiations with Dialogue Partners Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses in Business Opportunities,” in Dennis Hew, ed, Brick by Brick: The Building of an ASEAN Economic Community (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007), pp. 186-187.
11. (accessed on 2008/11/18).
12. (accessed on 2008/11/13).
13. (accessed on 2008/11/13).
14. A recent discussion on China’s advocacy of Chinese langue, see Sheng Ding and Robert A. Saunders, “Talking Up China: An Analysis of China’s Rising Cultural Power and the Global Promotion of the Chinese Language,” East Asia: An International Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, (2006), pp. 3-33.
15. (accessed on 2008/11/13).