The history of the Far East and south East Asia is unique and characterized by its great heterogeneity. Many countries in this region have had a very distinct difference in various approaches. It is despite the fact that a good percentage of people in Southern Asia have their origin in China. Some other people migrated to the South Eastern Asian countries from China in the nineteenth and the twentieth century. Noteworthy, the communities in most of these countries have a close or similar culture and/or religion. Despite this, the national interests between China and the Southern Eastern Asian countries have for a long time brought up a relationship. It has been characterized by mistrust and suspicion. The above facts sometimes have been leading to hostilities between some of these countries until recently. In the recent time, China has reviewed its approach towards the south eastern Asian countries. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an umbrella body of countries in south eastern Asia. Though previously suspicious of China’s activities in the region, the ASEAN now seems satisfied with a new approach that China is using in this region. China, on the other hand, has changed its means to adopt a constructive engagement method in the recent past. It has become a subject of discussion with various bodies having different views. This paper will look into China’s softpower diplomacy towards the ASEAN as well as the impact it might have on peace, security, and stability of the South Asian region. The study will also explore this from the Chinese as well as ASEAN standpoints. While explaining and expounding the above information, the theoretical framework behind the ideology of softpower and conflict transformation will also be explored. They both will be looked into as well as discussed adequately in their contexts.

The term softpower has many applications in the modern world as much as it has been coined relatively recently. Soft power is a concept that has been developed by a scholar Joseph Nye from the Harvard University. He has described softpower as the capacity to draw and co-opt instead of coercing. In softpower, force and money are utilized in persuasion. In the more recent times, the term has had many other applications. Sometimes, it is viewed as changing a public opinion through the use of shadowy means or through lobbying some powerful organizations. In the year 2012, Nye explained the following. Since it is hard to establish facts in the information age, propaganda used for good is admissible. For the purpose of this paper, the first meaning of the term means to attract and use force in order to persuade.

How to Define, Operationalize, and Measure Soft Power

In the use of soft power, China is very subtle to the point that it may appear suspicious. However, there were some moves that are done by the Chinese in the ASEAN. They boost its admiration in the region. According to Teo Chu Cheuw being a lecturer in Singapore Institute of International Affairs, China has popularized its culture in the ASEAN. Chinese calligraphy, cuisine, curios, cinema, art, herbal medicine, and acupuncture have been popularized as a regional culture. For this reason, the Chinese culture has now grown as a regional one in the ASEAN.

It has made young people in this region fascinated by the Chinese. Teens are amazed by the Chinese content in the television, pop music, and the field industry. A good number of them go to China for a higher education. In the year 2004, for instance, there was a great influx of ASEAN students in the Chinese university. It was greater than the preceding ten years. Moving to China for higher education is associated with success and personal advancement.

China has invested much in selling its culture to the ASEAN, which makes societies and communities in all these countries integrating slowly over time. It is followed by the Chinese government’s engagement with the ASEAN governments to promote trade.

On the ASEAN side, they have also been absorbed in the Chinese game of the constructive engagement. It, on both sides, seems to be geared to the free trade between the ASEAN and China. In the same sense, the latter one has also embraced negotiations on various conflicts in the southern Chinese Sea. In a conflict with Vietnam over the Southern Chinese Sea, China seems to employ a dialogue. However, it sometimes becomes a subject of discussion due to a failure of China to withdraw its forces.

Apart from the wooing power of China in spreading its culture to the southern Asian countries as well as availing education opportunities to the ASEAN members, others believe that it is the Chinese power. It includes the military and economic powers that attract ASEAN countries to work with the country. China is an incredible military power in the Far East. The neighbors, especially those in the South, would not like to rub it in a wrong way. On the economic side, China has a giant economy. Any block would be eager to engage with it. In global matters, this country is a permanent member of the US Security Council with its power to veto. It makes it very powerful in the region, which might scare all the countries of the ASEAN to be in good terms with it. Its powers can determine rather many destinies.

In 2014, both the Chinese and the ASEAN seemed to be keen to establish a free trade region. Negotiations are under the way to improve a free trade area. There was a proposed improvement of China-ASEAN free trade area (CAFTA). It shows that the two sides can now agree. They are working towards trading together. Regardless of anything it may seem, it is an objective measure of the success of the Chinese soft power. It is crucial to note the kind of bad blood. It has existed among these countries for a long time.

Sino-ASEAN Relations since 1990

At the end of the Cold War, there was a mistrust am suspicion between China and ASEAN countries. In such conditions, there were no diplomatic ties between these members. However, the two parties had been working towards the establishment of diplomatic ties such that there was the Full Corporation and engagement in the 1990s. Besides these cooperation, both China and ASEAN countries have gone further to establish some free trade areas (FTA).

After the close engagement which began in the 1990s, much has continued to develop. The following decade saw a very rapid development in Sino-ASEAN relations. As a result, both sides have more in common than ever before even if several concerns still remain. The most important thing in this partnership involves calculated partnerships meant for promoting peace and stability which will boost prosperity in the region.

It is easier for someone observing from a global standpoint to assume that this relationship is only a victory for China. However, a closer look shows that the ASEAN is too used to its soft power to woo China into a business corporation. After the Cold War, China could was seen like a warlord in the east. From this perspective, all ASEAN members felt threatened by their powerful neighbor. However, in the close approach of the twentieth century as well as the turn of the twenty-first century, China has reaffirmed and focused more on its global appearance as well as the economy. In other words, the Sino-ASEAN cooperation was a form of the coalition for the wish and each side had a lot to gain.

Since the year 1990, the Sino ASEAN partnership has seen to be geared towards even the more profound cooperation. The relationship began as simple diplomatic ties. However, it is now a free trade region that is working even towards a future cooperation. The twenty first century saw a concerted effort by China and the ASEAN towards laying out a framework for the more cooperation in the future. One of the most monumental moments of this alliance was putting down of strategic partnership between the two parties on 19th of August 2003. The agreement saw an increase in the two way trade by six fold over the next decade. The ASEAN-Chinese partnership attained 400 billion of the US dollar mark in the year 2013 with the investment by far exceeding 100 billion US dollars in the same period.


In last year, China was the single greatest trading partner to the ASEAN. This position has been held for the fourth year in the row while the ASEAN was the third greatest trading partner to China. The foundation laid in the 1990s has been built upon a period of almost twenty years. The cooperation has developed to include all areas of the economy ranging from the agriculture to support the service such as the disaster relief. The two parties have also established inter-ministerial frameworks including 12 ministries among others. Other joint platforms have included China-ASEAN Expo as well as China - ASEAN meeting for commerce and investment.

Although the two parties have not been able to iron out all their differences, the cooperation has brought about much positive growth in trade being very encouraging. The bone of contention in the cooperation is a manner in which Beijing handles the territorial disputes in the South Chinese Sea. The Chinese diplomats have argued that this should not be used to overshadow what has been a greatly flourishing trading association.

Reasons for Growth of ASEAN-China Relations

A lot has happened as seen above. The volumes of grade have increased incredibly to the levels that have never been imagined before. Additionally, the level of investment has grown in all countries. The cooperation has also proved these nations can sit around a table with a view to gain solutions. The fact that China was involved in negotiations concerning the South Chinese Sea dispute was a crucial milestone considering that China is a great economic as well as political power in its region.

On the other hand, the ASEAN has gained one great trading partner. The Chinese market is bigger than the ASEAN can ever cover effectively. On the other hand, the latter one is a group of small and yet prosperous states having some confidence of their safety. In the Cold War and the periods that followed, China was one of the countries that can be argued to have held a hard-line position in the battle. The neighbors on the south were smaller. Their large and powerful neighbor was scary. For that reason, the formation of a successful trading relationship is a very crucial step to the regional security.

What has happened in the successful trading is the development of confidence that even more can be achieved between the parties. Both China and the ASEAN are now working hard to enhance the terms of engagement in order to improve their relationship. For instance, one of the areas considered for a review is a special consideration for the poor members of the ASEAN. They should be given a special treatment so that they can develop further. Additionally, despite the gains made already, there is even a greater move to make the trade freer to boost prosperity.

Negotiations to upgrade CAFTA (China-ASEAN Free Trade Area) are currently underway. The action plan that is being discussed will have been implemented before the year 2015. The areas of concern include the trade in products, dispute resolution, and investment. As previously discussed, the new framework will be adaptable and all-encompassing to cater for the great heterogeneity in the economic statuses of the ASEAN countries as well as the differences between the ASEAN and China.

Since the inception of CAFTA in the year 2010, it has developed as the biggest free trade organization to ever be formed by developing countries. Although CATFA was upgraded in the year 2013, the Chinese premier noted the following fact. The 2013 year version also needed some amendments for it to be more effective. There is a need for a more pragmatic layout to increase the bilateral trade. It is through this organization that China now has an opportunity to negotiate with even larger markets for its manufactured goods. The country is now engaged in the negotiations with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Through the CAFTA, China now has an opportunity to form another trade relationship with major Asian players that have some connection with the ASEAN through (RCEP).

It will allow the Chinese consumers to have more choice and variety as many countries will export to China. Meanwhile it will also greatly enlarge the market for the country making it able to export to many countries and, therefore, expand its industrial base (RCEP). It will form a free trade association block among 10 members that form the ASEAN and six other large Asian economies such as Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and China. The bilateral trade between China and ASEAN by the end of 2013 had reached $443. It was an increase of 11% from 2012.

In the ASEAN-China meeting that was held on 09th October 2014, China brought forward a framework that if discussed and concluded would see the business relationship take its place for longer. The proposal named 2+ 7Cooperation Frameworks seems to guide the ASEAN-China into the next decade. What is happening in this corporation proposal is that it is all encompassing. It contains two points for the political consensus as well as other separate proposals for the more collaboration in trade. The political consensus lays the foundation for the advanced cooperation in trade. China has highlighted that it was crucial for the strategic trust as well as good friendliness. The country has stated that a key for the deepening cooperation was focusing on an enhanced economic improvement and growing shared benefits among the players. The other ones were receptive of this ideology. It has been discussed as a very useful input that can be adopted by all members. Generally, what happens here is that all the parties in this agreement have tasted the benefits of corporation. They are willing to seek more fruit of the same. The signs from both sides are that the cooperation has been economically productive. Its gains can be maximized. Although the first negotiations and enhancement of diplomatic ties has been done due to the mutual fear and mistrust, it has outgrown this phase. It is set to higher heights if China moves speedily to solve the South Chinese Sea conflict.

China and ASEAN Wooing One Another

Between China and ASEAN, it is easy to wonder who is wooing the other ones into a business or other forms of relationships. From a global perspective, some argue that it is China that is more interested in the ASEAN in an attempt to woo more allies than the US. And after all, China seems to be a prime mover of the Sino-ASEAN business cooperation. Others view this block as the one with people of one ancestry with some nationals of the following countries. They include such as Thailand and Vietnam among others bearing the Chinese origin. Other Chinese people have migrated and settled on these countries in the historic times. The rest ones argue that the Chinese are more interested in the relationship to get the market for its large manufacturing base. The above reasons show why China needs the ASEAN.

On the other hand, the recent statistics show that China is the single and most important trading partner to the ASEAN region. Additionally, it continues to avail education opportunities to the youth from the south Asia and also ASEAN. Other analysts argue that it is dangerous for the small states of southern Asia to put themselves on a wrong side with China due to its might. So it is safer for any of such countries to be in friendly terms with the country. The above ones are the reasons why ASEAN needs China which strengthens the relationship.

Both China and the ASEAN need one another. Each seeks to establish a strong working relationship for business and other reasons. China has been the world’s greatest manufacturing country since 1996. For this reason, it needs raw materials that are cheaply acquired and transported from its neighbors. Additionally, China needs a large market for the enlarging manufacturing muscle. It also needs high skills and talents from home and neighbors. It has been among the causes why China is extending its good will and friendly policies to the ASEAN. The ASEAN needs the market for raw materials and proceeds goods. It also strives for the opportunities for its youth. So it needs China. That is why the ASEAN has also responded to the country’s friendly policies by formulating similar policies. It has positively reacted to China’s request to cooperate in trade. The relationship has made China become the largest trade partner to ASEAN.

When this country started the cultural exchange through Confucius’ institutes in ASEAN, the move was welcome. It has provided education opportunities for the youth. The ASEAN has, on their side, shown interest in developing diplomatic ties in the post-cold war period. On regional matters, engaging China was and is an only way that can get the country to use a dialogue in the regional matters. Otherwise, there is no other easier way in which such a small country can put for itself some gains. When China proposes an extreme request for the further cooperation, the ASEAN agrees because the benefits can be seen.

The Conflict Transformation Effects

One of the most undesirable issues to the cooperation is a conflict in the southern Chinese Sea. It has put China against the small and less developed maritime neighbors such as Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. China seems to generally claim sovereignty over these islands that are very rich in natural resources and trade routes. The country has also resisted any attempt to resolve these conflicts in an international arena. It has insisted on a bilateral diplomatic engagement. It seems to be a measure of commitment of China to honoring the small countries’ sovereignty. Any misstep in this delicate situation may strain the relationship between the ASEAN and China.

On 13th September 2012, ASEAN failed to mention its position concerning the issue of the Southern Chinese Sea in its meeting with the Chinese Minister of the Foreign Affairs. The main reason for this is that every member in the ASEAN has its own stance which strains the relationship between China and the ASEAN. Additionally, the failure of China to withdraw its forces from the disputed region miss-portrays the country. It is not good for its image. Although China has a very friendly trade policy towards the ASEAN, the gains made may be reversed. The whole issue may escalate into an armed conflict because the other world power, the US has the interest in the island and the trade routes. The US may also intervene for the sake of justice which may not be good for the image of China.

The goodies handed out to the ASEAN amidst the South Chinese Sea conflict makes every player in ASEAN politics hold a different stand. It is opposed to have a common stance against China. It might lead to the collapse of the ASEAN in a long run. On the other hand, China can adopt a friendlier and less confrontational approach against its smaller and less developed neighbors in the south.


The relationship between China and the ASEAN has greatly developed into a huge friendship. The cooperation between them for about twenty years has brought about incredible gains in terms of the increase in the amount of trade as well as investment. Additionally, it is such engagement that has seen China discussing the issue of the Southern Chinese Sea’s conflict with the ASEAN. It has had the cease fire and withdrawer of troops. Although it was not honored, it was a great stride in the right direction. Proposing cooperation based on the political layout as projected by China in the year 2014 can also be a good move. The new political platform may offer a solution to political as well as boundary conflicts between the neighbors and members. On the other hand, the ASEAN has to look for its interests first. It should ensure that no member is disgruntled by its stance towards China. The conflicts in this cooperation should be resolved early enough to prevent it from falling. However, the benefits made should be defended as there are some mutual advantages in the cooperation.


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