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Title: Examinig china's soft power in Southeast Asia
Authors: 萬愛本
Contributors: 姜家雄
Chiang, Alex
Keywords: Soft Power
the Philippines
Date: 2009
Issue Date: 2010-12-09 16:58:59 (UTC+8)
Abstract: “soft power is the ability to get what a country wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment.”
- Joseph S. Nye Jr.
From Nye’s original soft power idea, the term now has been increasingly attached to China’s conduct of its diplomacy in various parts of the globe from Southeast Asia to Africa and South America. This research examines China’s soft power in Southeast Asia and its effectiveness relative to the pursuit and advancement of the country’s regional objectives and aspirations. The primary consideration here would be the US approach towards the region and how, if any, this has affected Southeast Asian governments’ reception and perception of China’s drive for increased influence and potential domination of regional affairs. Striking a comparison between Beijing’s standing in Southeast Asia before and after its soft power application would likely provide a logical explanation on the effectiveness of its intensified diplomacy in attracting regional countries.

Also of particular importance to this research would be the US policy towards the region and the underlying rationale behind its stance, as well as Southeast Asia’s attitude regarding Washington’s regional approach. Undoubtedly, America’s image in the region has been tainted by the previous governments’ missteps and unpopular actions, but there is no denying that Southeast Asian governments still rely on the US military apparatus for regional stability and security. This has been made more complex by China’s growing penetration in Southeast Asia, but might as well provide enough reason for the US to engage Southeast Asia a lot more. Knowing the political, economic and historical correlation of individual regional countries vis-à-vis the US and China might shed some light as to their mindset relative to the competition of these two external powers for increased influence in Southeast Asia.

Being the US’ most reliable ally in Southeast Asia, the Philippines offers the most compelling case for this study. How the Philippines react, and what other factors influence its behavior, as far its relations with both the US and China provides some relevant information in the overall calculation of Beijing’s attractiveness among regional countries. Particularly relevant to this estimation is determining China’s rationale behind its goal of attaining unparalleled relations with the Philippines as well as Manila’s motivation in reciprocating Beijing’s offer of friendship. Equally important is the evolution of the Philippine-US relations and what drives these two countries to reinvigorate their security partnership, previously the cornerstone of American military supremacy in Southeast Asia, amid China’s charm offensive.

In the end, this study finds that it appears that the Philippines’ strategy vis-à-vis its relations with both the US and China has been to secure the best possible concessions from both countries while playing a delicate balancing game to accommodate their intensified competition for influence in the country. Although there have been remarkable improvement in relations between the Philippines and China, privately Manila is still uneasy with the potential security repercussions that Beijing’s rise might engender in the long run, especially with regards to their conflicting claims over the SCS. As it seems, the Philippines’ increased confidence in dealing with China can be rooted on its ability to keep the American military deeply engaged in the country.

As has been notable in the Philippine experience, Southeast Asia appeared determined to sustain the power equilibrium with regards to external powers, and all indications point to China as the concentration of this strategy. The ASEAN recognized that Beijing’s soft power has already put it in a position to compete with Washington for increased influence in the region. Southeast Asia wants to accommodate this, but judged that it would be safer to include other powers in the equation to ensure that the ASEAN still has control in managing these powers’ engagement. Having said this, while there is no doubt that China’s soft power has served its regional purpose well, Southeast Asia’s desire to sustain the regional balance of power, apparently with the US still at the top, would continue to put some limits to Beijing’s charm offensive in the region.
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