Publisher: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung
Reviewed by Gunjan Singh, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence, IDSA
The rise of China is one of the most momentous geostrategic events for the countries of the East Asian region. The countries will be primarily influenced and affected by this development. Their geographical proximity pushes these countries to try and understand this development to the minute details possible. On the other hand, China has also been working towards improving its relations with its immediate neighbours. Post 1989 China has made increased efforts in order to get closer to its East Asian neighbours. What is the most interesting aspect of this new direction is that during the Mao Tse-tung period China made extra efforts to push for the Communist movements in the neighbouring countries. As a result of this a number of countries in the region are suspicious towards China and also have major historical baggage. But with economic development they have realized that they have to get comfortable with China and get to integrate it.
The book, East Asia’s Relations with a Rising China, is neatly divided into 13 chapters. The chapters focus on specific countries. The countries which have been included in the book are Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. The chapters deal with specific countries and the pattern of relationship with China both historically and in the present. Keeping in mind the increase in the level of economic and military might which China has been acquiring, its relationship with its immediate neighbours has become a very important matter of discussion in the East Asian region. In this regard, how China’s relations with these countries develop is of prime concern to the East Asian region. China is the largest neighbour for each of these countries and it is acquiring phenomenal status commensurate with its economic growth and is also actively playing an important role in the regional politics in East and South-east Asia. In the last few years, there has also been a growing perception that the United States has been withdrawing from the East Asian region and thus giving China more space to influence.
The book beautifully highlights that this relationship is not new, as China and the countries of the East Asian region shared good relations historically as well. It also brings to the forefront the change which has occurred in the regional balance and how the changes in China’s capabilities are proving to be more difficult from the point of view of the countries in the region. The chapters deal with the Chinese soft power influences in detail and argue that China has been trying to increase the level of contact and make inroads with the help of “soft power”. Some authors though argue that the Chinese soft power has not proved to be very useful keeping in view that there still exist boundary and territorial disputes. These disputes are becoming more and more difficult to resolve as there is a marked increase in the offensive capabilities of China. In addition, China has also been expanding its ‘core interest’ zone, and the involved countries feel that they do not have a strong leverage with respect to China. On the other hand, the book argues that ‘unlike the United States, China has not worked towards attaining military bases in the region, which has been reassuring for its neighbours’ (p. 19). It also argues that the ‘East Asian states seek to be partners and friends of China based on mutual respect but (do) not (want to become) a subservient client or a vassal state’ (p. 41). On the overall influence of Chinese soft power, the general agreement amongst the authors is that in the region, ‘Japan has a more influential role than China’ (p. 73).
The chapters also discuss in detail the historical issues and how it is difficult for the regional countries to totally set aside that experience and try and interact with China. This is discussed specifically in the context of Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Keeping in view the historical animosity, the current international situation does nothing to make it easy for them. The more China grows and gets integrated in the regional economic apparatus, the more say it will have in the making of the regional architecture. With the 2008 financial crisis as the backdrop, there is an upward move in the Chinese economic graph. As it was seen that China was the only country which was enjoying positive economic growth and was able to help the United States economy in the difficult times. These developments are making China and important player in the international system.
This book is a very good read for anyone looking to understand the Chinese influence in the East Asian region. It provides a detailed analysis of China’s relations with various countries in the region. The only drawback of the book is that it does not follow one single pattern for all the chapters. Secondly the chapters are not very successful in bringing to the forefront as to why there is a need to study the soft power approach and how it helps in soothing the problematic areas aspects of bilateral relations. What one concludes is that though China has been using its soft power towards the other countries of the region, although not entirely successfully. As a result what really influences these relationships are the political and the economic variables. This is especially true with respect to countries like Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Another issue with the book is that different authors have discussed events which have occurred at various times. As a result of this there is no chronological symmetry in the book. The editors should have worked towards getting a more synchronized time frame which would have made for a much interesting reading.
The chapters highlight that though almost all the countries have been improving their relations with China, they are also working towards maintaining good relations with other important countries like the United States, Russia, Australia and India. The countries in the region understand the fact that they do want to be part of any specific lobby. This posturing comes from a historical experience. The chapters have indisputably stated that though all the countries agree that there is a lot to gain from getting economically integrated with China, they do not want to get into the strategic lobbying. All these countries understand that the presence of the United States is a good check on the increasing regional influence of Beijing. Juxtaposing a rising China with the existing territorial disputes which most of the countries have with Beijing is not a very positive future scenario. Due to this it is obvious why they do not want to put all their options in one place and are thus working towards maintaining relations with all the countries which are interested in the region. This sentiment which runs throughout the book is firmly stated in the introduction: ‘East Asia states seek to be partner and friend of China based on mutual respect but not a subservient client or vassal state’ (p. 41).