Regionalism in China-Vietnam Relations: Institution Building in the Greater Mekong Subregion

Regionalism in China-Vietnam Relations

Author(s): Oliver Hensengerth

ISBN: 978-0415551434

Publisher: Routledge

Year: 2010

Price: £95

Reviewed by Ryan Hartley, Leverhulme Post-doctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Law – Tohoku University (Japan)

This is a study of regionalism and sub-regionalism within a Southeast Asian context. The focus is upon the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) one of three of the Asian Development Bank’s post-Cold War defined ‘growth areas’ or ‘growth triangles’. This is a timely study of both an important but understudied geo-political notion (neo, new or micro regionalism) in addition to a crucially strategic geo-strategic area. Hensengerth is addressing this topic by examining China-Vietnam relations as the possibility stumbling block to cross in order to generate further regionalisation in the Mekong and more widely within ASEAN. This has come into even sharper focus since the 2010 publication of this study, as tensions between China and Vietnam have sparked both domestic to each country and international tensions.

At first glance the decision to isolate China-Vietnam relations for analysis when the GMS has four other members, was not immediately obvious. Hensengerth does however justify this choice insightfully as due to the two country’s fractious history being a possible source of frustration to further integration. This is however buried away on page twenty-four. Having it front and centre to support the proposed research problem would have been more helpful. The author defines the ‘new regionalism’ concept that forms the conceptual basis of the book as: in contrast to EU regionalism, the creation of regional institutions that are guided by central government policies that seek to use them for two purposes: (1) for policies specific to the region, and (2) for policies that are globally oriented. And that these policies are likely to be both human security or non-traditional security based (e.g.: food security), and also focused on transnational processes (e.g.: water in the form of the Mekong river). This is an insightful understanding to employ and definition to employ. Too often institutions and especially regional institutions are seen in either state-centric terms, where member states try to game the institution for their own benefit. Or otherwise fears that institutions are one step on the road to a regional or world government. Hensengerth’s qualified employment of this contemporary definition is well considered.

In the second chapter the book goes on to set out the subject’s stall, with a deftly summarised history of regional and sub-regional cooperation (not an easy task with the subject of this thesis), to be later expanded on in chapters five and six. Moving then on to overview the conceptual history of ‘growth triangles’ and ‘cooperation schemes’. These are the building blocks of new regionalism in Southeast Asia, however a glaring omission is how they have been championed and supported by the outside states of Japan, along with Japan’s institution the ADB, and also South Korea. This omission is made even more glaring when emphasis is placed on Australia and it’s ‘East Asia Analytical Unit’ since, considering that it is private sector FDI that is the fuel for these conceptual units, Japanese and Korean investment is number one or number two in most of the Mekong countries, while Australian investment is far lower.

Chapter three moves on to the theoretical/analytical framework, with a focus on regimes, power, then strangely water cooperation, then actors. The section on water cooperation would perhaps have been better at the beginning of the subsequent chapter on the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), as it is not a particularly theoretical issue. The point I think here is to stress the Southeast Asian proclivity for cooperation based on experience and practice, rather than rules and constraints. This is true, and where regime theory, the chosen approach, comes into its own. As the author notes, where formal institutions are weak or lacking, regimes can help fill the void.

Chapters four and five are one theme – Mekong cooperation – history, then contemporary developments. Chapter four is labelled as a history of Mekong cooperation but is actually in large part a history of the Vietnam/American War. A single source (Womack) is relied on heavily, and other actors are not relied on at all, notably again Japan, with most of the focus of ‘international actors’ meaning the US. Considering that Japan’s Fukuda Doctrine (1977) marked the beginning of designs on regionalization and using the GMS to reconnect old Indochina (old empire territory for Japan); and that Japanese trading companies, notably Nissho Iwai in Vietnam, remained and became the trusted point of call for the post doi moi Vietnam regime, these are significant omissions in a history of Mekong cooperation. This is especially the case in a study such as this one, which focuses particularly on Vietnam where Japanese economic and technical assistance is extremely high. Chapters four and five could actually have been one chapter as there is a lot of unnecessary cutting/pasting in chapter five from the Asian Development Bank’s website explaining procedures and institutional frameworks of the Greater Mekong Subregion. In addition, there is a slight lack of critical analysis, with ‘problems of the GMS’ being highlighted only by comparison with other sub-groupings of the GMS that are then used as a segway to a short analysis of China/Vietnam competition. This is an issue, but there are deeper problems with the basic conceptual notion of the GMS (Oxfam Australia has criticised it extensively). In addition, it would be helpful if the Mekong River Commission were to have been brought in here, as there are copious issues with the rules and procedures of this key institution.

Chapter six is the main chapter of analysis. A major issue in this analysis is the choice of theoretical approach – regime theory, or a mainstream neo-Realist/neo-Liberal approach. Conclusions such as ‘balancing’, constant reference only to states (or their ministries), and ‘interests’, masks a hamper of transnational issues that complicate cooperation in the Mekong but that do not fit into the grand scale international relations analysis being attempted here. Issues such as fish stocks vs. individual country calorie dependencies, illegal logging and other raw material commodity extraction, and the land clearances of people that are serving as thorns in the sides of local political elites. Time is spent in the chapter on conflicts between upstream and downstream countries, in addition to the intermediary role being played by Thailand that is confusing GMS con-operation. This is important. However, the overall analysis begins a steady shift towards a focus on China (the obvious larger party in the analysis) in relation to Southeast Asia, whereas the focus of the piece is on the GMS. This is partially remedied by a section on the China-Vietnam border, which is indeed crucial to changes in the relations between the two countries. Lastly, regime theory is useful because it incorporates norms. A great deal of the analysis is focused on institutions but the normative element is not developed fully, ie: the so called ‘ASEAN way’ and how these values may be being challenged or supported by the developments highlighted here.

The final conclusion is confusing but fully concordant with a neo-Realist analysis that deals with states in the abstract. There has clearly been a lot of research done and a full understanding of the region is clear, however the choice of such an approach has taken the analysis down a dead end. Relations between China and Vietnam are not peaceful and cooperative as claimed, and have been in a condition of suspicion for a long time, including the northern border areas especially. The Mekong river is not, and has never been (despite 1950s/1960s optimism), the basis for cooperation. Instead, greater knowledge of outside investment and crucially technology, has created north-south regional tensions, and acted as the basis for richer states (Thailand) to intervene in poorer states (Laos). Old confluences of power between the periphery states of Vietnam and Thailand into the central Mekong states of Cambodia and Laos are centuries old. The conflicts in the Mekong are historical, cultural, national and post-colonial more than they are about power games and states. There is in this text the underpinnings of a good analysis, however it has unfortunately used the wrong tools and omitted key outside actors to the set problem, notably Japan and Korea.

Suggested Citation:

Ryan Hartley (2016), Review of “Regionalism in China-Vietnam Relations: Institution Building in the Greater Mekong Subregion”, by Oliver Hensengerth, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 3.