Review of Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia by Evelyn Goh et al. (2016)

For some time China has felt itself alone among many neighbors, and its sudden leap to prominence since 2008 has heightened concern that it might use its increasing asymmetries of power to control its regional environment. While China sees its influence in Asia as a "win-win” interaction based on mutual respect, its actions in the South China Sea have encouraged the view that China’s neighbors will be the first victim of an assertive rising power in a larger global struggle. Rising China’s Influence in Developing Asia does an exceptional job of bringing nuance to the study of China’s influence on its smaller neighbors. 

The book is organized around Evelyn Goh’s theoretical differentiation of power and influence.  Clearly China’s relative capabilities are growing, but what is China’s actual effect on the behavior of its neighbors? In answering the question, Goh describes a spectrum ranging from influence in situations of diverging interests (therefore involving compulsion), influence in situations of ambiguous interests (involving persuasion), to influence in situations of converging interests (involving collective action as a preference multiplier). A valid empirical claim of influence requires that the influencer intentionally causes the other’s behavior and, thereby, advances its preferences. To be clear, while for some authors “power” implies the capability to compel and “influence” implies softer forms of prevailing, for Goh, “influence” covers the full range of the efficacy of power on the behavior of others.

As Goh notes, the most obvious cases of influence occur when the preferences of the actors diverge and the more powerful prevails. These meet the standard of Robert Dahl’s classic definition of power: the capacity of A to make B do something that he would otherwise not do.  However, there are many situations in which the intentions of the neighbors converge with China’s and China’s initiative (and sometimes money) provides the tipping point for joint action.  These are the most common form of China’s successful influence. 

The book explores China’s influence through country case studies of Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, and through issue-based studies of joint development schemes in the South China Sea, hydropower in Southeast Asia, economic change in North Korea, monetary policy, and the creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2005-7. It begins with an overview of China’s own assessments of its influence by Michael Glosny, and concludes with a taxonomy of approaches to analyzing influence by Scott Kastner. All chapters are shaped by Goh’s analytical framework, producing a coherent overview that, while not comprehensive, establishes the utility of her approach.

Glosny points out that while Chinese experts see Chinese regional influence increasing, many think that its influence does not match its actual capabilities. As he points out, the lag is attributed by many to American containment attempts rather than to Chinese mistakes, and the “triumphalists” in China expect that China’s growth as a global power will give it more leverage with troublemakers in the region. Of course, at present, it is risky in China to dwell publicly on Chinese mistakes, and in private, there is greater critical awareness of regional resistance to China’s assertive behavior. Nevertheless, in any asymmetric relationship, there is a tendency for the larger side to see itself as benevolent and to be insensitive to the risk felt by the smaller side. 

In each of the subsequent case study chapters the authors are tasked to identify areas in which China attempted to exert influence, establish whether or not interests are convergent or divergent, trace the processes of significant decisions for evidence of attempted Chinese influence, and explain patterns of influence (p. 15). Most of the chapters, and especially the country chapters, stick to this framework and deliver excellent accounts of the interaction between Chinese preferences and local response.

In my opinion,, the chapter by Goh and David Steinberg on Myanmar is the most convincing. Vietnam might demur from the authors’ claim that “Myanmar is perhaps the most important country in Southeast Asia in terms of strategic planning (p. 59),” but the authors make a good case that China’s interests in border security, resource access, and direct transit to the Indian Ocean make Myanmar uniquely important as a test of Chinese influence. From the vantage point of Myanmar, China is important not only in bilateral terms but also as a force to be utilized and balanced in larger frameworks. The government’s overriding interest in regime survival led it to cooperate with China in the 1950s, but China’s support for the Communist Party of Burma during the Cultural Revolution caused greater caution and lingering suspicions. 

Suppression of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in 1988 produced the perfect storm for Myanmar’s non-alignment strategy in the 1990s: it had created a regime-change option already legitimated by election; the United States and Russia were free from the constraints of Cold War calculations; and China began to focus on good neighbor policies after Tiananmen. Especially from 2007, China evolved from being the only alternative to becoming a transformative option in economic development, but the consequences of massive dam and pipeline construction were mixed. Political reform has allowed more opposition to Chinese dependency and, at the same time, induced other international options. Myanmar is not becoming anti-China, as Aug San Suu Kyi’s 2015 meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing illustrates, but when interests diverge, it will pursue its own course.

Cheng Guan Ang presents a more dramatic but similarly intense and convoluted history of China’s influence on Vietnam. He points out the importance of Chinese influence during the Indochina wars, but also its limits, and then the emergence of mutual hostility in the 1970s.  Reliance on the Soviet Union as a counterweight to China proved insufficient and, ultimately, unreliable in the 1980s, and opening toward the West did not preclude better relations with China.  Normalization brought greater economic and political contact, and the resolution of border disputes (other than those in the South China Sea) created a foundation for expanded relations for the past 15 years. But the intensification of contact has made Vietnam uneasy about dependency. Membership in ASEAN has provided a broader sense of regional identity, and progress in relations with the United States has been important politically and economically. As with Myanmar, Vietnam seeks to buffer its relationship with China by diversifying its alternatives. Unlike Myanmar, Vietnam has the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea as a constant reminder of its conflicting interests with China.

The cases of the Philippines and Sri Lanka are particularly interesting because their more open and oppositional political systems raise the question of whose interests are the “national interests.” Aileen Baviera provides great detail on the personal connections and entrepreneurship involved on the Philippine end of a couple of Chinese projects, in one case leading to charges “against the President [Arroyo], the President’s husband, the Speaker of the House, his businessman son, the Chairman of the Election Commission, the [National Economic Development Authority] Secretary…and even the whistle-blower (p. 118).” Similarly, Neil DeVotta details the China links to the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, concluding that “There is little evidence to suggest that China pressured Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa years to reorient its foreign policies or pursue particular domestic objectives; on the contrary, it was the Sri Lankan state under Mahinda Rajapaksa that sought to get China to promote its preferences both domestically and internationally (p. 129).” If a leader persuades China to build a useless airport (p. 147), who has influenced whom? In both the Philippines and Sri Lanka, a public backlash occurred against China-funded corruption. The initial confluences of interests that China assumed proved to be fickle streams.

The five topical chapters also present concrete cases of Chinese influence. Ralf Emmers examines the failure of China’s pursuit of joint development agreements in the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam that looked promising in 2005. He argues that the initial appeal of joint development was undermined by the continuing ambiguity and assertiveness of China’s territorial claims to the South China Sea. The presumptive partners did not want to legitimize China’s nine-dash-line claims or to cooperate in the absence of a binding code of conduct. Essentially, while China was initially successful in presenting joint development as a mutually beneficial confidence building measure, it turned out that there was insufficient confidence to build on.

Analogous grand starts and later stops can be seen in China’s hydropower projects in Myanmar and Cambodia, according to Pichamon Yeophantong. China has almost one hundred dam projects in Southeast Asia, of which one-third are in Myanmar. These dams are not forced on local governments, and other international funders are involved in similar projects. But the Myitsone dam project was halted in 2011 by Myanmar after an initial investment of $1.2 billion, and the question of what to do next with the project now looms before the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. China reacted to the halt by suspending its investment in 2012-13, but its relationship with Myanmar is too important to be put at risk. The same is true for Myanmar, constituting what Steinberg calls “mutual dependence.” The situation in Cambodia is different.  It does not have much hydropower potential and is in desperate need of electricity. However, the Cheay Areng dam is suspect because of its low yield, the personal interests of its Cambodian promoters, and its environmental damage; and after protests, construction has been halted.  As Yeophantong observes, “China exercises tacit influence over a host country’s policy-making by making certain policy options possible (p. 179),” and basic infrastructure is an obvious area of need in developing countries. However, an abandoned project is a total loss to the investor; so new host concerns regarding a project create a divergence of interests. 

Like international finance itself, John Ciorciari’s chapter on China’s influence on monetary policy is less focused on developing states and more on institutions such as the IMF. Certainly China’s “structural power” in financial institutions lags behind its economic growth, and its new efforts, the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB), “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), and so forth, have yet to take effect. But some economists are now arguing that there is a “RMB zone” in Southeast Asia and South Asia, with local currencies varying more closely with the RMB than with the USD. However, the RMB itself remains a modified dollar-dependent value; so perhaps its neighbors are not under the RMB’s shadow but simply share China’s concerns about dollar fluctuations. 

James Reilly’s chapter on North Korea concentrates on an entirely different level of influence. It is structural influence of a sort, but at the level of face-to-face interaction at the border rather than government to government. Reilly argues that China’s pressure on North Korea for market reform is effective at this level: “The leverage is on the Chinese side, the initiative is primarily local, and all interactions take place on a market basis. These attributes are at the heart of China’s economic engagement with North Korea (p. 201).” In order for North Koreans to respond to the opportunities presented by Chinese trade and tourism, contacts must be developed and institutions must mesh. As a result of practical exposure to market opportunities the overall North Korean attitude toward market reform is shifting. Reilly is, perhaps, too optimistic in assuming that contact brings closeness—the anachronism of his comment that politics in Taiwan is moving toward Beijing as a result of cross-Strait trade is a rueful reminder of the power of pushback (p. 197). Nevertheless, influence is influence, and “Chinese sunshine” is inducing market heliotropism in North Korea.

The final topical chapter by Rosemary Foot and Rana Siu Inboden deals with China’s influence on Asian states during the creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2005-07. Despite initial caution on China’s part regarding the shift from the existing UN Commission on Human Rights to a Human Rights Council, it became involved in the transition, and, with one important exception, its preferences prevailed. However, the authors could not find evidence of overt pressure by China and point out that its views regarding the Council were shared by many members. The exception, a Chinese proposal to make country-specific resolutions very difficult, was pushed hard but unsuccessfully, and, ultimately, China acquiesced to some face-saving language changes (p. 245). Although the authors do not compare the record of Chinese influence to that of the United States, it is worth noting that in 2006, the United States was one of four countries voting against the creation of the Council, alongside Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau (the latter two are US protectorates.). Compared to China, the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, was overt, demanding, and uninfluential.

Returning to the core research question, the cases certainly demonstrate that “despite the pronounced power asymmetry, China’s small developing neighbors do not necessarily provide easy cases to demonstrate Beijing’s influence (p. 281).” Echoing Keohane and Nye’s grudging admiration of Canada’s diplomatic adroitness, Goh notes “the combination of vulnerability with agility” in “their management of and selective resistance towards Chinese influence (p. 281).” The basic problem of increasing exposure to an outside power is that risk breeds caution, threat breeds resistance, and only opportunity breeds cooperation. Of course, coercion can work, and it can appear to be the only solution in confrontations between categorically juxtaposed interests.  But coercion is not always successful; it expends power and confirms the alienation of interests. In situations of increasing asymmetry like China’s, even the non-abjuration of force contributes to caution and hedging by partners. This is well demonstrated by Emmers in the case of joint development in the South China Sea, and, perhaps, an even better case would be cross-Strait relations with Taiwan. By reserving its ultimate option of coercion, China puts a fatal question mark at the end of its offers to cooperate.

By contrast, the successful cases of China’s influence are cases of confluence of interests rather than domination. Directionality and specification of interests are much more difficult in these cases, but the litmus test of whether China had an effect on the outcome is this: without China, would the outcome have occurred? Aesop pointed out long ago that sunshine could be more powerful than wind in influencing behavior, and it would be possible to view the general reorientation of Asia toward Chinese opportunities as a macro version of its effect on North Korean border life. The missing word in the analysis is “leadership.” Perhaps, China’s leadership role in Asia should be seen as positional rather than programmatic. Its potential, rather than its command of a “Beijing model,” makes it the center of attention.  However, structural power based attentiveness to opportunity is fragile. If it is pushed, the exposure implicit in opportunity can transform into risk. 

China has its own asymmetric relationship with the United States, and despite relative growth and comparable economic size, there is increasing reason to think, it will not catch up in terms of wealth or general technological sophistication. As it hedges against rivalry with the United States, some Chinese specialists, most prominently Yan Xuetong, recommend developing alliances rather than maintaining its current soft structure of partnerships. But as Goh argues, China’s current investment in positive relationships in Asia is its best defense against containment. The reason that Asia is open to greater American influence is its confidence that America will not dominate.