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Congressional Research Service, "China's 'Soft Power' in Southeast Asia," January 4, 2008

Report prepared by Thomas Lum, Wayne Morrison, and Bruce Vaughn, specialists in Asian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.
January 4, 2008

Click here to download the full report.

China’s growing use of “soft power” in Southeast Asia — non-military inducements including culture, diplomacy, foreign aid, trade, and investment — has presented new challenges to U.S. foreign policy. By downplaying many conflicting interests and working collaboratively with countries and regional organizations on such issues as territorial disputes and trade, Beijing has largely allayed Southeast Asian concerns that China poses a military or economic threat. China’s diplomatic engagement, compared to the perceived waning or limited attention by the United States, has earned the country greater respect in the region. Its rise as a major foreign aid provider and market for Southeast Asian goods has also enhanced its relations with Southeast Asian states. Many analysts contend that China’s growing influence may come at the expense of U.S. power and influence in the region.

This report provides evidence and analysis of China’s soft power in Southeast Asia. It does not discuss the considerable U.S. military presence in the region. The report describes China’s evolving diplomacy and more active role in regional
organizations such as the Association of  Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although China’s foreign aid to Southeast Asia, as in other regions, is difficult to quantify and includes a broader range of economic assistance than official development assistance (ODA) offered by major industrialized nations, it is believed to be relatively large. China is considered to be the “primary economic patron” of the small but strategically important nations of Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, and also provides considerable economic aid to Indonesia and the Philippines. China’s trade with ASEAN countries is less than U.S. trade with the region ($160.9 billion compared to $168.5 billion in 2006), but is expected to exceed that of the United States in 2007 and beyond. Furthermore, although China runs a trade surplus with the world, it runs a trade deficit with ASEAN countries ($18.2 billion compared to the U.S.-ASEAN trade deficit of $53.9 billion). China appears to have moved more quickly than the United States in promoting trade with the region through establishing free trade agreements (FTAs). However, although the importance of the United States to ASEAN trade has declined somewhat relative to that of China, the United States is still a major source of the region’s foreign direct investment (FDI), ranking 4th from 2002 through 2006 compared to China (ranking 10th).

Analysts differ over China’s longer-term intentions in Southeast Asia and their implications for the United States. Some observers argue that the consequences of China’s growing soft power, and Beijing’s aim, is the decline of U.S. influence in the region. Others contend that the implications of China’s rise are not zero sum, and that, at least in the next 15-25 years, Beijing’s priority will be economic development and that China’s leaders, as well as the leaders of other Southeast Asian countries, view the United States’ continuing leadership role in the region as beneficial. Competing U.S. policy approaches include continuing the current level of U.S. political and economic engagement in the region, containing China’s rise, or bolstering the U.S. diplomatic, foreign aid, and economic presence in tandem with China’s rise. This report will be updated as events warrant.

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