Why China is not an Asian regional power

Boasting the second largest economy in the world that is far reaching and an increasingly assertive military, casual observers have started to call China a superpower.

By the late 2000s China could no longer hide its growing economic and military might. A decade and a half later, its actions have showed that it must have completely ignored its former paramount leader, Deng Xiao Ping’s advice to hide China’s powers. The Asian giant has started to throw its weight around not only with its immediate neighbours but also with countries it doesn’t share borders with. Examples border disputes with India in the Himalayas, violation of Taiwanese air defence identification zones and finally the seemingly the never-ending violation of economic exclusive zones of countries that surround the South China Sea by the Chinese navy and Coast guard. More recent instances include Chinese “unofficial police stations” in US, UK, and Canada along with alleged Chinese spy ballons that flew into US airspace.

However, simultaneously through the (in)famous Belt Road Initiative, China have been funding infrastructure projects in struggling economies to build trade routes that will facilitate trade with China. Some recipients of these investments all around Asia have benefitted greatly while others have been pointed out as evidence of China’s debt trap diplomacy.

Boasting the second largest economy in the world that is far reaching and an increasingly assertive military, casual observers have started to call China a superpower. Those who don’t agree with this title opts to call it a regional power for its ability to largely influence regional affairs. However, upon closer inspection for the definition of regional power and China’s track record, China doesn’t qualify for such a title.

Sheer hard power that can influence regional affair is not enough for a country to earn regional power status. Generally, a regional power needs to fulfil 4 criteria; It needs to have sufficient power resources, employment of foreign policy instruments, claim to leadership and finally acceptance of leadership roles by fellow states in the region. Italian philosopher Gramsci’s idea on hegemon echoes this notion on acceptance of leadership roles. A true hegemon, as Gramsci claims does not only wield political and economic power but also receive support and consent by the subject it governs. Additionally, regional hegemons are expected to take on roles as peacemakers and moral authorities.

1.4 billion Chinese citizens along with the Chinese communist party shoulders the country’s GDP that stands at 17.7 trillion USD. Furthermore, the Chinese economy have well over graduated from the production sector. As for the military, the over 2 million strong People’s Liberation Army runs on a 230 million USD budget. These statistics greatly outnumber Japan and India’s combined forces and budget. With 3 aircraft carriers and an oversea naval base, the Chinese navy now holds a blue water navy status. Additionally, the PLA’s hypersonic missiles which can avoid radar detection caused the US concern in late 2023. Despite strength in number, China’s human development index sits at 0.768, few places behind its immediate neighbours such as South Korea, Japan and even a few countries in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Brunei, and Thailand. Taking all these into account, the writer is forced to conclude that what little China lacks in quality is made for by its quantity in its workforce which have suffered from declining population and youth crisis.

Under President Xi’s administration, China embarked on its most ambitious attempt in diplomacy dubbed the Belt and Road initiative. In partnership with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is mainly funded by China, China engaged in economic diplomacy involving loans and investments for infrastructure development. China strived to win favours and foster friendly relationships with countries all over Asia and even a handful in Africa and Europe. Since it properly took shape, the belt road initiative has been China’s primary diplomatic arm. Despite the initiative costing 575 billion USD, the relationship between China and recipients of the BRI was more transactional and less about winning hearts and minds. Over the years Chinese diplomats and ambassadors have gained attention for their practice of “wolf warrior diplomacy.” This style of diplomacy marked by headstrong and aggressive attitude in protecting China’s image and interest was not well received by the international community. Furthermore, it was deduced, wolf warrior diplomats acted in such ways not on instructions of their supervisors. Juxtapositioned with Xi Jinping’s support for “modest and humble” diplomacy showed disconnect in the chain of commands in the foreign ministry.

Even in multilateral forums except for the Shanghai Cooperation organization, China faces considerable challenges. With the likes of India, Japan the US contending China’s interest and most of Southeast Asia opting to stay neutral, China struggles to sway forums such as APEC, RCEP to its will. Even in smaller forums such as ASEAN +3, China’s power is diluted due to South Korea and Japan’s membership.

China’s efforts in articulating the Belt Road Initiative, claiming sovereign rights to most of the South China Sea and promoting regional integration suggest it demands leadership over its region. Despite what its far-reaching actions with deep implications might suggest, China have never explicitly declared itself as Asia’s or even Asia Pacific’s leader. This is stark contrast with what the US claimed for the western world and South Africa cautiously claimed for its home continent. Instead, in officially speeches from Chinese leadership, the country fashioned itself as a benevolent yet equal partner that offers opportunity for prosperity and development in its economic diplomacy efforts. Coupling China’s actions and words that doesn’t match, the writer can only state that China have only slightly implied leadership over its region.

Regarding other constituents in the region accepting its implied leadership, hardly any country took positions that are China’s favour. Its immediate neighbours India and Japan in partnership with the US and Australia have created the Quadrilateral Security dialogue, a platform which subtly opposes Chinese interest in the region. Additionally, South Korea’s current Yoon administration have shown interest join the platform and fostered warmer ties to its long-time rival, Japan. Southeast Asian countries which have fairly benefitted from China’s investment through the BRI, as mentioned before, view its relationship to be transactional. Despite China efforts in defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia, most of them still lack trust in China as Southeast Asian countries are more habituated to cooperate with the US militarily.

The trust deficit between China and Southeast Asian states shouldn’t be a surprise. Especially so considering China’s 10 dash lines that overlaps claims with Southeast Asian countries’ exclusive economic zones. Southeast Asian fisherman and coastguards facing harassment by their Chinese counterparts in the South China Sea is not news either. Furthermore, the political turmoil in Myanmar between the Junta and rebel groups have been co-opted where the Chinese government supported the junta to safeguard its investments but also turned a blind eye against rebel territory expansion do extradite Chinese nationals in Myanmar who were involved in trans-border crimes. This goes to show that China was not only negligent of security concerns in its region but also perpetrated to serve its own interests.

China’s rapid development over the few decades, massive population, far reaching economy and increasingly assertive military could lead observers to believe that it is a regional power. However, closer examination into the quality of its population, diplomatic finesse and how its fellow country in region views it proves less than ideal for China. Weakness in its soft power and ability to gain trust hinders China from attaining regional power status. It is almost as if China have placed almost all its chips on its economy and population and expected it to grant it regional power status. When in fact it was its hyperfocus on its hard power that became an obstacle in its path to dominating its region. Although states behave differently based on bundles of different factors, China’s attempt at dominating the region could serve as an example to avoid for other aspiring regional powers.

Han Kyeol Kim
Han Kyeol Kim
Han Kyeol Kim is a graduate from Pelita Harapan University's bachelor's program in International Relations. His academic interests includes geopolitcs, Southeast Asian studies and world history.