The Smiling Dragon - KAS Malaysia
China’s power and ambitions abroad are expanding and tensions with the West have increased in recent years. In 2021 NATO declared that China presents a security risk to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and negative international reporting on human rights and security issues, Beijing has relied more strongly than before on soft power to mitigate reputational damage and protect China’s appeal, thus intensifying a rising trend in its outreach. China’s soft power efforts range from infrastructure investments and media outreach to varied forms of diplomatic, academic, professional, and cultural exchange, to medical aid and humanitarian assistance. The PRC’s newest soft power tools are known as “vaccine diplomacy” and “wolf warrior” tactics.
In recent years KAS has carefully traced China’s increasingly sophisticated influence on all continents. Developments in Southeast Asia – a region with 650 million inhabitants and a combined GDP of three trillion US dollars but also territorial disputes in the South China Sea and strategic competition among major players – are of highest importance for decision-makers and interested observers across the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and beyond.
This study attempts to provide a more detailed analysis of China’s soft power projection in Southeast Asia, and local responses to those efforts, in order to better understand its impact and potential implications for players in the region, as well as Germany and the wider European Union (EU).
It focusses on Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The chosen area is geographically proximate to China and falls within the scope of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a “vehicle for soft power” geared toward global infrastructure development and regional integration across Southeast Asia. This group consists of relatively small countries, most with land-links to their much larger northern neighbour and characterized by centuries of exchanges with China. It has also been a nexus of contested power between China and the US, from the Cold War to the present day. Interactions with those global players continue to shape the modern history of the region and the decisions of these smaller states.