China-ASEAN studies require balance between diverse perspectives

BY Xu Liping | 03-11-2021
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An exhibitor shows a product of ornament to a customer in the 17th China-ASEAN Expo that took place in December 27-30, 2020. Photo: Chen Guanyan/CNSphoto

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of dialogue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During the past 30 years, the bilateral relations have expanded from a relationship of dialogue, to partnership, and into strategic partnership. As the unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a huge blow to the global economy, China-ASEAN trade and investment have both bucked the downward trend with rising volumes. China and ASEAN were, for the first time, each other’s largest trading partners in 2020, which shows the strong endogenous momentum within their cooperation. 

Based on this new historical starting point, it is necessary to assess China-ASEAN studies and to look into the future of the field, to establish a better relationship between the two partners. 
Studies from China’s perspective 
China-ASEAN cooperation is an important guarantee for building Asia-Pacific regional orders. China is deepening its cooperation with ASEAN, aiming for a new-type of international relationship featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, cooperation, and mutual benefits, and on this basis peaceful, stable, and prosperous Asia-Pacific regional orders can be fostered. 
As an important part of China-ASEAN cooperation, non-traditional security cooperation includes tracking cross-border crime, anti-terrorism, anti-drug operations, cyber security governance, public hygiene governance, food security governance, environmental protection, and maritime garbage governance. In addition, maritime cooperation and cooperation regarding sustainable development and the digital economy are now becoming important directions for China-ASEAN regional studies, and new academic achievements have been made. 
Country studies have become a thorny point in China-ASEAN studies. On one hand, country studies require a proficient mastery of local languages, cultures, and customs. On the other hand, scientific research methods are needed, including interdisciplinary research methods. However, Chinese scholars who master the local languages of Southeast Asia are basically those who major in foreign languages or humanities, and few of these scholars have been trained in research methods. Among social science scholars who specialize in studies of Southeast Asian countries, few are proficient in Southeast Asian languages. This situation has caused shortcomings in studies of Southeast Asian countries. 
The study of the ten ASEAN member countries in China is unbalanced. Generally speaking, the study of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia is relatively strong , especially after Chinese universities established research centers for foreign countries and regional studies, the research centers on the above countries sprung up, totaling at least ten. However, the study of Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, and other countries is relatively weak. 
Studies from ASEAN’s perspective 
Due to disparities in economic strength and academic levels, there are huge gaps in China-ASEAN studies conducted by ASEAN member countries.
In general, countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia meet a certain baseline in China-ASEAN studies, and their research teams are relatively large. But the studies conducted by countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei are relatively weak, with only a few research centers. 
The study conducted by ASEAN member countries mainly occurs in think tanks and universities, which are problem-oriented, with strong pragmatic significance. The famous ones include the Institute of Southeast Studies in Singapore; the Habibie Center, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the ASEAN Research Center in Indonesia; the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia and the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya; the Institute of China Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand; Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences; Lao Academy of Social Sciences; Asia Research Center at the University of Manila in Philippines; Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Brunei Darussalam. 
Furthermore, ASEAN researchers mostly have the experience of studying in European countries and America, and their research paradigms follow the European and American path. Most of the research team from think tanks and academic institutes in ASEAN member countries is dominated by young people, who have the experience of having studied in the US, Britain, Australia, and other Western countries. With fluent English, they have good communication skills, and have obtained academic degrees in local countries. Mostly adopting the Western-styled academic discourse systems, their research paradigms are refurbished Western versions through an ASEAN lens, which differs from that adopted by Chinese scholars. 
In addition, their research results were mostly published in English or native languages, which have not gained much influence in China, nor established an atmosphere of interaction with Chinese academia. 
Advised research topics 
ASEAN study is a priority for neighboring diplomacy in China, as this was the pioneering area and exemplary area in which the “Belt and Road” initiative was practiced. Either from the perspective of geopolitical strategy or China’s future path of pursuing peaceful development, relations between ASEAN members and China are increasingly important.
Meanwhile, it needs to be noted that in the current context, that the world now faces great changes unseen in a century, the uncertainties of politics within ASEAN countries add risks to advancing China-ASEAN cooperation. The complexity of ASEAN’s geopolitical environment also adds difficulties in promoting cooperation. Therefore, it is necessary for Chinese academia to precisely grasp the changes that are taking place in the international landscape, to contribute more to the bilateral cooperation in the new era. 
On the whole, the theoretical study of China-ASEAN cooperation lags behind the development of practice. The cooperation has been practiced largely in a tentative and innovative way, which breaks through the paradigm of regional cooperation carried out by predecessors or in the West. The “double-garden” model and cross-border economic corridors are such examples, and these practices need to be analyzed by the academia in theoretical sense. In addition, strategic and forward-looking studies are needed, which should serve the medium- and long-range development goals of China-ASEAN cooperation, especially goals of the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030. 
In addition, elaborate studies should be conducted regarding state issues. Diplomacy is a continuation of internal affairs. Without the understanding of the internal affairs of a certain country, it is hard to grasp the diplomatic direction of the country. National conditions of ASEAN member countries vary greatly from one to the other—there are socialist countries such as Vietnam and Laos, and capitalist countries such as the Philippines and Thailand. Among the countries with capitalist system, some of them have adopted the constitutional monarchy political system, and some have adopted the system of a presidential republic. In conducting studies on these countries, it is necessary to understand such basic issues as the constitutional government system, authority structure, and social structure of these countries. To achieve this, experts who specialize in state issues should be cultivated. Quick-reaction mechanisms should also be established in response to volatile internal political situations within ASEAN member countries, and relevant reports on policy advice should be written in a timely manner to offer academic and think tank policy analysis to China.  
China-ASEAN cooperation is an important way to jointly build the “Belt and Road” initiative and a crucial platform for China to create a peaceful and favorable neighboring environment. The new concepts and new practices of China’s foreign policies will first benefit its neighboring countries, and ASEAN countries are the foremost regional beneficiary. China-ASEAN research will have broad prospects in the future. 
Given the unbalanced current situation of China-ASEAN studies, more cooperation is needed in the field, which has already started in some universities and think tanks. For example, the China Institute of International Studies set up the Global Center for Mekong Studies (China Center), and it began conducting research in cooperation with think tanks from Lancang-Mekong countries on issues that concern both sides. By jointly releasing the results of think tank studies, they serve the Lancang-Mekong cooperative mechanism. 
China-ASEAN cooperation progresses with each year. Since there is no fixed model or regular pattern to be followed, forward-looking research is needed on cooperation for the 10-30 years in the future. Such research needs to be based on the reality of China-ASEAN relations, and the core should revolve around common interests of both sides and medium- and long-range strategic goals. 
The next is about the study of focal point issues, which belongs to problem-oriented study, and is challenging. Such issues include peace and stability in the South China Sea, upgrading the free trade zones, cross-border economic cooperation zones, inclusiveness in sub-regional cooperation, and the vulnerability of political transformation. 
All in all, China-ASEAN cooperation has now embraced its best period of opportunities. For China and ASEAN, the cooperation will not only benefit themselves, but also the region and the globe at large. To do the research well, the balance between a Chinese perspective and other countries’ perspectives should be struck, with the ultimate aim to contributing wisdom to regional peace, stability, and prosperity. 
Xu Liping is research fellow from the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the director of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies afflicted with the institute. 
Edited by BAI LE