The ‘Unstringing’ of a ‘String of Pearls’ – Part Three: The Hoax of ASEAN Collectivity?

Marcus is a final year International Relations student and the former East Asia Regional Editor for KCL International Relations Today. He previously served as the President & Senior Editor at King’s College London Geopolitical Risk Society. His research interests include historical and modern-day imperialism, British imperial policy and decolonisation movements in the postwar period. Read more of his work here.


A six-part sequel on China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) which aims to highlight various forms of challenges to China’s seemingly unopposed strategy of ‘stringing ‘pearls’. This series  looks into Chinese motivations in rejuvenating its historical Silk Road prowess and explores how other powerhouses have attempted to oppose such a projection of economic imperialism. In particular, this series  will engage with the strategies of India under the Modi administration, ASEAN, European Union and the United States. 


Southeast Asia’s geopolitical importance has often been overshadowed by other regional counterparts such as the Middle East which present a direct and explicit significance. As of 2019, ASEAN has grown to become the world’s fifth largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of $2.9 billion. (HSBC) Converging at two of the world’s most heavily-travelled sea lanes, Southeast Asia posits itself in a strategic geographic zone in global and interregional trade flows – paramount in China’s vie for a string of pearls. Ultimately an arena for Sino-American competition, ASEAN dynamics are increasingly hedging towards a soft-bandwagoning on China’s Belt Road Initiative. (Paul, 2018)

This segment will discuss China’s interest in the region from an economic imperialism point of view, it will then evaluate ASEAN’s strategic utility as a regional bloc in resisting great power politics. Most crucially, this segment will challenge the preponderant realist tradition of balance of power politics by explaining why ASEAN responses and possibilities of effective ‘unstringing’ remain bleak.

The cornerstone of stringing pearls

To understand Sino-ASEAN dynamics, it is prerequisite to first glance over the trade volumes from both sides: most, if not all ASEAN states are increasingly trading more with China (often a factor of two to one). Such an unsustainable trade imbalance continues to breed Chinese economic growth while rapidly outpacing the US. (Fisher and Carlsen, 2018) Since 2009, China has stepped up to become ASEAN’s largest trading partner while ASEAN remained as China’s third-largest since 2011. (Soong, 2018) Given the rise in economic interdependence and predictions of bilateral trade increasing up to $1 trillion by 2020, (Ibid.) the BRI builds upon facilitating ASEAN economic growth through rising ASEAN confidence and motivation with Chinese trade. 

While the BRI could be attributed to geopolitical reasons, scholars such as Pongsudhirak argue that the BRI is an enterprise designed to displace US’s financial role in the world. China is actively seeking to increase its economic and financial power through the promotion of its “currency unit as a global reserve currency”. (CARI, 2018, 40) Through BRI, China is able to raise its currency profile as evident from the fact that 10% of China’s total outward direct investments were transacted in RMB. As such, China’s pursuit of internationalising the Renminbi is an act of challenging American structural power that is rooted in the “mighty dollar as the currency of first and last resort”. (Susan Strange in Ibid.

The unoffensive charm

Given the conveniences of geographic proximities and the lack of alternative sources of investment (that matches China’s scale), ASEAN states have little room in declining to partake in Beijing’s venture. (Yan in CARI, 2018, 7) Interestingly, in a report written by CIMB ASEAN Research Institute, a Malaysian think-tank, ASEAN members were described to “not hold an adversarial attitude towards the project: they remain sceptical of narratives that paint Chinese ambition to dominate the world”. (Majid in Ibid, 43) Retrospectively, this showcases a deviance from traditional realist presumptions (self-help system narrative), Mohammad Ayoob (2002) explains this divergence in his critique of Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism – subaltern realism. Ayoob stipulates that third-world states are generally more concerned with relative gains and short-term benefits as a result of domestic political pressures – they are, therefore, less concerned with security matters of an international level. The majority of ASEAN states are generally more economically weak and reliant on external parties for economic assurances, therefore, viewing Chinese dominance as fait accompli.

Such a perspective should not be misinterpreted as a total subservience to Beijing’s command, ASEAN states view the solution of short-term issues as transactional. Few ASEAN states are “willing to trade tangible benefits for concepts in international order of no immediate relevance to them”: (Lohman, 2020) viewing promises of investments and jobs as a cheap fix that trumps the game of great power politics. Despite countless frameworks and negotiations regarding maritime sovereignty, “ASEAN has already succumbed to the de facto recognition of Chinese claims in the South China Sea”. (Majid in CARI, 2018, 43) ASEAN states are consequently able to “distinguish between geopolitical inevitability and national fate”: (Ibid.) viewing the act of antagonising its largest trading partner as counterproductive.

In addition, given the prospects of economic growth, ASEAN states have little to no incentives to ‘rock the boat’ when investments have already become so entrenched in their infrastructure. Some analysts are even optimistic about the BRI’s potential in defusing maritime tensions: mobilising Kantian principles of economic interdependence to ‘communalise and neutralise’ maritime waterways. Yet, this is the largest caveat – under the false pretence of economic interdependence, China’s string of pearls become intact through the physical coercion and aspirational zeal of ASEAN states.

The ASEAN paradox

From a traditional realist lens, ASEAN’s inability to withstand the charms of Chinese economic imperialism is perceived to be a loss for the region’s utility to “stave off geopolitical advances of greater powers by holding onto the principle of centrality”. (Gnanasagaran, 2018) Individually, ASEAN states do not weigh politically or economically: the political weight of ASEAN is sustained when they mobilise as one coherent regional body. Unfortunately, the inability to formulate a collective response and a gradual bandwagoning towards China erodes its very strategic value. By strengthening their bilateral relations with China, they seem to suggest a degree of relationship prioritisation and lack of faith in the regional body. Unless caution is applied, Chinese economic rise through the BRI will bring ASEAN states into an uneasy clientist relationship with China. 

On the contrary, perhaps the saving grace of Southeast Asia lies within the inability to organise a collective opposition or response towards Beijing. For ASEAN to garner a strategic advantage and price point, it cannot afford to formulate a collective identity or response: by doing so, it loses its utility as a balancing power (bloc). By having a collective response, it becomes susceptible to Chinese courting and docile persuasion whereas, a lack of unity forces China to individually curry favour with each ASEAN member – allowing them to extract large benefits while retaining the individual utility of a balancing power.

ASEAN’s dilemma is two-fold: if it chooses to side with China, it will lose out on American security guarantees and invites unrestricted Chinese dominance. On the contrary, by overtly opposing China, it risks antagonising its largest trading partner, especially at a time when American economic interests in the region are tepid. 

Thus, ASEAN strategies are “intended to draw maximum benefit from both sides to preserve independence while not antagonising anyone”. (Madan in Fisher and Carlsen, 2018) An example would be Brunei’s foreign policy which retains ambiguity as to which side it is hedging towards. It showed its support to China through endorsing the BRI and reiterated its approval of Beijing’s One-China policy. At the same time, Brunei cosied up with India (an ally of the US), through stepping up exports of crude oil, investments as well as participating in joint maritime exercises with the Indian fleet. (Gnanasagaran, 2018) Brunei’s delicate balancing act is testament to the ability of small ASEAN states being able to safeguard national interests while playing off bilateral ties to oppose great power pressures. 

Despite critiqued for lack of effective action and achievements, ASEAN’s collective understanding of its utility as a balancing bloc through unsynchronised action (whether orchestrated or not) reinforces a counterbalance towards China’s ability to have a freehand in the region. While mainstream scholars argue for a “strong, effective and united ASEAN [to be] the best option to navigate” (Ibid.) through Sino-American hostilities, the splendour of ASEAN is derived from the medley of unpredictable, contrasting voices that produces the very strategic utility of ASEAN’s value. Unfortunately, ASEAN is not obsessed with great power politics and therefore, is blind-sighted by the viable threats of Beijing’s string of pearls. Hoaxed by continued Chinese assurances and on-the-surface ‘friendliness’, ASEAN optimistically views itself as the ‘crucial’ needle that threads the string of pearls – unaware that beneath China’s string of pearls lies the command of a skilful weaver. 


Yoshimatsu H. (2008) ASEAN’s Manipulation of Balancing and Entangling Strategy in East Asia. In: The Political Economy of Regionalism in East Asia. Palgrave Macmillan, London

Jenn-Jaw Soong (2018) China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative Meets ASEAN Economic Community: Propelling and Deepening Regional Economic Integration?, The Chinese Economy, 51:4, 291-297, DOI: 10.1080/10971475.2018.1457335 (Soong, 2019)

CIMB ASEAN Research Institute: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Southeast Asia October 2018,politics,3054.html

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