India is in an enviable position in Southeast Asia as it can exercise leverage through its soft-power, a missing strand in strengthening ties with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A soft power approach however requires investments in institutions, through which India and Southeast Asian countries can strengthen their diplomatic outreach and understanding.
Japan, once the pride of Asia, might be economically weakening due to its long economic stagnation and the rapid rise of China in recent years. But, perhaps unnoticed, Japan has been emerging as a cultural powerhouse in Asia through its soft power projection.
The two giants of the East Asia summit, the United States and China, have both attempted to exercise soft power during the regional talks with promises of funding. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $US600 million in aid for Indonesia, most of it for “green prosperity” in the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas emitting nation.
Soft power and public diplomacy activities were rammed up ahead of the East Asian Summit (EAS) in Bali to lay the engagement groundwork. In Indonesia, a Department of Defence-funded integrated maritime surveillance system has just been handed over to the Indonesian government, with the US committed to supporting the programme until 2014.
Laos and Myanmar...are grappling with decisions on whether to build massive hydropower dams on the two significant rivers. The projects could put fragile ecology and associated livelihoods at risk, but the dams could help the two countries reap billions of dollars by exporting the megawatts to China and Thailand, two neighbors with rapidly growing energy demand.
Evidently, China has cultivated a delicate foreign policy toward the Southeast Asian region over the years. It initially followed soft-power diplomacy by providing economic aid to various infrastructure projects and opening its domestic market for Southeast Asian manufactured products without antagonizing the region politically.
Given the United States’ weak economic position, the Obama administration’s ability to compete with China’s ‘soft power’ has gradually diminished. All this has meant that not only is the United States having problems ‘charming’ states such as Cambodia and Laos, but it’s also facing difficulties in retaining the loyalty of long-time allies such as Thailand and the Philippines.
It is unclear what might have precipitated this precipitate shift in Chinese public diplomacy. Nothing seems to have transpired in the South China Sea, especially regarding Vietnam or the Philippines, to elicit such a series of over-wrought Chinese reactions. Just a few possible explanations include: