UKM-QMUL (2018), Asymmetry and Authority: ASEAN States Responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative

This workshop is the second of two research meetings under a “Newton Advanced Fellowship Project”, jointly managed by Cheng-Chwee Kuik at UKM (as Co-Investigator) and Lee Jones at QMUL (as Co-Investigator). The project is co-funded by the British Academy and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. The two-year project (March 2016 – February 2018) is a study of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and Southeast Asian states’ responses to it. It aims to generate a co-edited book to be published by a leading university press.

This project seeks to explain how and why the similarly situated, weaker states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are responding differently to China’s BRI in the context of growing Chinese ambition, assertiveness, and power. Our hypothesis is as follows. Since asymmetrical power relations are a given external condition for all regional countries, this alone cannot explain their response. Rather, it is ruling elites’ calculations about the costs, benefits, and risk-opportunity trade-offs of engaging with BRI with respect to their domestic constituencies that determines states’ responses. ASEAN’s ruling elites are primarily concerned to bolster their internal authority – their capacity, command, and perceived right to rule. To the extent where engagement with China provides material, coercive, or ideational resources that bolster elite strategies of rule, governments will welcome the BRI, and vice-versa; and many regimes will be forced to make complex trade-offs between competing opportunities and risks, generating intermediate positions along a spectrum of receptivity and resistance. Put differently, it is the ongoing dynamic of managing (and leveraging on) external power asymmetry for internal political authority that drives, limits, and shapes the manners in which individual states respond to their neighboring giant’s initiatives.

This second workshop brings together the project leaders, researchers covering each of the Southeast Asian countries, expert discussants, as well as established and aspiring scholars for in-depth exchanges on: (a) the Project Framework, which outlines the proposed theoretical approach for this project and forms the first draft of the edited volume’s first chapter; and (b) the key findings for each country. Each researcher will circulate and present their fully-developed draft chapter on their country studies which are structured around the framework outlined in the Project Research Guidelines.

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