Status-seeking through Disaster Relief Cooperation: China and India in Southeast Asia.

AuthorGong, Lina

Because natural hazards have long been recognized as non-traditional security (NTS) threats in Southeast Asia, disaster relief, including military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations, is a core component of regional security cooperation. ASEAN-centred multilateral mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), have been instrumental in creating a regional structure for managing disaster relief and cooperation, with ASEAN often acting as a relief provider. From the perspective of external powers, participation in regional disaster relief is an avenue for them to advance their respective security and foreign policy objectives, such as achieving international legitimacy, (1) improving international image, (2) showcasing capabilities, (3) forming new partnerships, and gaining operational benefits. (4) All of these factors contribute towards enhancing a state's international and regional status.Southeast Asia's geopolitical outlook has undergone profound changes since the end of the Cold War, with the rise of China and India standing at the foreground of developments. Indeed, China's ascendency has been the principal driver of the region's changing security environment. In particular, the strategic rivalry between China and the United States is now the defining factor of international security, and Southeast Asia is one of the key theatres of that competition. At the same time, China has shown a willingness to assume a more prominent role for itself in regional security, as demonstrated by its vaccine diplomacy efforts in Southeast Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, India seeks to expand its standing beyond South Asia, aspiring to be a "net security provider in the Indo-Pacific". (5) For both countries, humanitarian and disaster-related cooperation is an increasingly important aspect of their foreign policies. Because of its exposure to natural hazards, Southeast Asia is a suitable venue for them to exercise their diplomatic and defence tools. Moreover, NTS cooperation has historically been used by outside powers to build confidence and trust in the region.This article examines China and India's search for higher status in Southeast Asia through disaster relief cooperation. It argues that they have achieved varying degrees of success, the outcomes of which are shaped not only by their own endeavours but also, perhaps more importantly, by the region's responses. While China seeks to outcompete other powers in its security partnership with Southeast Asia, its attempts have been accommodated selectively by countries in the region. For example, its military initiatives have encountered more challenges than its civilian initiatives. India's involvement has been specific and targeted, with military HADR, led by its navy, as a core component. Generally, this approach has been accepted by Southeast Asian states. These differences in how China and India's engagement has been accommodated by Southeast Asian states highlight the importance of local responses to the formation of regional orders.This article seeks to expand interpretations of the rise of emerging powers and how they seek status through the inclusion of a regional perspective. The existing literature tends to focus on the status-seeking activities of emerging powers within international platforms but often overlooks their activities within regions, which represent a critical level of analysis in post-Cold War world politics. (6) This article also contributes to debates about Southeast Asia's relationships with major powers. Since Southeast Asia is of strategic importance to China while India values South Asia most, it is logical to assume that Beijing would invest much more than New Delhi in security relations with the region. Interestingly, India has deployed military assets for HADR operations in Southeast Asian countries more often than China in the past two decades. China and India are on more of an equal footing when it comes to disaster relief provisions, as both only emerged as security providers over the past two decades. An examination of how Southeast Asia manages its relations with the two powers through the prism of disaster relief offers some insights into how states in the region, collectively and individually, manage major power relations, which is of scholarly and policy importance given the rapidly changing regional security environment.The rest of the article is divided into four sections. We first examine China and India's status aspirations in Southeast Asia and explain why disaster relief cooperation provides an opportunity for them to signal their status. The second section analyses the logic underpinning Southeast Asia's approach to disaster relief cooperation and what strategies the region takes to influence the outcomes of external powers' status-seeking efforts. Sections three and four analyse interactions between the two powers and Southeast Asia. We conclude by discussing the implications of their status-seeking efforts and regional responses for Southeast Asian security.Seeking Status through Disaster Relief CooperationAccording to the literature, "status" can be defined through two dimensions: "collective beliefs about a given state's ranking on valued attributes" and "identity or membership in a group". (7) Some studies of the Asia-Pacific regional order rank the United States as the "superpower", China as the "regional great power", India as a "major regional power" and ASEAN as a "major regional player". (8) However, this hierarchy is evolving. China is catching up with the United States in economic and military terms while India is turning east and improving its capabilities. While this hierarchy is based on power capabilities, the regional order is distinctive in the sense that ASEAN--as a group of small and middle powers that, as a bloc, possess normative and convening authority--is recognized as a major player by the big powers, reflected by ASEAN's central role in the regional security architecture. Moreover, foreign powers must be members of ASEAN-centred regional mechanisms if they are to be seen as credible security partners in the region. How do these dynamics affect the way China and India conduct foreign and security policy?Status Aspirations of China and India in Southeast AsiaAccording to some observers of Chinese and Indian foreign policy, both rising powers are dissatisfied with their respective status and aspire to enhance it in the international arena. (9) However, few commentators explore their status-seeking activities in regional contexts, possibly because of the assumption that rising powers should have already established a regional preponderance before expanding their influence more broadly. (10) While China is economically dominant in Southeast Asia, it is not the region's first choice as a security provider. (11) Although India wants to expand its sphere of influence to include parts of Southeast Asia, it has dedicated limited resources to the region. By studying how China and India move beyond their traditional areas of advantage and elevate their status in a regional system, it adds to our understanding of how emerging powers pursue status-seeking efforts and to the debate on the Asia-Pacific's security order.Southeast Asia, a region where multiple major powers have overlapping strategic goals, is an ideal location to observe how new status claims are achieved in a changing regional order. Beijing and New Delhi differ significantly in their status aspirations in Southeast Asia. Understanding the region's strategic importance, Beijing launched a charm offensive in the 2000s to project a benign image of itself and to counter narratives that China's rise might pose a "threat" to the region. It did so by participating, bilaterally and multilaterally, in defence cooperation. (12) The outcomes were mixed. On the one hand, there was progress in institutionalizing ASEAN-Plus-China cooperation over various NTS-related issues, including natural hazards. (13) This suggests that the region was willing to recognize China as a partner to address such challenges. On the other hand, China has yet to become a leading security partner in other areas. This could be the result of several factors, such as territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian suspicions of China's actual motives and Beijing's reliance on economic statecraft. (14) However, China has shown an interest in advancing beyond its current position, with its emphasis on the "Asianness" of the regional security architecture and its joint efforts with regional organizations. During his 2013 address to the Indonesian Parliament, President Xi Jinping said that China and ASEAN "should champion the new thinking of comprehensive security". (15) At the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, held in Shanghai in 2014, Xi argued that "it is for the people of Asia to [...] uphold the security of Asia". (16) According to some commentators, these efforts reflect Beijing's aspiration to become a "co-leader" in regional security. (17)India's search for higher status in Southeast Asia has progressed on a different trajectory, starting with the Look East Policy in the 1990s, followed by the adoption of the Act East Policy in 2014 and the more formalized Indo-Pacific Ocean's Initiative (IPOI) in 2021. (18) During this process, India has evolved from being a low-key player to an important security partner and provider. Its defence engagement and cooperation with Southeast Asian states began to develop during the Look East Policy phase, but this period was marked by policy ambivalence and capacity constraints, leading to doubts in the region about India's commitments. (19) However, over the past decade, India has demonstrated renewed interest in expanding its security role in the region. Its potential...

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