The long-awaited summit in Washington last month between US President Joe Biden and eight Southeast Asian leaders has placed China on high alert. Despite the former’s lacklustre economic outputs, the US obtained ASEAN’s backing for the elevation of its diplomatic status to “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

China, on the other hand, has long suffered from a lack of trust among Southeast Asians. Despite its enormous contribution to the regional economy, China was found to be the least trusted country in the area in a recent study of Southeast Asian elites conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. According to the same study, the United States is the second-most trusted partner, after only Japan.

Why doesn’t China elicit the same level of trust if it can deliver what the US lacks in Southeast Asia?

The apparent solution may be maritime and territorial issues. However, the problem originates from the broader concerns of China’s contempt for the region’s autonomy and inclusion. Indeed, China’s regional policy is based on incorrect assumptions about how diplomacy operates in Southeast Asia.

Beijing’s initial assumption is that Southeast Asian countries are prepared to sacrifice their autonomy in order to enhance economic development.

China is correct in recognising that regional countries emphasise public goods and economic growth, and that one of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy’s flaws is its inherently militarised orientation. Biden’s belated negotiation of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework has been eclipsed by several trade treaties championed by China in the area.

What Chinese authorities fail to recognise is that Southeast Asians will not give up their autonomy just to achieve economic goals. Decades of foreign interference and resistance to colonial control have rendered sovereignty sacred. Maintaining autonomy has always been the primary objective of regional statecraft.

Unfortunately, China’s economic influence surpasses its regard for the sovereignty of Southeast Asian countries, and the boom in Chinese economic participation has coincided with expansionism.

China’s trade volume with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members has nearly quadrupled from $443 billion in 2013 to $878 billion in 2021. At the same time, since President Xi Jinping initially promoted his “neighbourhood diplomacy” in 2013, Beijing has erected nearly 3,200 acres of artificial landmass and completely militarised at least three islands in the South China Sea.

China’s plan tries to boost its economic credentials while also “subduing other troublesome parts of its conduct, especially in the South China Sea,” according to Hoang Thi Ha of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The effects have been just the opposite: China’s heavy-handed approach has rendered the country incapable of using its economic clout as a source of trust.

Southeast Asians, who live only a few blocks away, have seen how China has penalised other countries, like the rash penalties imposed on Australia. It’s no wonder that neighbouring countries are sceptical of Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea.

China’s second erroneous assumption is that Southeast Asian nations are prepared to bow completely to the sphere of influence of a single power — as long as it benefits them.

Aside from economic incentives, China has added “discourse powers” into its regional strategy. Xi has invented a number of diplomatic phrases emphasising “commonality” among allies, including the “Community of Common Destiny” and, more recently, the “Global Security Initiative.”

These narratives, however, simply convey the idea that China wishes to establish an exclusive alliance in which Southeast Asian countries are subject to China’s hierarchical supervision. Regional leaders will never forget when then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at an ASEAN Regional Forum conference in Hanoi in 2010: “China is a giant nation, and other countries are tiny ones, and that’s just a reality.”

While certain portions of Southeast Asia have traditionally followed a hierarchical order based on China — the so-called “tributary system” – the region as a whole has never followed a single order. It has always been open and responsive to external influences of many kinds.

“The lack of a widely approved ‘operating system’ in Southeast Asia is a feature, not a fault,” observes Evan Laksmana of the National University of Singapore.

It is historically incorrect to assert that Southeast Asia was only under China’s sphere of influence.

Southeast Asian nations want an open and inclusive regional system that allows them to maximise their national freedoms. China’s policy runs counter to this purpose. This includes China’s insistence on limiting foreign (i.e. Western) military presence in the South China Sea through the negotiation of a Code of Conduct, as well as other efforts to limit one’s influence in the region

It is difficult to woo Southeast Asian countries while endangering the ideals that support their favoured type of democracy.

 Ahead of the 20th Chinese Communist Party congress later this year, policymakers in Beijing should consider a new regional strategy that is more empathetic and adapted to the local context. Showing more respect by not treating Southeast Asian nations as part of China’s backyard is only the first step