Abstract: How and why do similarly situated smaller states respond to big power-backed infrastructure projects differently? Why do these smaller states demonstrate varying forms of agency? This talk addresses these questions by examining Southeast Asian countries’ engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Drawing on extensive fieldwork and sources, Kuik will share the key findings of his co-authored (with David Lampton and Selina Ho) book, Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, 2020) and a Special Issue project on “Asymmetry and Authority: Theorizing Southeast Asian Responses to China’s BRI” (Asian Perspective, Spring 2021). While China, as a stronger power, will always push the envelope in BRI partnerships, smaller states do have agency. Southeast Asian states’ engagement with the BRI show different types of host-country agency, e.g. proactive initiation (small-state pulls), active involvement, active renegotiation, and passive resistance (denying, delaying, or distancing from a stronger power’s initiative). These patterns are the result of two-level dynamics: while asymmetrical power relations (i.e. power gaps with China, alongside presence/absence of credible alternatives) condition smaller states’ external policy choices, these structural effects are filtered through the states’ internal dynamics. Elite legitimation – the governing elites’ efforts to justify and enhance their authority to rule – is the key explanatory variable. While all elites seek to maximize their authority chiefly by attempting to win the “hearts and minds” of their targeted constituencies, they do so by pursuing, with different emphasis, three pathways of inner justification: (a) performance-related rationales (e.g. ensuring growth, managing national problems); (b) particularistic narratives (e.g. identity politics); and (c) procedural virtues (e.g. democratic practice, rules of law). The relative emphasis placed on these pathways compels the respective elites to play up or play down certain perceived risks and opportunities associated with the BRI, leading to varying responses.
Bio: Cheng-Chwee KUIK is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Asian Studies, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia (UKM). He is concurrently a Non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University. Previously, Cheng-Chwee was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and the World” Program. Dr. Kuik’s research concentrates on smaller state foreign policy, Asian security, and international relations, with a focus on developing five building blocks of theorizing non-big powers’ external policy choices: ambiguities of alignment, dualities of development, multifaceted middlepowership, lure of legitimation, and trinity of trade-offs. His publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals and edited books. His essay, “The Essence of Hedging”, won the Michael Leifer Memorial Prize awarded by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Dr. Kuik serves on the editorial boards of Contemporary Southeast Asia, Australian Journal of International Affairs, and Routledge’s “IR Theory and Practice in Asia” Book Series. He holds an M.Litt. from University of St. Andrews and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.