Elizabeth Gooch, PhD is an assistant professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Katharina Grimm is a recent graduate of the International Policy and Development master’s programme at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA. Christopher Hayes is a current master’s student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies studying International Trade and International Policy and Development.
While common perceptions suggest that Japan’s influence in Southeast Asian geopolitics is dwarfed by China, recent research finds that wherever Japanese foreign direct investment outstrips Chinese, local media more often reports critically on Beijing.
Analysis of the local media was conducted at Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California. Our team of computer scientists calculated the average emotional tone of over 175,000 news articles published by the local press about Chinese activities in countries across Southeast Asia to capture local opinions.
Opinions in Asia matter for China. Severe division in Southeast Asia creates obstacles for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to reinvigorate ancient trade routes.
The data comes from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) Project. Starting in March 2015, GDELT began collating a majority of our world’s online media into a massive database about millions of events, as well as millions of news articles written about those events.
For example, when President Xi announced the BRI in Kazakhstan in 2013, it was an event. GDELT algorithms assessed characteristics of the event – such as the location being Kazakhstan and the main actor, Xi, being from China. After Xi’s announcement, many news articles from around the world discussed the event. GDELT captured each of these articles and recorded the emotional tone with which the reporter conveyed the story in terms of the negative and positive words used to describe it. Another way to think about it is as the voice of the author.
We narrowed the GDELT data to articles from the Southeast Asian press reporting on Chinese activities within their borders.
For example, for Myanmar, we found nearly more than 3,000 articles that discussed a Chinese actor involved in an event in-country from sources like The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and the Myanmar Times. Finally, we tallied their perspectives. Articles from Myanmar’s press were, on average, very negative. In 2019, Japan also topped the list of foreign investors into Myanmar Special Economic Zones, accounting for 36% of overall investment.
Across ASEAN, we find that the perspectives on China by country differ significantly. The Laotian media is very positive, the Vietnamese press is moderately positive, the Cambodian and Malaysian are neutral, the Indonesian press is slightly negative, and the Philippine and Thai media are moderately negative about Chinese activities within their borders.
When we discover that this pattern of press perspectives aligns closely with recent Japanese foreign direct investment influx – or the lack of it – it begs the question: is Japanese investment buying an oppositional attitude towards China in ASEAN? Quite possibly.
“[Japanese] companies are advancing economic integration in Southeast Asia as they have long cultivated there, they know the importance of people-to-people ties and the needs in the region,” noted in a 2018 paper by Hong Zhao, professor at the Research School for Southeast Asia Studies at Xiamen University. Zhao specifically points out that “Japan certainly has the competitive edge on China in infrastructure development in Southeast Asia in some aspects”.
However, Southeast Asia has been described as a power vacuum, with minimal Japanese leadership. According to researchers, Yoichi Funabashi and Andrea Ryoko Ninomiya, “policymaking in Japan has lacked such a big-picture, strategic perspective and has become more inward-looking in the years since the Asian financial crisis”.
But nonetheless, Japanese leaders are making solid efforts to link investment with political influence in Southeast Asia with a foreign policy like Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Evidence from the State of Southeast Asia, a 2019 survey published by the Singaporean think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, indicated that Japan’s political influence is still lacking – but our assessment of the local media outlets poses an alternative take.
Alternatively, the negative tone in Southeast Asian media could be driven by Chinese ventures that often attract poor media coverage. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 Global Attitudes Survey, views on China have reached historic lows in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Few people in those developing nations have fallen in love with China the way they might fall in love with the United States,” writes George Gao in his Foreign Policy essay Why is China…So Uncool?
“This is largely because China’s pop culture lacks emotional, artistic, or sex appeal … China’s soft power goals contain an inherent contradiction: the country wants to use media as a tool to guide public values in the Leninist tradition, and at the same time hopes to create entertainment products that are well received worldwide.”
The Chinese government may be struggling with legitimacy in some parts of ASEAN just like it is at home
Our researchers think that the antagonism towards China has a great deal to do with rejecting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) public values.
“[Belt and Road Initiative] BRI is actually just a brand … [t]he Chinese government has released BRI rap songs, bedtime stories, and cutesy pop songs,” observed Meriden Varrell, a fellow at the Lowy Institute. “[The] vast web of projects and deals around the world is less about China attempting to attain global domination than about desperately promoting, among Chinese people, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party’s right to rule.”
She has a point. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious foreign policy abroad goes hand-in-hand with a more authoritarian system at home. The CCP has to continually prove its legitimacy to rule.
“[I]n a country that boasts some 5,000 years of history, the 95-year-old CCP can lay personal claim to but a minuscule portion of China’s fabled past,” notes Elizabeth J. Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government and Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute at Harvard University.”
The Chinese government may be struggling with legitimacy in some parts of ASEAN just like it is at home.
As a side note, when we directly compared the amount of Chinese FDI to Southeast Asian countries with the tone in the local press, we found that Chinese investment levels were not influential.
Another explanation for the close relationship between Japanese FDI and media opinion on Chinese in-country activities may not be overt Japanese or Chinese influence. Instead, ASEAN countries with strong economic relations with Japan may tend to have poorer relations with China.
Japan and some ASEAN nations are affected by similar political dynamics regarding China. For example, China’s antagonistic claims of islands in the South China Sea affect the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, among others. Additionally, underlying relations with the US can be either unifying or divisive between ASEAN countries and US-allied Japan.
Yet, given the current state of the world in which competition for regional power is heightened, we think that the presence and promise of Japanese investment is negatively influencing local presses’ opinions of Chinese in-country activities.
“Southeast Asian nations should welcome engagement with Tokyo as a means of diluting growing Chinese influence in the region,” says Tri Vo, senior staff writer at International Affairs Review. Vo proposes that “Japan chooses to slowly lay the foundations for a future alliance by gradually prying ASEAN states from China’s influence with its economic and security assistance.”
A report from the EU-Asia Centre for on Sino-Japanese rivalry in Southeast Asia notes that many ASEAN countries see opportunity in the competition between these vying regional powers. “Instead of choosing one side between China and Japan at the obvious expense of the other,” author DanDan Wan suggests, that “they turn to a hedging strategy by adopting a middle position”.
Japan’s strategies in Southeast Asia have also been reshaped relative to the decline in US relations in the region. Researchers postulate that the US withdrawal from the region – renouncing the TransPacific Partnership – has bolstered opportunities for Chinese influence in the region which Japan intends to counter.
“Sensitive to the legacy of invasion in Southeast Asia, Tokyo remains cautious about using its diplomatic weight in the region too overtly – in contrast to Beijing’s increasingly forthright if not forceful diplomacy,” points out the director of the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program, Ben Bland.
Our findings suggest that, if media representations are to be believed, Japan’s economic diplomacy is working in Southeast Asia. A competitive role for Japan in the regional competition for economic and political power provides ASEAN with more choices where China is commonly viewed as the unchallenged leader.
Contributors: Eric Eckstand is a research associate of the Data Science and Analytics Group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Diego Garcia is a recent graduate of the Computer Science undergraduate programme at California State University. Sutter Laird is a recent graduate of the Computer Science undergraduate programme at California State University. Maximillian Renga is a recent graduate of the Computer Science undergraduate programme at California State University.