Bandwagon or Balance: Asian countries’ stances on Hong Kong Protests

Image Source (Judy Gallagher)

Written by James Lo

Anti-government protests have rocked Hong Kong since March 2019 against proposals to introduce an extradition treaty into Hong Kong legislation. Protestors fear that the Hong Kong citizens’ civil liberties are under threat and they will potentially be open to a disproportionate amount of influence from China, especially with previous incidents in the past decade including the arrest of the booksellers and the Umbrella movement. China’s rhetoric is that Hong Kong protests are China’s internal affairs and should not be interfered by any foreign powers.[1] This essay kicks off a two-part piece on attempting to decipher Asian countries’ stances on Hong Kong protests. This first part focuses on three countries who support China’s stance in the matter. I will apply Walt (1985) and Schwelling (1994)’s bandwagon theory to explain why these countries took such a stance. It follows that their dependency on China in economic terms and the benefits they derive from such ties gear them towards a bandwagon stance (instead of the balancing stance which I will look at in the second piece).

I am focusing on three countries – Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Laos

Vilay Lakhamfong, secretary for the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee and Minister of Public Security stated that Laos ‘firmly supports the Chinese government’s position in dealing with the Hong Kong issue’[2].

Cambodia

Cambodia’s government chief spokesperson Phay Siphan said that ‘Cambodia supports the one-China policy and regards the Hong Kong issue as China’s internal affairs’[3]. Siphan also ‘slammed certain western countries, saying they should not interfere in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of democracy and human rights’[4].

Myanmar

Myanmar Union Minister for International Cooperation U Kyaw Tin said that ‘Myanmar strongly supports the one-China policy and “one country, two systems” principle’[5].

What the theory says

Walt first proposed the idea of bandwagoning – weak countries can opt to ally with the source of the existential threat as a form of ‘appeasement’[6]. In order to guarantee its own survival, states can choose to ally itself with the source of existential threat (bandwagoning) or to form an alliance with other weak states to balance against the source of threat (balancing). The smaller states will opt to side with the stronger country in hopes to prevent any possible encroachments on its interests in the future. The weaker the state, the more likely it is to bandwagon because their lacking in capabilities mean that they cannot defend themselves against a possible aggressor. They hope to build up good will with the country in hopes of self-preservation. In this case, the strength of the country is determined by the aggregate power – the ‘population, military or industrial capacity’[7] of the country.

Schweller’s criticism of Walt’s balance of theory will help better define Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar’s positions. Schweller argued that Walt’s version of bandwagoning was too focused on cases that involved a significant external threat. Instead, he argued that countries can choose to bandwagon due to the ‘opportunities for gain[8]. Instead of weaker states being ‘threatened or cajoled’[9] to side with the stronger state, they side with the stronger state willingly in anticipation for the benefits to their country. I believe that the consideration of benefits from the continued support from China influenced Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar in their stance on Hong Kong protests.

If the bandwagon theory is to hold, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar’s fortunes should be dependent on the role of China.  

Economic ties with China

China is the largest foreign investor in Laos (30%) and Cambodia (44%), and second largest investor in Myanmar (25%). [10][11][12][13] China is also crucial for these countries as they aim to develop their infrastructure. China and Laos are currently building a $6b railway from Kunming to Vientiane which is scheduled to finish by 2021 (only the second railway linking Laos to other countries due to its geographical position). The project is substantial for Laos’ economy, despite it only needing to finance 30%, considering its GDP is only around $16b. China funded Cambodia’s first expressway and is essential in helping Cambodia build up Sihanoukville from a small rural coastal town to a bustling special economic zone. Myanmar is a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  Projects that Myanmar and China collaborate on include the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and three border economic cooperation zones for the cities of Myitkyina, Ruili and Lincang.[14] Myanmar and Cambodia have also become dependent on China’s financing to lessen the effects of the sanctions they face from the West. Myanmar are futher reliant on Chinese investment as they face sanctions due to their treatment of Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, while Cambodia has EU and US sanctions on their economy due to human right violations. The economic benefits that they reap from ties with China are substantial, as these countries will not otherwise have the funding to build their infrastructure and connect with their neighbouring countries.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the economic dependency and benefits on China from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar geared them towards supporting China in the issue of Hong Kong protests. All countries benefit from the huge economic investment that China brings to their countries, as well as to their key infrastructure projects to help grow their economies.  These economies are also dependent on China as Chinese economic investment helps them negate the sanctions they face from the West.


[1] Hui Min Neo. 2019. China fury as Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong meets German foreign minister.

[2] Xinhua. 2019. Foreign leaders, analysts call for Hong Kong’s return to normalcy under “one country, two systems”

[3] Xinhua. 2019. Cambodia wishes to see China’s Hong Kong return to normal: gov’t chief spokesman

[4] Ibid.

[5] KYAW SOE HTET. 2019. Myanmar activists back Hong Kong protesters while govt backs Beijing

[6] Walt, S. 1985.p.9

[7] Ibid.

[8] Schweller, R. 1994. p.79

[9] Ibid.

[10] Eleanor Albert. 2019. China digs deep in landlocked Laos.

[11] Hin Pisei. 2019. China still no.1 source of FDI.

[12] OECD. 2017. Trends in foreign investment and trade in Lao PDR.

[13] Mynamar government. 2019. Yearly approved amount of foreign investment.

[14] Yun Sun. 2019. Peace through development: China’s experiment in Myanmar.

Bibliography

Eleanor Albert. 2019. China digs deep in landlocked Laos. Accessed at https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/china-digs-deep-in-landlocked-laos/

Hin Pisei. 2019. China still no.1 source of FDI. Accessed at https://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/china-still-no1-source-fdi

Hui Min Neo. 2019. China fury as Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong meets German foreign minister. Accessed at https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/09/10/china-fury-hong-kong-activist-joshua-wong-meets-german-foreign-minister/

KYAW SOE HTET. 2019. Myanmar activists back Hong Kong protesters while govt backs Beijing. Accessed at https://www.mmtimes.com/news/myanmar-activists-back-hong-kong-protesters-while-govt-backs-beijing.html

Mynamar government. 2019. Yearly approved amount of foreign investment. Accessed at https://www.dica.gov.mm/sites/dica.gov.mm/files/document-files/yearly_country_3.pdf

OECD. 2017. Trends in foreign investment and trade in Lao PDR. Accessed at https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/9789264276055-6-en.pdf?expires=1572300647&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=C4F71F2DFD7D41FAEF07E8D5A224FC63

Schweller, R. 1994. Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In. Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2539149.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A9f91ae41102ccd613a892562a0950857

Walt. S. 1985. Alliance formation and the balance of world power. Accessed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2538540.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A2f88083fdfdf474881ce670f0e7cf99b

Xinhua. 2019. Cambodia wishes to see China’s Hong Kong return to normal: gov’t chief spokesman. Accessed at xinhuanet.com/english/2019-08/24/c_138335007.htm

Xinhua. 2019. Foreign leaders, analysts call for Hong Kong’s return to normalcy under “one country, two systems”. Accessed at http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/25/c_138500246.htm

Yun Sun. 2019. Peace through development: China’s experiment in Myanmar. Accessed at https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/peace-through-development-chinas-experiment-in-myanmar

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