China's challenge to replicate more fully and usefully the tribute-state system of the imperial era, is hindered severely by both international and bilateral governance issues.
First, at the international level.
In July 2010, Yang Jiechi, who as a Politburo member is today China's top foreign affairs official, famously said at a regional security meeting in Hanoi, where he was exasperated by the failure of lesser powers to accede to Beijing's rational proposals: "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact."
Beijing's diplomatic preference is to cut deals on a bilateral basis, where its size most often tells. But the culture of the ten Association of South East Asian Nations has proven frustratingly resistant – requiring a full consensus on key issues, including a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, most of which China itself claims in the face of the separate, individual claims of five ASEAN states plus Taiwan.
Despite efforts to establish alternative regional platforms – including, for a time, the Six Party Talks mechanism used for some years to attempt to resolve North Korean issues – ASEAN remains implacably the hub around which east Asian programs revolve, including through configurations such as ASEAN Plus Three or ASEAN Plus Six. The recently agreed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership has spun out of ASEAN. This presents a sharp contrast with the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, through which China – as its name, given for the place of the inaugural meeting, implies – today effectively dominates Central Asian affairs.
Back in 2002, ASEAN and China signed a Declaration on such a Code of Conduct. But this comprised merely an expression of intent. The agreement itself is still being negotiated.
Viet Hoang, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and a member of the Department of the Law of the Sea at the Vietnam Bar Federation, wrote recently for The Diplomat that "growing US-China tensions have put the ASEAN countries in a difficult position. China is strong and aggressive, but is a neighbour; the US, meanwhile, is supportive, but occasionally fickle. As Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently put it, the region lives 'at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.'"
And some ASEAN countries are seeking to assert their legal rights in the South China Sea through invoking the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other channels.
Of course, understanding well how ASEAN works consensually, China has ensured that it is covered at least in defensive terms. It focuses considerable efforts and funding on maintaining especially close links with Cambodia and Laos, and to a degree also Myanmar, so that while it may not win ASEAN support for all its aims, especially for the South China Sea, it cannot be opposed fully by ASEAN as an organisation.
At the bilateral level, China also finds itself on occasion frustrated by dealing with democratic governments that must take into account broad community sentiments, rather than with the autocracies with which it invariably cut deals during the tribute-state era.
It is no longer so easy for a Chinese leader – including, or perhaps especially, one such as Xi with particularly personal power – to arrange affairs relating, say, to trade or to defence with counterparts in regional nations whose command is also absolute.
For half or more ASEAN members are democratic, to varying degrees, and to their north, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are thoroughgoing democracies, while Vietnam, a fellow communist country, is historically disposed to beware Beijing as well as having fought off China's People's Liberation Army in the PRC's last fully-pitched war, in 1979.