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Chinese Provinces as Semi-Autonomous Diplomatic Actors in China’s Investments in Southeast Asia. Evidence from Guangxi Institutions and Individuals in the Mining Sector

Les provinces chinoises en tant qu’acteurs diplomatiques semi-autonomes dans les investissements chinois en Asie du Sud-Est. Le cas des institutions et des individus du Guangxi dans le secteur minier
Hui-Yun Cher, Xavier Delannay et Aymeric Mariette
p. 195-221


Le but de ce travail est de mettre en évidence l’influence significative des relations entre les échelles centrales et locales sur les stratégies d’investissement et de diplomatie de la Chine en Asie du Sud-Est. L’utilisation des théories des groupes d’intérêt et plus particulièrement la fragmentation, initialement construite pour l’analyse de la politique intérieure chinoise, permettent de mieux comprendre les objectifs de la projection internationale de la Chine. En outre, ces concepts offrent la possibilité d’intégrer l’influence des autorités provinciales chinoises dans la compréhension de la politique étrangère chinoise, une perspective encore peu présente dans la littérature. Ce cadre conceptuel est utilisé pour mettre en évidence le rôle des autorités du Guangxi dans les investissements chinois et dans l’élaboration de sa diplomatie en Asie du Sud-Est. En utilisant l’industrie minière comme étude de cas, cet article dévoile les nombreux acteurs et stratégies déployés au niveau de la province du Guangxi pour influencer la politique étrangère globale de la Chine d’une manière plus conforme à ses propres intérêts. Cet article plaide ainsi en faveur d’une lecture plus locale de la projection extérieure chinoise, afin de mieux en comprendre les acteurs et les dynamiques.

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1Far from being monolithic, Chinese policies are the result of the interaction between a plurality of actors and interests. China’s foreign policy is no exception. Behind flagship initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lies many projects and actors with different visions, far from a ‘grand strategy’ decided in Beijing. The attempt to grant more autonomy to the State bureaucracy and the decentralisation process that followed the “reform and opening-up” (改革开放) policy launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 has been the starting point of a renewed interest among scholars to study the nature of the Chinese political system. Among them, authors like Victor Falkenheim or David S.G. Goodman have tried to apply the flourishing political science literature on interest groups to China. These works have led to the emergence of concepts such as “fragmented authoritarianism” (Lieberthal & Oksenberg 1988) to characterise the new policy paradigm in China, where numerous interest groups and factions compete under the authority of the Chinese Communist Party to capture national resources and push for their own political agenda. Throughout history, given China’s vast and difficult geography, local leaders have always enjoyed significant autonomy from the country’s centre of power. In this new context, Chinese provinces once again gained significant leeway. Having their own growing resources, they can be considered as interest groups, that are, in their broadest sense, groups of people that seek to influence public policy on the basis of a particular common interest or concern. As a key cog of the Chinese state apparatus, they implement central government guidelines at the local level but also compete with other groups to shape China’s overall policy framework. This is true for domestic policies, but also for foreign relations developed by Chinese provinces, a topic that started to draw attention in the 1990s (Cheung & Tang 2001) and seems to have renewed interest more recently (Liu & Song 2020, 2021) (Li, Zhang & Hu 2021; Mierzejewski 2021). The recentralisation of public decision-making under the top-level design (顶层设计) framework initiated since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 (Ahlers & Matthias 2016) as well as the attempt to regain significant control of China’s foreign policy through initiatives such as the BRI, sometimes framed as a Grand Strategy (Clarke 2017), questions the ability of Chinese provinces to conduct their own agenda when it comes to foreign relations. Nevertheless, one can argue that the difficulty for Beijing to apply its authority outside Chinese national borders, and the expertise developed throughout the decades by some Chinese peripheral provinces in dealing with their neighbours leads to the hypothesis that they still enjoy considerable leeway in both defining Beijing’s foreign policy and also implementing it in a way that better fits its own interest. This article addresses this issue by analysing Guangxi province’s role in shaping China’s diplomacy towards Southeast Asia through the lens of the interest group’s literature on Chinese politics. In order to grasp a good understanding of the institutional and individuals’ logics and strategies that drive central-local dynamics in China, the paper takes a deep dive into one specific economic sector and diplomatic agenda: China’s mining investment in Southeast Asia. This article is structured around three main axes. The first one consists of a literature review on the role of interest groups in Chinese policymaking and, specifically, on the concept of fragmentation. The second reviews the historical development favouring Guangxi province’s growing involvement in Southeast Asian affairs. Lastly, this article conducts an in-depth analysis of the institutions, actors and strategies that drive Guangxi’s investments in Southeast Asia in the mining sector and that shape China’s overall diplomacy towards the region. This article relies on data collected during interviews with persons of interest related to the mining industry in Malaysia, the analysis of public discourses, as well as the events, the profiles of the companies and high-ranked actors in interest.

Chinese Diplomacy in Southeast Asia through the Lens of Interest Groups and Fragmentation Theories

The Interest Groups Theory in Chinese Politics

  • 1 In political science, the elite theory seeks to explain the State organization and distribution of (...)
  • 2 The term appears for the first time in Dahl & Lindblom (1953).

2In political science, the study of interest groups is a field with abundant literature and epistemology. Here, particular attention has been paid to the work of the American political scientist Robert Dahl, as he is certainly the most famous heir of the so-called pluralist theories. Dahl’s work is in the tradition of this pluralist model insofar as he believes that the state in its modern form is inseparable from the existence of a multiplicity of units of influence and decision. In Who Governs? (1961), Dahl speaks more often of elite groups than interest groups; even though he does not develop an elitist theory,1 he raises an important dimension of contemporary policymaking: the competition between these groups. In a democracy, this competition takes place in a polyarchic system2 characterised by the attribution of rights to the majority of citizens, including the right to vote, freedom of speech, the free circulation of information and freedom of association. While it is difficult to speak of polyarchy in the Chinese system because the PRC is not a democratic system, the nature of the regime does not necessarily disqualify Dahl’s analysis.

3Indeed, to explore the question of interest groups in China, we refer to the idea of “organisational pluralism” developed by the same author in an updated version of his works published in 1978 (Dahl 1978), in which he exported his previous analysis to non-democratic regimes of Soviet heritage such as Yugoslavia. In such political regimes, Dahl considers the existence of a multiplicity of “relatively autonomous” organisations which the author calls “sub-systems” within the state domain. According to Dahl, an organisation is relatively autonomous if it undertakes actions that (a) are considered harmful by another organisation and (b) that no other organisation, including the state government, can or could prevent except at costs so high that they would exceed the gains the actor could make (ibid.). What is more, organisational pluralism depends less on the nature of the economic order (i.e., socialism vs. capitalism) than on the decentralisation of decision-making (ibid.: 196).

  • 3 We can also mention Goodman (1984).

4Such clarifications are opportunities to include pluralist concepts in studying non-democratic and authoritarian regimes. In the introductory chapter of Citizen and Groups in Contemporary China (Falkenheim 1987: 1-15), a founding work on the study of interest groups in the People’s Republic,3 the Sinologist Victor Falkenheim agrees with Dahl’s analytical framework. According to him, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution showed by their complex implementation and the ambiguity of their results that contemporary Sinology had to move away from monolithic and overly macro-focused analyses; otherwise, it would lack relevance. Indeed, few observers had foreseen the violence and failures of the first Maoist revolutionary cycles and found themselves at a loss when faced with these first salient moments of fragmentation.

5In light of our work, Falkenheim’s words are highly relevant in several respects. First, unlike certain sovietologists like Harold Skilling (Skilling & Griffiths 1971), the author decides not to adopt an elitist posture but to focus on intermediate scales of decision and social aggregates, which, despite their heterogeneity and weaker social coherence, turn out to be of essential relevance for the study of contemporary Chinese politics. The author attempts to classify these aggregates according to their size and level of influence. The aim is not to confuse the interest groups within the Party and the Chinese bureaucracy with the actions of individuals or small groups. According to him, interest groups are the focal point of the analysis of contemporary policymaking because of their intermediary position (i.e. possibility of communicating with elites and population groups on the ground). He exemplifies the importance of these groups by referring to Mitch Meisner’s study (Meisner 1978) of the significance of the Dazhai Brigade bureaucrats, who, during the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution, were able to resist violent reform policies at the local level, by relying on community solidarity and their transversal networks (i.e., both on the ground and in the field). Meisner refers to this example of group’s autonomy as “policy self-advocacy”.

The Chinese Political System: Fragmented Authoritarianism

6The intermediate units described by the previous authors seem to be characteristic of the heterogeneity of the Chinese political system. A significant plurality of dynamics and interests within the Chinese bureaucracy allows Kenneth Lieberthal, Michel Oksenberg and David Lampton (Lieberthal & Oksenberg 1988; Lampton & Lieberthal 1992) to develop the concept of fragmented authoritarianism between the late 1980s and early 1990s.

7The rapid modernisation of China after Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power in 1978 has been a source of much emulation in contemporary Sinology. It has been necessary for a number of observers to reconsider the issues at work in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), so much so that since the death of Mao Zedong, numerous dynamics had changed the country. In the wake of Falkenheim’s works, Lieberthal and Oksenberg proposed an innovative analytical model based on the idea of a systemic heterogeneity that structured the Chinese regime (Lieberthal & Oksenberg 1988). One of the authors’ main goals is to rehabilitate an approach that, according to them, had been too little explored in the field of sinology, namely structural and bureaucratic analysis.

8The author’s interest in the structure of the bureaucracy is justified by the increasing influence of the latter on the construction, modification or “distortion” (ibid.: 17) of the regime’s public policies. Similar to V. Falkenheim, it is specifically the intermediate position of these bureaucrats within the hierarchy that allows them to be influential. The authors also draw on Graham T. Allison’s approach developed in Essence of Decision (1971), in which he argues that organisational processes and bureaucratic politics influence decision-making and, thus, that rational actor assumptions do not fully account for the forces shaping policies. This scale of analysis is particularly relevant here, as it allows us to have a more precise tracking of Chinese policy-making practices. Indeed, the authors mention the existence of phenomena that can essentially modify policy outputs vis-à-vis inputs, such as competing interests within bureaucracies or resistance to hierarchy.

9In the first chapter of their book, Lieberthal and Oksenberg detail the results of their work and develop the concept of fragmented authoritarianism in particular. On the one hand, the authors note the fragmented nature of the Chinese authority structure and make this explicit by distinguishing four levels of central authority:

  1. The core group of twenty-five to thirty-five top leaders who articulate national policy;
  2. The layer of staff, leadership groups, research centers, and institutes which link the elite to and buffer them from the bureaucracy;
  3. State Council commissions and ministries that have supra-ministerial status and coordinate activities of line ministries and provinces;
  4. Line ministries which implement policy. (ibid.: 22-23.)
  • 4 It should be noted that the results highlighted correspond to studies conducted solely in the energ (...)

10On the other hand, this bureaucratic fragmentation leads to the need for strong cooperation between the different levels of power in order to produce effective public policies. This need for cooperation must then lead to consensus building between the various administrations, which, in the increasingly decentralised Chinese system—horizontally and vertically—is extremely complex. The authors then highlight four types of manifestation of fragmentation:4

  1. The pressure on actors and the specification of their mission prevents the establishment of coherent policies and favour the construction of contradictory policies;
  2. Different ministries are dealing with the same sector, in this case, energy, and their budget allocations are not considered in common;
  3. The multiplicity of actors also creates a multiplicity of decisions, and it is not clear which one will have the most influence on the final policy choice;
  4. From an operational point of view, the fragmentation of authority complicates the advancement of policies within the system as well as its ability to deal effectively with different issues. (Lieberthal & Oksenberg 1988: 24-25.)
  • 5 There are several ways and semantics to describe the international actions of subnational actors, b (...)

11Finally, beyond the ground-breaking works aforementioned, our work also advocates for the contemporary relevance of domestic-level and bureaucratic approaches to the analysis of Chinese foreign policy as shown by more recent works by James Reilly, Orchestration: China’s Use of Economic Statecraft from Europe to Asia (2021) or Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri, Fractured China: How State Transformation is Shaping China’s Rise (2021). Indeed, all of these authors put an emphasis on investigating on the PRC’s foreign and domestic policy in a non-monolithic way whether by directly referring to Lieberthal and Oksenberg’s work on fragmentation (Reilly 2021: 40; Jones & Hameiri 2021: 26). Jones and Hameiri build upon the idea of a fractured China which is neither defined as a completely fragmented nor fully homogeneous unit (ibid.: 14). According to us, the high value of those approaches also lies in the fact that they participate in providing the most accurate and precise models as possible on contemporary Chinese foreign policy outside of classical international relations theories. The works of Reilly (2021), Jones and Hameiri (2021) are, in this sense, very ambitious, because when relying on notions such as economic statecraft (Jones & Hameiri 2021) or state transformation they give us relevant clues on the evolving face of contemporary international relations. Indeed, by looking deep into globalisation and its economic impacts, the authors raise awareness on new analytical approaches such as “global and multi-level governance” (Hooghe & Marks 2003; Rosenau 2003) or “paradiplomacy”5 (Soldatos 1990; Aldecoa & Keating 1999) which emphasizes the need to approach contemporary China—and more broadly international relations—outside of classical State-centric and “grand strategy” (Jones & Zeng 2019) models.

Interest of the Approach to Study Chinese Provinces’ Projection in Southeast Asia

12Nevertheless, the salient fragmentation of the Chinese political system does not operate alone, as it is integrated into an equally crucial dual dynamic that can be called “the centralisation-decentralisation nexus” following Dominik Mierzejewski’s work (2021). Chinese politics are historically marked by central-local and provincial dynamics. Before D. Miezejewski, several scholars have drawn attention to the importance of provincial actors in China’s foreign affairs following the “reform and opening-up” (改革开放) era, as Peter Cheung and James Tang have shown it in their ground-breaking work of 2001 (Cheung & Tang 2001, see also Goodman & Segal 1994; Segal 1994; Zheng 1994; Yang 1997). The most contemporary developments in the PRC’s politics seem to have led to a renewed interest in the subject. Indeed, since Xi Jinping assumed his leading functions in 2012, observers have noted a strong desire for power (re)centralisation, which, in the light of our guiding concept, is seen as a reaction to fragmentary dynamics (Duchâtel 2013; Wang 2017). Here, we are making the case that this duality is part of Chinese projection strategies in Southeast Asia, notably through the role played by the provinces, which are fragmented units.

13The extent to which central-local relations shape Chinese foreign policy can be observed by a quick look into the historical evolution of relations between provinces and central authorities. First, it should be remembered that China is a country with composite realities, whether we are talking about ethnicity, economic development or social structure. The Chinese provinces, therefore, represent distinct social and territorial units, a fact that the central government cannot ignore. After an unsuccessful experiment with generalised decentralisation during the Republican period (1912-1949), the Maoist revolutionary cycles relied heavily on balance between provincial autonomy and coercion at the centre. Nevertheless, as we have seen with the case of the Dazhai brigade, the provinces were also arenas of fragmentation with which the central administration must cooperate in order to apply its strategies. Under the presidency of Deng Xiaoping, China’s projection and growth relied heavily on decentralised policies and specifically on the autonomy and powerful economic assets of coastal provinces, such as Guangdong or Fujian. The prevalence of certain provinces over others allows us to recall that fragmentation is developing horizontally and vertically through competition between concerned actors and stakeholders. One of the main characteristics of fragmentation lies in the salience of vertical bargaining phenomena between actors for the construction of a consensus. The multidimensional nature of Chinese foreign economic policy, which can be particularly exemplified with the BRI today (Jones & Zeng 2019), requires harmonisation, in which the central government and Xi Jinping have been mainly involved in recent years, as mentioned above.

14In this sense, the role of the provinces seems to be quite essential, since their autonomy is certainly a factor of fragmentation. They have considerable leeway as representatives of the central government.

15Indeed, the fragmented nature of the PRC’s domestic policy implies that provinces play a significant role in terms of foreign policy both at the local and national level. This “relative autonomy” of the provinces, as R. Dahl would label it, seems to be part and parcel of the Chinese foreign policymaking process. The literature aforementioned has explored such phenomenon mainly by relying on precise case studies which epitomize the bulk of Chinese paradiplomacy. Cheung and Tang (2001) investigated the influence of central-local dynamics on the Chinese foreign policy by looking into the case of numerous provinces’ foreign policy and diplomatic actions. Among those, Jilin and Shandong, are described as significant actors in the evolution of the PRC’s relations with Japan, the two Koreas and the USSR in the 1980s and early 1990s. Besides such case studies, the authors also reflect on long term economic and commercial trends studied by Brantly Womack and Guanghzi Zhao (1994). Indeed, international trade is an important element for the development and growth of border-area provinces like Yunnan, Guangxi or Heilongjiang, which explains why they have considerable leeway on such foreign economic activities. What is more, the authors also point out that the provinces’ behaviour tend to differ, as well as the central government answers to those. More recently, Li Mingjiang (Li 2014) got known for coining the term “local liberalism” which, similarly to paradiplomacy, describes the foreign activities of local Chinese actors and which he considers to be one of the driving phenomena in contemporary China-Southeast Asia relations. Building upon the cases of Yunnan and Guangxi the author shows that provinces play a crucial role in promoting cross-border trade or managing security issues with the neighboring Southeast Asian countries, here Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia especially.

16However, such behaviours do not mean that the provinces are fully autonomous, indeed if Yong-Nian Zheng described China as a “de facto federalism” (2006) it is not de jure. Dahl’s definition of organisational pluralism and his introduction of what he calls relative autonomy into the understanding of authoritarian regimes seems all the more relevant regarding the case of Chinese paradiplomacy. Indeed, the PRC’s central government is fully aware of such tension between the provinces’ autonomy and the need for accountability, which is why they can be considered as what D. Mierzejewski calls “central policy agents” (2021: 27). Through this formula, the author tries to model the environment where provinces and central authorities interact. On the one side, the provinces have an important voice since they are represented in the Central Committee, which is, in principle, the most important decision-making body in China. On the other, provincial ministries also implement the decisions of the Chinese central government. In other words, whereas being recognized as relatively autonomous policy and decision-making actors, provinces are also firmly held accountable by the Centre. We believe that such mechanisms highlight the existing bargaining and power balance dynamic at the core of the Chinese policy and decision-making on foreign affairs. Ultimately, the goal of the Centre is thus to benefit from its provinces’ significant leeway on public and foreign policy matters, because as seen earlier, paradiplomacy is a considerable asset in the PRC’s projection, for numerous reasons that facilitate the Chinese foreign policy with its neighbours (i.e., provinces as diplomatic agents, regional and sectoral tailor-made policymaking etc.). Nevertheless, we should also point out that relationships between the Centre and provinces are not univocal, as suggested by the very concept of fragmentation and highlighted by Audrye Wong (2018). Based on several case studies on Hainan and Yunnan provinces, she describes three “mechanisms of provincial influence” (i.e., trailblazing, carpetbagging and resisting) which are deemed impactful both in the formulation and implementation of foreign policies. Trailblazing is explained as a strategy where provinces tend to pursue policies that benefit their interests the most and to lobby for them to be formulated at the central level; carpetbagging describes the moulding of existing central policies by provinces in order to pursue their preferred interests; and resisting exist in the form of stalling or simply refusing to implement central policies. Such variations can also be a source of explanation for the lack of research on certain provinces like Guangxi which is a less often studied case than its neighbouring province, Yunnan (Cheung & Tang 2001; Summers 2013; Liu & Song 2021). It should be noted, however, that authors like Li Mingjiang tend to associate the two provinces in their analysis on Chinese paradiplomacy in Southeast Asia (Li 2014).

17In fact, the high-level of bargaining and balance of power between local and central authorities seems to be core phenomena in the understanding of Chinese paradiplomacy—especially in Southeast Asia in our case. This observation leads us to questioning the importance of coercion as a mitigation tool for the central government in a context of fragmentation. We contend that in the context of paradipomacy, authoritarian coercion is a crucial element for the PRC’s central authorities to maintain the balance of power in its favour and push the provinces towards accountability. Building upon the concept of “integrated fragmentation”, Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard (2017) observes that coercive mechanisms such as leading small groups (领导小组), which are sectoral monitoring committees directly linked to the Party and the CCP Central Committee, which have significantly grown under Xi Jinping’s mandate. Such systematisation of control mechanisms is not trivial, according to the author who appeals to “bring the Party back in” (Brødsgaard & Zheng 2004) in order to reconsider the balance of power between the Centre, the CCP, and provinces. These logics seem all the more relevant for the PRC’s projection in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the geographical, historical or cultural proximity of certain provinces, like Guangxi, to Southeast Asian countries is a central rationale in the provinces’ foreign policy. The particularly strategic nature of Southeast Asia in the Maritime Silk Roads emphasises the importance and strength of the Chinese provinces in foreign affairs, particularly through the considerable weight of the provinces. Like Mierzejewski, aforementioned Lee Jones and Jinghan Zeng (2019) highlighted the contemporary role of Chinese provinces in an effort to deconstruct the narratives on the PRC’s “grand strategy” regarding the Belt and Road Initiative. According to the authors, one has to take in consideration the fragmented, decentralised and internationalised nature of Chinese politics to account relevantly and precisely for the dynamics of the BRI in Southeast Asia in which cross-border paradiplomacy is an impactful phenomenon.

Guangxi Province: Benefitting from the New Overall Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in Pushing Local Interest

The New Turn in the Relationship between China and Southeast Asia and the Rise of Guangxi

18The Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is one of the five autonomous regions of China, along with Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang. It is home to the Zhuang people, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by the PRC. Guangxi is located on the southern edge of China and borders the Gulf of Tonkin. It borders Guangdong’s provinces to the east, Yunnan to the west, and Vietnam to the south. Along with Liaoning province in the northeast of China, Guangxi is the only Chinese region with a land border with a neighbouring country and a maritime border that naturally projects its coastal zones into the South China Sea. These geographical features make the region a major trade interface between China and Southeast Asia. The rich historical connections between Guangxi and Southeast Asia are also evidenced by the ethical, cultural and intergenerational exchanges between both populations.

19Guangxi’s geo-strategic position and the historical context of the Cold War have long placed the autonomous region, like Yunnan, at the heart of China’s national security interests and have thus considerably limited the ability of the local authorities to develop trade with neighbouring countries. Guangxi served as a rear base for China’s military when supporting Vietnam in the wars against France and the United States, but also for its offensive against its southern neighbour in 1979 as a response to the latter’s occupation of Cambodia. These national security issues continued to hamper trade between the region and its neighbours long after the “reform and opening up” (改革开放) policy was launched, because of persistent tensions between China and Vietnam until the 1990s. For this reason and because of its relatively weak industrial base in Guangxi, the port city of Beihai, despite being one of the 14 port cities opened to foreign investment in 1984, has not experienced the economic development of cities like Tianjin, Shanghai or Guangzhou (Li 2019).

20Guangxi’s ability to capitalise on the promotion of trade with its Southeast Asian neighbours to promote its own development becomes possible following the double shift in the geopolitical context and domestic politics from the 1990s onwards. In the 1990s, following the advent of a new era in Sino-US relations in 1972, the launch of the period of reform and opening up in 1978 and then the fall of the USSR in 1991, a period of “strategic opportunity” (战略机遇) for China in the region opened up (Cabestan 2015). Not perceiving any direct threats to its security and concentrating its efforts on its economic development, China launched a charm offensive with the Southeast Asian states. This is how the concepts of “good neighbourliness” (睦邻友好) and “peaceful emergence” (和平崛起) appeared in Chinese foreign policy in the early 1990s. This good-neighbour policy is intended to serve, among other objectives, to open up China’s outlying provinces by increasing trade with neighbouring countries. At the turn of the 21st century, after allowing the coastal provinces to become “richer first” (先富起来), the development of China’s peripheral provinces, including Guangxi, became a priority during the mandates of Jiang Zemin and then Hu Jintao to reduce the inequalities in development in China that were threatening the unity of the country. It is in this context that the province of Guangxi was granted more autonomy and preferential policies from the Chinese central authorities for the development of the provincial and national economy.

21Due to its strategic advantages and its historical links with Southeast Asian countries, Guangxi’s aim to be a central actor in the subregional trade led it to be at the initiative of many connectivity projects long before the launch of the BRI. The authorities of Guangxi Province began to take the initiative to develop its trade with Southeast Asia rigorously from the 2000s onwards. In 2005, the autonomous region became an official member of the Greater Mekong Subregion Cooperation Framework, a transnational development programme launched by the Asian Development Bank in 1992. It englobes the frontier members of Cambodia, Yunnan and Guangxi Province, as well as Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. Capitalising on the infrastructural and logistic network built by Guangxi and Yunnan actors with Southeast Asia, Guangxi province diversified its strategies. It mobilised its resources by investing in facility connectivity, data connectivity and trade flow with ASEAN (Ploberger, Soavapa & Tao 2021). Guangxi is engaged in the process of building industrial clusters worth a total of USD 700 billion in the sectors of non-ferrous metals, green chemistry, information and communication technologies, light industry and food processing, pulp and paper, equipment manufacturing and energy (Liu & Song 2021). Moreover, the bilateral trade between Guangxi province and Southeast Asian countries was further boosted by the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and China-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Cooperation signed in 2002, followed by the Agreement of Trade of Goods of the framework in 2004, which came into force in 2005. The intensification of trade exchanges with Southeast Asia was coupled with the hosting of the China-ASEAN Expo by the Guangxi province in Nanning, the regional capital. Since its launch in 2004, the annual event has become the most crucial incubator platform for trade and investment opportunities between China and Southeast Asia. By 2017, the China-ASEAN Expo had hosted 63 national political leaders, 27 ministry officials and more than 400,000 businesspeople from China and ASEAN countries since its launch (Li 2019). Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and strict national sanitary restraints, the Expo was exceptionally held in September 2022 to ensure its momentum of strengthening trade networks and regional connectivity among enterprises, traders and investors in the region. It concluded a record 267 domestic and international deals, with an investment of over 400 billion yuan (about USD 57 billion), a 37% increase over 2021 (Xinhua 2022). Here, Guangxi’s ability to lobby and take advantage of the growing economic cooperation framework between China and ASEAN countries to benefit local interests can be seen as a “trailblazing” action led by Chinese provinces, one of the mechanisms used to influence Chinese foreign policy described by Wong (2018).

Guangxi at the Heart of Logistics and Mineral Resources Supply Chains Between China and Southeast Asia: Pushing its Own Agenda under the BRI Framework

  • 6 And farm and sideline products processing (9.7%), manufacture of automobiles (9.7%), production and (...)

22Within this favourable context, the Guangxi authorities also developed their own strategy to strengthen economic cooperation with ASEAN countries, in particular, the upgrading of industrial value chains and regional base since the early 2000s. The contribution of the industrial sector to GDP has steadily increased and maintained since the “reform and opening-up” in 1978, with a ten-year average of 25.8% (1981-1990), 29.1% (1991-2000), 30.2% (2001-2010) and 28.1% (2011-2020), as compared to the drastic drop in the GDP’s contribution from the primary sector (Guangxi Statistical Bureau and Survey Office 2021). In particular, the revenue of the industrial base related to logistics and mining has contributed to the overall business revenue of Guangxi, given the increasing attention and investment from the Guangxi authorities. In 2020, the business revenue from the industrial sector came from the smelting and processing of ferrous metals (14.1%), smelting and processing of non-ferrous metals (9.9%), manufacture of non-metal mineral products (8.4%) and manufacture of computers, communication and other electronic equipment (6.7%).6

  • 7 Southern Manganese Group Ltd is owned by Youfu Investment (29%), Guangxi Dameng (which is owned by (...)

23Firstly, in regarding merchandise exports, the Guangxi province is moving from an export model of low-end agricultural and industrial products to exporting goods with higher added value. For example, electrical and manufactured products have proliferated in recent years. In 2019, Guangxi exported RMB 130.95 billion of electrical and mechanical products and RMB 52.83 billion of high-tech products, accounting for more than half of the total exports (Liu & Song 2021). Secondly, regarding ore processing, Guangxi province encourages and facilitates the investment in ore smelters to process domestic and imported raw materials before exporting semi-finished or finished products. As evidenced above, smelting and processing of ferrous and non-ferrous metals lead the provincial industrial revenues. The iron and manganese smelters expand as part of Guangxi’s agenda in upgrading the value chain mining industry with ASEAN by taking advantages from the regional cooperation frameworks. For example, Southern Manganese Group Ltd,7 based near to Qinzhou Port, imports Malaysian manganese ore at a reduced tariff, under favourable conditions of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and then exports to Japan as a raw material for batteries (Xinhua 2022). At the conjecture of the China-ASEAN Expo 2022, the Guangxi’s agenda for advancing its cross-border industrial and supply value chains with ASEAN countries was also reiterated by the head of the Guangxi’s regional commerce department (ibid.). Hence, the growing interest of Guangxi authorities in the upgrading strategy has accentuated its position at the heart of logistics and mineral resources supply chains between China and Southeast Asia, and even within the Asia Pacific region.

  • 8 The New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor is a trade and logistics passage with an operational (...)

24Besides industrial upgrading, part of upgrading value chains’ strategies is to integrate it in a logistic and portuaire zone. In promoting the idea of an economic cooperation zone around the Gulf of Tonkin, including the South China Sea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia since 2006 (Emerson 2020), it allowed the Guangxi province to position itself as a key trading hub between the western provinces of China and the Southeast Asia countries. From the outset, the provincial authorities actively explored a diversed form of trade and maritime cooperation with the ASEAN countries, such as port cooperation, maritime tourism and the joint exploitation of energy resources (Li 2019). Furthermore, its connecting flagship Beibu Gulf Port has been framed and promoted as “an important transit point in the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor,8 a BRI-boosted trade and logistics gateway with Southeast Asia” (Global Times 2022). In the first half of 2022 alone, imports and exports between Qinzhou Port, the key port of the Beibu Gulf, and ASEAN countries reached RMB 4.88 billion, an increase of 48% over 2021 (Xinhua 2022). This remarkable trade increase in time of the Chinese prolonged Covid-19 crisis has distinguished Guangxi in two ways. On the one hand, Guangxi was resilient and has weathered the rupture in trade and commercial activities with the ASEAN members, being distinctive from the global trade market disruption during the pandemic. On the other hand, it reinforced Guangxi’s determination and capacity in putting and moving forward the logistics and industrial supply chain with ASEAN members beyond crisis, geostrategic and temporal limits.

25Having this background laid out, we discuss the Guangxi province’s role in intermediating the central government and Guangxi’s overseas investment in Southeast Asia by taking Guangxi’s investment in the mining sector in Southeast Asia as a case study. We do so by identifying and analysing the main provincial institutions and individuals involved and the strategies deployed.

Institutions, Individuals and Strategies in China-ASEAN Mining Investment: How Guangxi Province Pushes its Own Agenda under a Fragmented China

Guangxi Ministries and Agencies as “Central Policy Agents”

26Being home to non-ferrous mining, metallurgy and heavy industry, Guangxi’s historical sectoral expertise was integrated into the provincial economic development and foreign investment policies. Particularly in mineral resources investment, Guangxi province integrates its local foreign affairs with the central policies and motivation for Southeast Asian mines (Morris-Jung 2018), invoking “embedded diplomacy” (嵌入式外交), as laid out by Mierzejewski (2021). As Xi Jinping has constantly emphasised Guangxi’s role in ASEAN over the last two decades, the Guangxi authorities showed voluntarist interest in the central government in exploring regional investment in ASEAN (Chen 2014). In this sense, Guangxi authorities are represented by the Guangxi ministries and supporting agencies which are regarded as “central policy agents” (中央代理人). These provincial hierarchical agents have different intermediate scales of decision, influence and action towards mining investment with ASEAN. Each exercises its level of decision and policies while intermediating with that of the state party.

27In tapping into Southeast Asian mines, Guangxi ministries have taken the initiative in setting up a diversity of cooperation frameworks with ASEAN countries, both collectively and bilaterally. At the core of the cooperation framework, the Guangxi government, on the one hand, volunteered and lobbied Beijing to tap into the mineral reservoirs in its backyard, while on the other hand, mobilised and gathered its ministries and supporting agencies to initiate and pilot China-ASEAN Mining Forum and Exhibition since 2009.9 This annual forum hosts relevant ministries, senior officials, mining associations, practitioners, experts, and traders from the ASEAN countries in Nanning for collective and bilateral meetings, signing the memoranda of understanding and networking between Chinese and ASEAN counterparts. Looking at the central-province relation, the Department of Land and Resources of Guangxi is supported by and coordinated with the central-level Ministry of Natural Resources PRC, the Ministry of Natural Resources International Cooperation Section and the China Geological Survey. At the same time, within the Guangxi province, the Department of Land and Resources of Guangxi leads and acts on a multiplicity of provincial departments in implementing its decision and influence from within, namely the Guangxi Bureau of Geology and Mineral Prospecting & Exploration, Guangxi Department of Commerce, Guangxi Council for Promotion of International Trade.

  • 10 Guo Shengkun, Secretary of the Party Committee of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Chairman of (...)

28Nonetheless, although the Department of Land and Resources of Guangxi and its affiliations have been given authority, privileges and support by the central government,10 they are circumvented by the numerous multi-linking central agencies in terms of decision-making, orientation and objective of the annual forum. In addition to the central ministries and agencies (i.e. Ministry of Natural Resources International Cooperation Section and China Geological Survey), the central government also mobilised and directed multiple national expertise agencies, mining associations, research institutes and universities to be integrated into the forum policy, including the Chinese Academy of Natural Resources Economics, Late Satellite Remote Sensing Application Centre, China Association for Geospatial Information Society, China University of Geosciences, China Mining Association and China Gold Association. In other words, the Guangxi Department of Land and Resources is not left with full autonomy in all aspects despite of its long-standing industrial and regional expertise over Beijing. Still, it is subjected to technical expertise, advice and consultation from the central-related institutions. Hence, while being the central policy agents facilitating the dialogues with the ASEAN mining network, Guangxi ministries and agencies remain semi-autonomous for the central government in this national overseas investment agenda in ASEAN countries.

29Given a certain degree of autonomy, not only do the Guangxi authorities project the central policies and objectives, but they also present a platform for the central agencies to bridge and enforce their relations with the ASEAN members. Along with the annual forum, Guangxi authorities hosted in parallel the three high-profile ASEAN sectorial meetings, i.e., ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Minerals, the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Minerals and ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting On Minerals + 3 (China, Japan, Korea) (Mottet, Courmont & Lasserre 2015). Such arrangement not only allows the central government and the Guangxi province to be well connected to a cluster of the highest level of ASEAN decision-makers and industry leaders but, more importantly, cultivates a hosting and attachment image, where China, via its window to ASEAN (Guangxi) is presented to ASEAN as the host, rather than only Guangxi. In intermediating this bilateral and direct relationship with the Southeast Asian industry leaders, Guangxi province extended its role from being a “central policy agent” to a diplomatic partner, implementer and booster for Beijing with the Southeast Asian countries (Li 2019; Ploberger, Soavapa & Tao 2021).

30In addition to the organisational diplomatic strategy with the ASEAN high-rank officers, the Guangxi authorities aligned a common interest and preference to exploiting its structural positions to generate deliberate outcomes (Goh 2014; Benabdallah 2020). Such intention was achieved by aligning themes or slogans with ASEAN’s interest, such as “mutual benefit cooperation”, a common discourse of “win-win development”, “green mining mutual prosperity” or “building together One Belt, One Road”,11 etc. These ideas, familiar in Beijing’s agenda, are framed and channelled into the annual forum to influence the policy outcome (Paquin 2016: 114). In particular, the ASEAN senior officials are more convinced to participate in the forum, as these ideas resonate with ASEAN’s cooperation priorities and action plans, i.e. enhancing trade and investment in the mining sector; promoting environmentally and socially sustainable mining development.12 In this regard, these ideas supported Guangxi’s objective to intensify the common preferential conditions between China and ASEAN in the mining investment, thus improvising the annual forum and its auxiliary centres as a “preference multiplier” (Goh 2014; Benabdallah 2020). The auxiliary centres born out of this China-ASEAN mining cooperation framework include the China-ASEAN mining personnel exchange & training centre (since 2013), the China-ASEAN geological cooperation centre (since 2015) and the China-ASEAN Mining Information Service Platform (ASEAN liaison offices in Laos [since 2016] and in Malaysia [since 2018] [Cher 2021]). These dispositions are set to multiply Chinese interest in a series of aspects (the mobilisation of personnel, technical training, and digitalisation of data) to reinforce the influence, access and industrial connectivity to ASEAN member countries, not only vis-à-vis the Guangxi authorities but also signification China at large. Coupled with a series of China-ASEAN cooperation frameworks, mining-specific or in general, Chinese investment in ASEAN mining soared in 2014, up to 30% of total FDI (ASEANstats cited in Lafaye De Micheaux & Chiang [2022]).

Interlocking Roles: How Individuals Articulate Convergence and Contradiction in Chinese Policymaking and Implementation

31As discussed earlier, the hierarchical structure of the bureaucracies implies not only a reciprocal influence on the construction, modification and implementation of ASEAN’s mining investment policies but also that the intermediate position of these bureaucrats in the hierarchy is allowed to influence the decision-making processes (see Allison 1971). Drawing on Allison’s approach in Essence of Decision (ibid.), we first analyse the formation and sphere of influence of the high-ranked Guangxi bureaucrats implicative in the China-ASEAN mining cooperation framework. Second, we examine central bureaucrats’ contradicting and competing interests towards the Guangxi counterparts, which has led to conflicting and fragmented decisions.

Converging Interests of the Individuals in Advancing the Provincial Implementation

32After discussing the role of the Guangxi province as a “central political agent”, here we aim to understand the interests and influence of individual trajectories. The network of ministries and supporting agencies underlines the intertwined interests of Guangxi bureaucrats, SOE directors, associative leaders, and industry experts. In the decision-making and implementation process of the Chinese mining investment with ASEAN, two high-ranked intermediaries individuals are identified, namely the deputy director of the Department of Land and Resources of Guangxi and the deputy president of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous government.

  • 13 An example of the precedent deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources and Land of Guan (...)

33Firstly, the deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources of Guangxi is generally a state-party member who, on the one hand, lobbies the provincial interest for the central government’s support and recognition and, on the other hand, coordinates the national policy in the local overseas investment policy. More specifically, the said deputy director holds the responsibility of the secretary-general of the China-ASEAN Mining Forum Secretariat, the chairman of the Guangxi Mining Association, the director of the Guangxi Geological Survey as well as the liaising officer with the Department of Natural Resources Department of Trade Centre Division.13 Given his concurrent and overlapping positions, the scale and weightage of his decisions are amplified and strengthened across the Guangxi authorities, the industry association and the technical expert community. Extending beyond Chinese constituents and spheres, this intermediary figure establishes bilateral industrial and commercial links with the mining associations and the overseas Chinese business associations in the ASEAN countries. For instance, a business visit by the said deputy director to the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce in Kuala Lumpur was a catalyst for the foundation and expansion of the forum’s network during its formative years in 2011 (Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce 2011). The visit, which coincided with Wen Jiabao’s official visit to Malaysia in the same year, accentuated its importance, thus consolidating its impact on the progressive implementation of Guangxi’s strategy in the forum. Hence, the accumulation of roles and interests allows the bureaucrat intermediary to impose and influence provincial decisions and policies through his interest in the industrial association and his expertise while being fostered by the central power.

  • 14 Compilation of different sources by authors.

34Secondly, among the deputy presidents of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous government, those in charge of the Guangxi cooperation with ASEAN investment affairs were primarily professionals by training, in the fields of geoscience, geology, public administration and economics, among others some preside over mining-specific industrial entities, while others oversee a larger administrative unit or a specific unit, such as the infrastructure planning of the Guangxi Beibu Gulf Economic Zone.14 The former are very much involved as industry-focused decision makers in the process of implementing China-ASEAN mining cooperation frameworks. The fact that they are invited to the forum every year and involved in high-levelled meetings, along with central bureaucrats, is a testament to their influence as policymakers and industry leaders in the regional sphere. Such a high political profile facilitates orientation and policy with Beijing in extending industrial influence outward in Southeast Asia.

35These two intermediaries represent the Guangxi authorities and are primarily responsible for projecting and implementing Chinese interests in Southeast Asian mines. They are key actors behind Guangxi as the central policy agent and the intermediary individuals who facilitate the implementation and negotiation with the central authorities.

Contradiction of Interest between Guangxi and Central Bureaucrats: Ruptures and Disorientation in the Provincial Implementation

  • 15 To illustrate an example of the central bureacrats, XiongWeiping was a member of the central commis (...)

36Nonetheless, to a certain extent, the two interest groups above contradict central-level interest groups with a like interest in the China-ASEAN mining corporation framework. The latter, the central bureaucrats, are the main sponsors of the annual forum and, simultaneously, the chairmen and Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of China State-owned enterprise (SOEs) and SOE subsidiaries. For example, the representative of the Ministry of Natural Resources of China holds a central committee membership, the chairman and CEO positions of the China-SOE (Chalco) and the president of the SOE subsidiary (Chinalco) and the sponsorship and guest in the forum, not mentioning their automatic membership in the Guangxi and China Mining Associations.15 In some cases, the Chinese SOE mediated a political motif to pursue its own mandate and establish corporate-corporate cooperation with ASEAN countries without relying on the intermediate of the Guangxi authorities.

37As a result of the conflicting interest, the multiplicity of the scale of decision-making and influence leads to complicity in the hierarchy and conflicts between the bureaucracy and affiliated SOE, exacerbating the disharmonisation and fragmentation embedded in the bureaucracy. Indeed, the example of Guangxi’s mining investment in the ASEAN echoes three of the four types of fragmentation manifestations laid out above by Lieberthal and Oksenberg (1988: 24-25).

  • 16 A year after the cancellation of the Annual Forum in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Annual (...)
  • 17 The intensive and multiple-scaled changes in the reorganisation of the Guangxi bureaucracies are ob (...)
  • 18 Drawing an example of Sun Zhaoxue, prior to being convicted of corruption, he was the General Manag (...)

38Referring to the first manifestation, the specification of the mission of each individual prevents the establishment of coherent policies and favours the construction of contradictory policies. The contradictory level affects the organisational behaviour of interest groups and institutional leadership. Internal mismanagement and contradiction between Beijing and Guangxi led to the undue and abrupt cancellation of the annual China-ASEAN Mining Forum in 202216, resulting in a rupture of the dynamics vis-à-vis ASEAN countries. The second manifestation is that the multiplicity of actors leads to a multiplicity of decisions. Each bureaucrat (Guangxi or Beijing) pushes his own priorities, whether political, to seek career advancement or business. Even within the Guangxi bureaucracy, the actors are fragmented due to “multiple units of influence and decision” (Dahl 1961). Hence, the lack of harmonisation between the central and provincial actors or among provincial actors led to the disruptive waves of reorganisation of Guangxi bureaucrats within the Guangxi Natural Resources Department as well as the Guangxi Zhuang Government by the central government, particularly during the years of 2015, 2018 and 2022.17 Lastly, from an operational perspective, the fragmentation of authority complicates the advancement of policies within the system and its ability to deal effectively with different problems, especially in its international policies with Southeast Asia. This can be evidenced by the corruptions of the CEO of the SOE China Gold International Resources Corp Ltd18 or the precedent deputy president of the Guangxi Zhuang government that destabilised the accountability in the bureaucracy and the implementation of the mining framework with ASEAN.

39To sum up, behind Guangxi’s role as the intermediary of the provincial projection in ASEAN, the driving force is primarily the ministries, agencies and interlocking individuals who hold intertwined functions and decision-making powers towards the Guangxi investment in ASEAN. The semi-autonomous nature of the Guangxi authorities is subjected to the bureaucratic arrangement of the state party, which resulted in the fragmentation of bureaucracy and ruptures in the Guangxi overseas investment planning with ASEAN countries.

Finding Consensus among Divergent Interests in Front of Beijing: The Guangxi Strategy to Take Advantage of National Resources

40To convince the various stakeholders, the Guangxi Autonomous Region has taken initiatives in negotiating and integrating Beijing’s interests and resources into its provincial overseas investment policies. Guangxi has organised major conventions since 2006, inviting not only Beijing officials but also heads of state, think tank analysts and journalists from the various ASEAN countries concerned to discuss these proposals. The provincial authorities have strongly advocated that the idea of an economic cooperation zone around the Gulf of Tonkin should become a significant component of official cooperation between China and ASEAN. They carried out lobbying activities, including inviting central government leaders and representatives from various ministries to visit Guangxi to meet with leaders from Southeast Asian countries. As a result, the initiative was eventually included in several political declarations between China and ASEAN countries. For example, the Nanning-Singapore Economic Corridor is officially part of the China-Indonesia Economic Corridor, one of the six main economic corridors of the BRI (Li 2019). These policy initiatives promoted by the autonomous region have been incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative plan.

41In the mining sector, the Guangxi Department of Land and Natural Resources and Guangxi Geological Bureau backed support from the China Ministry of Natural Resources PRC, Ministry of Finance and China International Trade Promotion Committees in initiating platforms for China and ASEAN mining, including the regional forum discussed above, personnel training and technical centres and China-ASEAN geological centre and data sharing platform. At the provincial level, multiple agencies with composite and different levels of hierarchies and interests were involved. Despite the diversifying interest and motivations of the provincial actors, it appeared that the Guangxi province advanced under a collective leadership when it came to bargaining for more resources and support from Beijing. Lampton & Lieberthal (1992) suggested that bargaining underlies unbalanced bureaucratic negotiations, disagreements and asymmetric interdependencies between the provincial and central authorities. The Guangxi authorities, through an intertwined grouping of departmental officials, directors and SOEs, managed to back support from Beijing and advanced its provincial interests and ideas in the foreign mining investment policies in Southeast Asia. Its semi-autonomous nature resonates with the notion of fragmentation in distribution and priority of interest from the central to the provinces.


42By analysing the role of actors from Guangxi province in mining investments in Southeast Asia, our research shows how the existing literature on interest groups in China and the fragmentation of power remains relevant, despite the process of recentralisation of public decision-making initiated since Xi Jinping came to power. The Chinese provinces are major players in the definition and implementation of public policies and the involvement of the Chinese provinces in the shaping of China’s foreign policy is no exception. This is particularly the case for border provinces such as Guangxi, whose experience and expertise in dealing with its Southeast Asian neighbours makes it an essential player that Beijing can hardly do without. Thus, notions such as “central policy agent” developed by the political science literature to analyse the role of local authorities in China’s political system make it possible to characterise Guangxi actors in the Chinese projection in Southeast Asia as intermediaries between local and central agendas. On the one hand, they implement the strategic objectives set by Beijing in their relationships with their Southeast Asian neighbours. On the other hand, they defend their own strategic interest in defining the major foreign policy initiatives decided in Beijing and implement these initiatives at the local level in a way that is more favourable to their own interests. In the mining sector, we have shown that the Guangxi province has put forward and advanced its interest in the industry in Southeast Asia through its ministries and a network of supporting agencies acting as central policy agents. Despite being circumvented by Beijing’s affiliations and supervision, Guangxi ministerial authorities experimented and explored beyond its semi-autonomy status, on one hand, to connect collectively with the ASEAN high-ranked ministers and industry decision-makers, and on the other hand, to multiplier its own preferential conditions into China-ASEAN mining framework. At the individual trajectory, two influential figures spur respective spheres of influence yet consolidate interlocking interests to implement Guangxi’s projection in the Southeast Asian mining industry. They, however, faced contradictory interests and priorities with the central bureaucrats due to fragmentation in the bureaucracy, thus giving rise to a series of ruptures and disruptions to the dynamics with ASEAN industrial members. It is also in this scenario that central-local actors negotiated in a continuum for the distribution of national resources, power and essentially their influence in Southeast Asia. By concretising negotiations in the industry under fragmented China, the provincial strategies of institutions and the role of intermediary actors offer an industry-specific and actor-centered understanding of the articulation of central-local dynamics and the projection of Chinese outward investment in Southeast Asia.

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Note de fin

1 In political science, the elite theory seeks to explain the State organization and distribution of power through the analysis of elites, which are described as minority groups holding most economic and political powers. Elitism is traditionally opposed to pluralism. As exemplified by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca or Roberto Michels’ groundbreaking works (Pareto 1902; Pareto & Boven 1917; Michels 1911; Mosca 1923).

2 The term appears for the first time in Dahl & Lindblom (1953).

3 We can also mention Goodman (1984).

4 It should be noted that the results highlighted correspond to studies conducted solely in the energy field, which is the only area of public policy addressed in the book via two major case studies (Three Gorges Dam and the oil industry) (Lieberthal & Oksenberg 1988: 169-338)

5 There are several ways and semantics to describe the international actions of subnational actors, but paradiplomacy is probably one of the most famous. In its broadest sense, it can be defined as the pursuit of international activities by substate entities (e.g., federal states, regions, cities etc.). The term then refers to international and diplomatic activities carried out “in parallel” to those of central states. The latter can develop in harmony with central diplomacy, but also in opposition to it.

6 And farm and sideline products processing (9.7%), manufacture of automobiles (9.7%), production and supply of electric power and hot water (8.4%), cited in Guangxi Statistical Bureau and Survey Office (2021).

7 Southern Manganese Group Ltd is owned by Youfu Investment (29%), Guangxi Dameng (which is owned by State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the Guangxi government) (22.64%), CITIC Metal (5.92%), Fengxiang Investment (5.39%) and public shareholders (37.05%), URL:, accessed on 23 January 2023.

8 The New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor is a trade and logistics passage with an operational hub centered on Chingqing. The corridor is a joint project of western Chinese provinces (Chongqing, Guangxi, Guizhou, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Ningxia) and Singapore under the government-to-government framework of the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity. Guangxi Beibu Gulf Port was integrated into the corridor.

9 Refer to the organisational structure of the annual forum, URL:

10 Guo Shengkun, Secretary of the Party Committee of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Autonomous Region, expressed in his speech at the 2011 forum that over the years, “the Ministry of Land and Resources and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade have provided Guangxi with a lot of support and assistance for its opening up and organisation of the China-ASEAN Mining Cooperation Forum.” Concurrently, the Deputy Minister of Lands and Resources Wang Min thanked the Party Committee and Government of the Guangxi Autonomous Region for their comittement and expressed Beijing’s high regard and support for the forum (Government of PRC 2011).

11 Refer to the programme of the China-ASEAN mining forum, URL:; see also the China-ASEAN Mining Cooperation Forum and Exhibition speech selection 2010-2013, CAM Secretariat, CABIS, see also the Malaysian Chamber of Mines Yearbook, 2000-2019.

12 See URL:

13 An example of the precedent deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources and Land of Guangxi is named Tian Fengming. The overlap of his positions is evidenced in several sources: MOFCOM (2012); China-ASEAN Business Council (2012); ASEAN-China Center (2013); Guangxi Mining Association: “Key leaders of the 5th Council of the Guangxi Mining Association (广西矿业协会第五届理事会主要领导)”, URL:, accessed on 10 October 2022.

14 Compilation of different sources by authors.

15 To illustrate an example of the central bureacrats, XiongWeiping was a member of the central commission for discipline inspection, was also chairman and CEO in SOE Chalco and President of SOE subsidiary, Chinalco. These SOE were the main sponsors of the Forum; hence Xiong was invited as one of the key speakers at the forum, along with other central and Guangxi bureaucrats. This status automatically makes him a member of Guangxi and China Mining Associations. See China-ASEAN Mining Cooperation Forum and Exhibition speech selection 2010-2013, CAM Secretariat, CABIS; URL:; URL:; URL:, accessed between Mai and November 2022.

16 A year after the cancellation of the Annual Forum in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Annual Forum in 2021 is restarted to be held online with the virtual participation of the ASEAN members and the physical presence of their Chinese counterparts in Nanning in May 2021. The forum in 2022 is scheduled to remain online until final and short notice of cancellation is given three days before the actual date. See “2022 China-ASEAN Mining Cooperation Forum and Promotion Exhibition Cancelled (2022中国—东盟矿业合作论坛暨推介展示会取消)”, on 19 July 2022, URL: ; interview with an industry expert, September 2022.

17 The intensive and multiple-scaled changes in the reorganisation of the Guangxi bureaucracies are observed in multiple years: “A number of recent changes to the leadership of the Guangxi Party Committee (广西党委领导班子近期多项调整)”, on 22 April 2015, URL:; “More than 10 provinces have changed their party committee teams after the two sessions (两会后地方大员密集调整 十余省份党委班子变动)”, on 18 March 2018, URL:, accessed in November 2022.

18 Drawing an example of Sun Zhaoxue, prior to being convicted of corruption, he was the General Manager and Party Secretary of China Gold Group Corporation, Chairman of China Gold Association, Chairman of China Gold Corporation, Chairman of China Gold International Resources Limited, Vice Chairman of the 8th Council of China Enterprise Confederation and China Entrepreneur Association. See URL:; “Sun Zhaoxue was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and confiscation of RMB 3.5 million for taking bribes in a case of unexplained source of property”, on 27 December 2016, URL:, accessed in November 2022.

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Hui-Yun Cher, Xavier Delannay et Aymeric Mariette, « Chinese Provinces as Semi-Autonomous Diplomatic Actors in China’s Investments in Southeast Asia. Evidence from Guangxi Institutions and Individuals in the Mining Sector »Moussons, 41 | 2023, 195-221.

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Hui-Yun Cher, Xavier Delannay et Aymeric Mariette, « Chinese Provinces as Semi-Autonomous Diplomatic Actors in China’s Investments in Southeast Asia. Evidence from Guangxi Institutions and Individuals in the Mining Sector »Moussons [En ligne], 41 | 2023, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Hui-Yun Cher

Hui-Yun Cher is a doctoral student in history and economy at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (Inalco, Paris) and at the Centre Asie du Sud-Est (CASE, Paris). Her thesis focuses on the strategies of mining companies from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day in Malaysia, particularly under the increasing influence of Chinese investment in Southeast Asian mines.

Xavier Delannay

Xavier Delannay is a second year master’s student in the Master’s in Political Science, programme in International Relations at Sciences Po Paris. During his gap year, he spent 6 months at Centre Asie du Sud-Est (CASE, Paris) and Centre d'études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains et asiatiques (CESSMA, Paris) as a trainee under the direction of Nathalie Fau (université Paris-Diderot/CESSMA) and Elsa Lafaye De Micheaux (université Rennes 2/CASE).

Aymeric Mariette

Aymeric Mariette is a doctoral student in political economy at université Paris Cité, at Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains et asiatiques (CESSMA, Paris) and at Centre Asie du Sud-Est (CASE, Paris). His thesis focuses on special economic zones (SEZs) implemented by Chinese companies in Southeast Asia, in a comparative perspective with China’s own experience of SEZs.

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