The rise of China not only changes the power structure of the world, but also becomes one of the phenomena affecting global development in the 21st century. Apart from statistics and indicators of economic development, foreign investment, military spending and activities to disseminate soft power made in China, it can be asked “Can China lead?” or “in which ways can China rules the world”. While some argue about a “Chinese exceptionalism” breaking all the rules forecasted in international relations, some explain, based on Chinese norms and values, there are opposite arguments about a collapsing China, a Chinese threat or a Chinese hegemony aiming only to power and power strengthening. The different, or even opposite, views stem from the fact that potential impact of Chinese leadership is that it is multifaceted, regarding both its inner force and its performance. This depends on power, the way to utilize power and interactions between China on other countries on a specific issue. 

Utilizing China’s leadership projects in the Great Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) as a case study, this paper argues that its geographic position and economic rise allow China to be a “system maker and privilege taker”, which is a dual role forming in economic-political relations in the GMS in the last ten years. China is among major driving forces to set up an economic zone in GMS. Growing Chinese regional power is intimately related to the creation of various hubs connecting regional transportation, communication and energy systems that foster the economic development of this region. However, China also proves dark sides of rising powers which take advantage of their privileges to gain benefits. As a “system maker” with its own position and capability, China has notably benefited from building hydropower systems. More importantly, while China is pursuing its benefits and privileges, its hydropower projects have caused some negative effects for the ecosystem in the region. The inflation of dam constructions of in both China and GMS countries is raising concerns about using natural resources of the Mekong River.

Our concluding part addresses the pressing need to start a serious discussion on the balance between national interests and regional solidarity within the formulation of Chinese foreign policy in GMS. From the Chinese view, becoming a power responsible for providing public goods or private goods in many cases is costly which can be a “trap” forcing China to contribute more, however. Therefore, from the most realistic view, China in the next few years will be a mix of elements of responsible leadership which are selective in different situations. “How to choose” and “in which field” amid the country’s political status are questions that require lucid decisions of Chinese elites.


Truong-Minh Vu, Faculty of International Relations, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Ho-Chi-Minh City, Vietnam (

Read the article:

VU, Truong-Minh. Between system maker and privileges taker: the role of China in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <;. access on  19  Oct.  2014.


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