Ideology’s return to China’s domestic politics – and the Communist Party ’s increasing confidence in its own political model – has drawn into sharper focus how Beijing conducts its outreach abroad. Party-to-party exchanges have featured prominently, especially in Beijing’s approach to Southeast Asia given the critical role that the region plays in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy. Since President Xi Jinping assumed power, the Communist Party has engaged in high-level conferences, summits, seminars, forums, and training sessions with political parties across the region. Party diplomacy is considered indispensable to the Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics plan that Xi introduced. The growing prominence of China’s party diplomacy in Southeast Asia begs the question of whether it is driven by ideological zeal – harking back to the country’s export of communist revolutionary ideology in the 1950s-1970s – or pragmatism. Asean should ditch ‘younger brother’ mentality, experts tell SCMP conference China’s external affairs are managed by its foreign ministry, but the party’s International Liaison Department also has a part to play due to the blurred lines between party and state under the country’s one-party system. The department, which was founded in 1951, claims to have connections with more than 600 political parties and organisations from over 160 countries and regions worldwide. Its website highlights how China’s Communist Party has sought to strengthen bonds with its counterparts in Vietnam and Laos – and forge ties with non-communist secular and religious parties across Southeast Asia – over the past two years despite the Covid-19 pandemic . The authoritarian turns that Cambodia , Thailand and the Philippines have taken over the past decade provided a golden opportunity for Beijing to enhance ties with those governments, helping China further consolidate its political and economic influence over the region. Yet its pragmatic approach to party diplomacy, aimed at “transcending differences in ideology and political systems” and “building a global political party partnership network” is reflected in the fact that China continues to maintain relations with parties in most Southeast Asian countries. This pragmatism is also apparent in the messages China conveys to Southeast Asian political parties. Promoting Xi Jinping-style governance First, instead of preaching communist doctrine, it promotes its governance experience in party building, economic development, pandemic prevention and poverty alleviation – all attributed to the Communist Party’s strong leadership with President Xi as its core. The party’s International Liaison Department has introduced Xi Jinping: The Governance of China – a collection of Xi’s speeches and writings on state governance – in its meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, launching translated editions of the book in Cambodia, Laos , Malaysia , Thailand and Vietnam. A Xinhua report on the book’s launch in Cambodia touted that it drew “scores of readers from the Senate, the National Assembly and all ministries”, with a quote from the head of the Cambodian Senate’s Human Resources Development Department on the importance of learning about China’s experience for Phnom Penh to synthesise its development strategy with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative . Thailand’s prime minister, former junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, is also reported to have asked his cabinet to read the book. Boosting the Belt and Road Initiative Second, China’s Communist Party regards its interactions with the political parties of Southeast Asia as a crucial channel for promoting its economic agenda, especially the Belt and Road Initiative. Between January 2020 and May 2022, it established joint consultation mechanisms on belt and road plans with political parties in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand; and convened a joint belt-and-road consultation conference with parties from both South and Southeast Asia to engage them collectively. Belt and road plan’s ‘long-term prospects’ at risk in Southeast Asia: study The Communist Party’s understanding of the difference between “state diplomacy” and “party diplomacy” means that inter-party contacts are not constrained by the same diplomatic protocols as state-to-state exchanges, allowing it to use such consultation mechanisms to promote belt and road norms: open regionalism, multilateralism, developmentalism and win-win cooperation among them. Rallying support against Western criticism Third, the Communist Party has sought to rally Southeast Asian support as a buffer against Western criticisms of its handling of sensitive political issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and tracing the origins of Covid-19. Portraying China as friendly and benign, the party has criticised Western narratives as groundless “accusations” that discredit the country’s achievements and interfere with its internal affairs. The International Liaison Department’s coverage of meetings with political parties in Cambodia and the Philippines has underscored their firm support of China’s stance on these issues. From Beijing’s perspective, such moves serve to cement its solidarity with Southeast Asian political parties and enhance its reputation. US losing Asean centrality to China and Cambodia’s ‘ironclad brotherhood’ China’s governance model, rooted in the one-party system, is certainly not an attractive example for all the Southeast Asian nations. But the Communist Party’s success in tightening its political grip through party-building and digital surveillance, while also alleviating poverty and achieving economic growth, likely holds significant appeal for those regimes that are eager to entrench control over their own countries’ politics while stirring an economic recovery post-pandemic. Diplomatic and economic support from China’s Communist Party could also provide the resources for political survival – particularly for illiberal leaders who have incurred criticism from Western governments for engineering democratic backsliding in their own countries. Ultimately, the efficacy of China’s party diplomacy in Southeast Asia is contingent on the tangible benefits that it can deliver. Wang Zheng is currently a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY. He was previously a Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. This article was originally published as ‘China’s Pragmatic Party Diplomacy in Southeast Asia’, on ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s commentary site fulcrum.sg .