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BY HUNTER MARSTON
According to recent surveys of Southeast Asia, China is now the most influential strategic and political power in the region. Yet China’s rise has been so rapid and consequential that few book-length studies have captured the complexity of Beijing’s expanding regional influence. The new book by Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Bower Group Asia, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge, fills this gap and shows in significant detail how Southeast Asian states are responding to China’s rise.
Given his decades working in the region as a foreign correspondent and political analyst, Hiebert is well-suited for this challenge, and the result offers valuable insights on issues related to Southeast Asia, China, and broader rivalries in the region. The book portrays a region riven by a diversity of views toward China; this diversity prevents any unified response to China’s growing influence over Southeast Asia. As Hiebert shows, Southeast Asian states are of two minds regarding China: on the one hand, they are deeply dependent on China’s rise for their own economic growth and keen to continue trade with Beijing. On the other hand, they are increasingly nervous about China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military power, its more assertive diplomacy, and its willingness to use its might unilaterally to get its way in the South China Sea—and potentially other parts of the region as well.
Hiebert punctures several myths about the China-Southeast Asia relationship. For one, although media reports often portray mainland Southeast Asian states as close to China, or even as satellite states of Beijing, Hiebert offers a different view. He suggests, with considerably detailed country case studies, that mainland Southeast Asian states are not so easy to pigeonhole. China has constructed innumerable dams upstream on the Mekong, choking off much-needed water as countries down river face droughts as a result of climate change. At the same time, Chinese companies—in joint ventures with Southeast Asian corporations in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia—are building massive hydropower projects on the lower Mekong, leading to increased salt water flooding and environmental degradation. These dams have badly damaged the Mekong’s flow and often stopped the seasonal flow of rich nutrients essential to the cultivation of rice and other crops, and the fish which feed the populations of Southeast Asia. In so doing, they have angered many residents of mainland Southeast Asian states, even though governments like Cambodia and Laos and Myanmar remain highly dependent on Chinese aid, investment, and diplomatic support.
Hiebert also gives ample coverage to the depth of nationalism within modern Myanmar, and how it is facile to say that Myanmar also has become some kind of satellite state of China. There is enormous resistance within Myanmar toward China’s proposed Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, which the previous government of President Thein Sein suspended in 2011 due to popular pressures. At the same time, China has covertly supported ethnic insurgents on Myanmar’s northern periphery, sometimes providing arms and munitions, a reality that has not gone unnoticed by Myanmar’s military, which views dependency on China as a “national emergency.”
In addition, Hiebert shows that Southeast Asian hedging strategies, playing for time and keeping their options open, provides some grounds for believing that the region will not be totally dominated by Beijing. The ambiguity of Southeast Asian loyalties means that Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states have not made up their minds to side with Beijing. Hiebert argues that many of these states—even Cambodia and Laos, which seem to have less leverage to resist China’s influence and cash—will continue to avoid making stark choices.
Malaysia also likely will continue to hedge. It has generally failed to respond to China’s provocations in the South China Sea or has done so quietly, believing that its “special relationship” would protect it from the bullying tactics to which China has subjected Vietnam and the Philippines. However, Hiebert notes Kuala Lumpur’s missile tests in July 2019, after China deployed a Coast Guard vessel near Luconia Shoal on Malaysia’s continental shelf. Later that year, Kuala Lumpur submitted claims to an extended continental shelf in that area to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. In fact, Hiebert’s account leaves open the possibility that Malaysia is standing up to China more often than it appears to outsiders.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, visited China four times during his first five years in office and has solicited major Chinese investment, even as Jakarta has pushed back against Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the North Natuna Sea. Indonesia’s economic dependence on China imposes limits to Jokowi’s willingness to stand up to China, but even he has often pursued a hedging strategy.
The book also provides an even-keeled examination of Washington’s regional treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines, frequently described as tilting toward Beijing. Hiebert makes a compelling case that Thailand is still hedging against China, despite prevailing counterarguments regarding Thai foreign policy. Of the Philippines, he notes, “It is far from certain that Duterte’s sharp pivot toward China marks a long-term Philippine trend.” Interestingly, Hiebert predicts that Manila will swing back to an anti-China foreign policy after Duterte’s term ends in 2022 and a future administration in Manila seeks to rebalance relations with the regional powers.
Second, Hiebert makes a compelling case that ASEAN should stop competing amongst itself and enhance cooperation, especially by strengthening dialogue on how to deal with China. As Hiebert points out, the main obstacle to deeper cooperation is the fact that Southeast Asian states often have varying levels of threat perceptions toward China and also often have different needs from the United States, the other major regional power along with Japan. Vietnam, for instance, has in recent years deepened its security cooperation with the United States, allowing a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, to dock at Danang for a week in 2018, for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War. There also has been speculation that Hanoi may file legal arbitration against Beijing’s maritime claims, and Hanoi has fostered military-to-military cooperation with Washington in other ways as well.
Cambodia, on the other hand, has been all too willing to support Beijing’s interests. Under the increasingly authoritarian leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Beijing has often facilitated China’s goals in Southeast Asia, dividing ASEAN. As Hiebert makes clear, Beijing knows how to cater its aid to Phnom Penh’s needs based on Western actions such as sanctions in response to unfair elections. Still, many Cambodians remain wary of China’s expanding influence in their country. Numerous Cambodians resent Hun Sen’s reliance on Chinese investment, which has transformed Sihanoukville into a Chinese outpost and may grant Beijing a naval base in the country. Sophal Ear, a political scientist at Occidental College, also warns about the risks of taking on unsustainable levels of Chinese debt: in 2018 roughly 48 percent of Cambodia’s $7.6 billion foreign debt was owed to China.
Finally, Hiebert turns to the question of what all this regional complexity means for Washington, which has displayed a mixture of heavy-handed demands for regional fealty and ambivalence toward Southeast Asia. The Trump administration’s reduced interaction with the region has fed a perception in Southeast Asia of Washington’s declining influence. Hiebert provides a strong case for why and how the United States should restore its attention to the region and refocus its strategy toward Southeast Asia., including by regularly attending regional summits and increasing funding for much-needed physical infrastructure, including in the Mekong basin countries.
Hunter Marston is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University.