China exerts an outsize, at times overbearing influence in south-east asia as surely as the us looms over latin america and russia treats ex-soviet states as its near abroad.
China is the top trading partner for most countries in the region, a bankroller of showcase rail and road projects under its belt and road infrastructure initiative, and the leading source of tourists who at least until covid-19 were packing thailands beaches and singapores malls.
Like america and russia, beijing can also be a neighbourhood bully. over the past decade, china has remade reefs and islets on the south china sea into military installations to bolster its internationally unrecognised nine dash line maritime claim on nearly the whole sea. chinese vessels have rammed and sunk vietnamese and filipino fishing boats, and harassed oil and gas operations off malaysia, vietnam and the philippines. chinese companies have built 11 hydropower dams along the headlands of the mekong river, altering the flow of water, sediment, and fish stocks on which millions of farmers and fishermen in five countries downriver rely.
Two enlightening new books describe the long shadow china casts over its southern neighbours. they come at a time when the trump administration is heating up trade pressure and belligerent rhetoric towards beijing. this makes washington, traditionally the regions other big-power ally, a more volatile player and puts south-east asia in the middle of the worlds pre-eminent geopolitical conflict. this is where the current cold war could escalate, so these books come not a moment too soon.
Murray hiebert, a senior associate with the us-based center for strategic and international studies and former reporter in south-east asia, lays out the parameters of chinas large regional footprint. in achieving its goals, china has important assets in dealing with south-east asia, including its physical proximity, its mountains of cash, and the fact that it does not hector countries on democracy and human rights, he writes in under beijings shadow.
While japan remains the biggest source of foreign direct investment, china is emerging as a leading supplier of technology to the region from 5g telephony to facial recognition and data analytics tools. some of this is going to places with poor human rights records.
But while it is all too easy to stereotype china and its companies as pantomime villains, hiebert is skilled at teasing out the nuances and ambiguities, including local elites who have welcomed chinese money, sometimes under corrupt circumstances. for south-east asian countries, beijing has proved a more predictable partner than the us, continuing business as usual with myanmar when it faced isolation under its former military dictatorship, then more recently when it faced international condemnation for the military crackdown on the rohingya. beijing continued military sales to thailand after the most recent coup in 2014.
But the welcome is not unconditional: vietnam, which fought a border war with china in 1979, and thailand in particular are scrupulous about balancing china by courting japan, the us and other countries.
Beijing can be a tin-eared and meddlesome partner too. sebastian strangio, in his book in the dragons shadow, quotes the strategist and historian edward luttwaks phrase great-state autism the difficulty big powers face in breaking free of entrenched ways of thinking and acting. this tendency is most glaring, he writes, on the question of south-east asias large ethnic diaspora communities, who have been hit with accusations of dual loyalty and been the targets of past violence in myanmar, malaysia and indonesia.
While china in the past recognised the delicacy of the issue, president xi jinping has cast off this restraint, hailing overseas chinese as members of the chinese family. this and similar statements by beijing officials have allowed nationalist and religious demagogues in indonesia and malaysia to stoke fears of ethnic chinese for political gain. they have also put singapore, where about three-quarters of the population claim chinese descent, in a tight spot.
Chinas presence is its most vividly seedy, and baldly exploitative, in the regions poorer countries, notably cambodia, the philippines and laos, which have seen booms in chinese offshore gambling (which is illegal in china) and a concomitant influx of undocumented immigrants and organised crime. some of chinas infrastructure projects have appeared self-serving or of questionable economic value, notably a high-speed rail line that will cut through laos, one of asias poorest countries, but stops at richer thailands border as thais have proved more ambivalent about continuing building on a proposed line down to singapore. myanmar recently scaled back a chinese deepwater port project because of concerns it could saddle it with too much debt and give beijing future leverage over its financial affairs.
Chinese influence, writes strangio, is starkest on the mekong river, which flows from the tibetan plateau through five other countries, reaching the sea in southern vietnam. the river reflects the regions geopolitical hierarchy: a powerful china at the top and smaller, less developed nations below. its stretch of the mekong is narrow, deep and thinly populated, making it suitable for dam-building. this has allowed china to reap the benefits of hydropower generation, while exporting most of the environmental costs downstream.
Strangio, the author of a book on cambodias authoritarian leader hun sen, chinas most loyal regional client, provides an expert and lucid synthesis of the historical context and recent developments of south-east asias rich and complex relations with beijing. hiebert brings a deep and long knowledge of the topic to his account. both books run on long and yet feel diffuse, perhaps because of a perceived need to tour 10 asean countries (nine in the case of strangio, who left out brunei). both could have benefited from tighter editing or a thematic structure. in places, both lapse into hackneyed journalese.
Of the two, hieberts book is more conclusive, arguing that the countries in beijings backyard need to find common cause and be better masters of their fate. south-east asia may sometimes feel that it bears the full brunt of beijings assertiveness and ambition, but it does have considerable agency and could do more if the countries were less competitive and more co-operative with each other, he writes. it is an issue of importance that reaches beyond the region.
In the dragons shadow: southeast asia in the chinese century, by sebastian strangio, yale, rrp$30, 360 pages
Under beijings shadow: southeast asias china challenge, by murray hiebert, rowman & littlefield publishers, rrp$40/31, 608 pages
John reed is the fts south-east asia correspondent
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