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Southeast Asia’s Balancing Act

China’s dominance over the region is by no means inevitable, but Washington has yet to figure out how to play the game.

Charles Dunst

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century
by Sebastian Strangio (Yale University Press, 360 pp., 2020)

In October of 2016, Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping touched down in Cambodia for the first time as China’s leader. At Phnom Penh International Airport, Xi was greeted by hundreds of Cambodian teenagers in frayed school uniforms waving tiny Cambodian and Chinese flags and carrying his portrait on paper placards complete with ornate faux gold leaf frames. The style was reminiscent of the placards that dominate the capital city every November 9, Cambodia’s Independence Day, when they bear images of the revered late Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk.

Replete with pomp and circumstance, Xi’s visit also served a clear strategic purpose. He and Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge cadre and Cambodia’s longtime autocrat, signed dozens of economic agreements, while Xi forgave some $89 million in Cambodian debt and pledged Chinese investment in Cambodian infrastructure. Xi also praised the close ties between China and Cambodia, which has sided with Beijing on issues from territorial disputes in the South China Sea to the “One China” policy. Since Xi’s visit, China’s plans for Cambodia have only become clearer: Cambodia has given China a thirty-year lease on a naval base on the Gulf of Thailand, with an automatic renewal every ten years. There are also plans for Chinese-financed “resorts” on the Cambodian coast, one of which is equipped with a port that can handle ten-thousand-ton vessels and runways designed for the quick takeoffs and landings of military aircraft. From these bases, Chinese warplanes could strike targets in Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and elsewhere. China clearly has hegemonic designs for Southeast Asia.

This trend in China-Cambodia relations suggests that the past may be prologue. For most of the past two thousand years, China’s predecessor states governed the region through a “tribute system”: Southeast Asians recognized the Chinese emperor’s superiority and right to rule over tianxia—“everything under heaven”—by literally paying financial tributes to him. Because of these historical ties, as well as the thirty million ethnic Chinese scattered throughout the area and the region’s strategic importance in linking of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Southeast Asia today holds a special place in the minds of Chinese policymakers. It is thus no surprise that over the past twenty years, China has made significant strategic investments in the region, funding ports, roads, and dams and cozying up to leaders from Phnom Penh to Manila.

Yet as Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat, demonstrates in his recent and eminently readable book, In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, China’s regional rise has been clumsy and fraught. Given that no two Southeast Asian countries have responded to China in the same way, Strangio, leaning on his near decade of experience in the region, smartly proceeds country by country. His approach provides vital insights into Beijing’s modus operandi, offering key lessons to a world trying to understand how to deal with the Asian giant. Indeed, for an American foreign policy community woefully under-focused on Southeast Asia—a region that is both the gateway for China’s global expansion and a “testing ground” for its strategies—In the Dragon’s Shadow is nothing less than a must-read.

Strangio, also the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, traces the region’s closeness with China to the end of the Cold War. Whereas Southeast Asians saw the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations as unilateral and often disrespectful, China’s promised benevolence, non-interference, and Asian solidarity were attractive. “If Southeast Asians harbored concerns about Beijing’s intentions,” Strangio writes, “they could at least give the Chinese credit for showing up.”

But the reality of Chinese power is more complex and less altruistic than advertised. China’s engagement, while coming under the banner of “win-win” cooperation, seeks to build out a Sinocentric regional order reminiscent of ancient China’s tribute system. Since coming to power in the early 2010s, Xi has sought Southeast Asia’s integration into this order, described by Chinese officials as a “community of common destiny” (CCD). The CCD, like Beijing’s more global “community of shared future,” is intimately associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s $1 trillion development program. A Sinocentric “community” is Beijing’s goal; the BRI’s ports, roads, railways, and dams knit it together.

Yet from Beijing’s perspective, Southeast Asian acceptance of CCD has been hesitant at best and, at worst, woefully incomplete. In 2019 Cambodia and Laos, China’s most compliant partners in Southeast Asia, became the first—and so far only—countries to officially endorse the CCD.

Strangio, citing the historian and strategist Edward Luttwak, points to these missteps as evidence of China’s “great-state autism”: its inability to break free from entrenched ways of thinking, acting, and behaving. This “autism,” Strangio argues, is demonstrated by Beijing’s inability to understand why countries refuse its overtures, believing that opposition to its initiatives must be the result of recalcitrance, bad faith, or the malign influence of outside powers.

Such “autism” has repeatedly rendered China its own worst enemy. For instance, although Beijing talks grandly about its promised “non-interference,” the Chinese Communist Party is more than happy to interfere, as I’ve written elsewhere, when doing so appears in China’s interest. China has also undermined its standing through unnecessarily aggressive geopolitical moves: building military installations in the South China Sea to bolster its unrecognized claim to nearly the whole of it; ramming and sinking Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats; harassing oil and gas operations off Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines; and building hydropower dams on the Mekong River that throttle its flow to the five countries downstream. The river, Strangio writes, “reflects the region’s geopolitical hierarchy: a powerful China at the top and smaller, less developed nations below.” Beijing’s brazen wielding of this hierarchy for its own benefit irritates and could soon truly anger Southeast Asia, yet Chinese decision-makers appear blind to this frustration.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s “autism” also manifests as brutal paternalism by Chinese officials, who do little to hide their belief in China’s superiority—and the need for Southeast Asians, historically considered lesser barbarians, to defer.

In 2010, then-Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi hinted far too explicitly at the obeisance Beijing expected, telling representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” Later, at a 2016 meeting in Kunming, China, Chinese diplomats, without any prior consultation, said they wanted ASEAN state diplomats to sign a “consensus” paper addressing contentious issues, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Predictably, this demand provoked visible anger from the Philippine, Vietnamese, and Malaysian delegations, which have their own claims to the sea. “The Chinese over-reached and it backfired,” said one diplomat who attended the meeting. “There is a nicer way to say these things; but instead, their message was, ‘We’re right and you’re wrong.’”

This abrasiveness of both action and rhetoric only weakens China’s image in the region. As Strangio puts it, “Even as Beijing claims to safeguard other nations’ sovereignty, its behavior carries an unmistakable echo of colonial powers past.”

With this context established, Strangio digs into country-specific details. He starts in northern Vietnam, at a site of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, to show how a long history of Chinese colonization and violent conquest of Vietnam hangs heavily over current relations. This history, he notes, explains why the ruling Vietnamese Community Party cooperates with China while simultaneously asserting its sovereignty in the region more broadly and leveraging domestic anti-Chinese sentiment when politically expedient.

Strangio then moves to the airport in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, built by the Khmer Rouge with substantial Chinese support, followed by the casino town of Boten, Laos, flooded and transformed in recent years by Chinese capital. Both places illustrate the way these two underdeveloped countries, in a paradoxical exercise of “agency in a dangerous world,” have chosen the form of their dependency on China: vassalage. And while Phnom Penh and Vientiane may appear to be dancing similar steps, Strangio points out that they are not moving to the exact same tune: Laos, for one, has wisely diversified its investors beyond China in a way that Cambodia has not.

Strangio provides similar vignettes of every other ASEAN member state—Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—except for the Lilliputian Brunei. In so doing, Strangio makes clear that China is not some infallible Leviathan creeping to global domination, despite media coverage to that effect, but a rather clumsy superpower whose international engagement comes attached to profoundly unattractive and self-defeating features.

For example, China presents the BRI as a “highly centralized and coordinated” initiative. In reality it is a highly centralized and coordinated marketing campaign attached to the uncoordinated activities of China’s state-owned enterprises and asset managers, whose understandable pursuit of their own self-interest frequently ends up undermining Beijing’s geopolitical goals. These businesspeople, for instance, frequently import Chinese workers “who would otherwise be unemployed in China,” predictably angering local populations and, thus, putting the receiving governments in a political bind. Similarly, the explosion of Chinese criminal behaviorkidnapping, sex trafficking, prostitution, and murder—that accompanies Chinese investment has set off anti-Chinese sentiment across the region.

Missed Opportunities

Yet despite the fact that Southeast Asian elites and publics are aware of and disturbed by facets of China’s behavior, recent American approaches to the region have failed to capitalize on these concerns. Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” offered mainly military engagement, which is well and good but far from enough to truly shine a light on China’s shadow, given that Beijing’s cover is chiefly economic. China has made it fairly clear that Southeast Asia can either benefit by working under Beijing’s rules or struggle outside them; the Obama Administration, unfortunately, did not provide the region with a meaningful alternative path to growth. (The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was an incomplete yet positive step on this front, before it was scrapped.) This state of affairs—in which Southeast Asians “have to go to the Chinese” for infrastructure, as the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad put it—is simply not one in which the United States can successfully compete.

Donald Trump, though he may have won over some with his hard line on China, effectively doubled down on Obama’s errors while injecting more of his own. He offered Southeast Asia more militarism and failed to offer any meaningful economic alternatives after withdrawing from the TPP. He further alienated Southeast Asians by pursuing punitive economic measures against countries in the region, skipping multiple ASEAN summits, berating regional leaders over strategically irrelevant issues, and consistently making anti-Muslim comments that greatly offended Indonesians, Malaysians, and others.

Most damaging is the Trump Administration’s casting of U.S.-China competition in what Strangio correctly calls “ideological, even civilizational terms.” It is hard to overstate how great a mistake this is. The Trump Administration’s zero-sum description of the Sino-American rivalry as based on a contrast between China’s “repressive” and America’s “free” visions of world order implies for Southeast Asian leaders a choice between the two, which, Strangio writes, is “something that the region has always been determined to avoid.” Southeast Asians—the majority of whom lead authoritarian regimes—are neither interested nor fully able to jettison relations with China in favor of those with the United States, as the American-educated Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has made unmistakably clear. Yet the Trump Administration, to America’s strategic detriment, has ignored these concerns.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the Oval Office, Washington needs to realize that forcing Southeast Asia into this choice is not in the American interest. Most of the region’s leaders remain committed to engaging and extracting goods from both great powers. But if forced to choose between them, some may decide it better to align themselves with China, the vigorous bully next door, rather than the United States, the distracted supposed hero on the other side of the world. As former Singaporean ambassador to Washington Chan Heng Chee warns, “Don’t press countries in the region to choose. You may not like what you hear.”

Besides walking back Trump’s notion of “rival blocs” and offering Southeast Asia a genuine economic alternative to Chinese capital, Washington also needs to disaggregate the region analytically. Southeast Asia is neither united nor monolithic: It is a concept “made” in earnest only in World War II and, as Strangio notes, capable of being unmade. What constitutes Southeast Asia has never been fixed, meaning that capturing the region in full has always been impossible for the great powers, as it is for Beijing and Washington today. “It’s like trying to grab hold of Jell-O,” says Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat.

Despite Beijing’s visions and Washington’s fears, the coming Southeast Asian century will be marked not by an inexorable Chinese march, according to Strangio, but by what he calls a “frosty, Eastphalian peace” premised on respect of national sovereignty and non-intervention. Chinese domination of the region may look more likely than U.S. domination, but neither is plausible. Rather, as Strangio argues, most of Southeast Asia will, as it has done for decades, continue to balance China and the United States, while China’s most ardent supporters—Cambodia and Laos—will likely try to find a more nuanced approach to Beijing that allows them to benefit economically from the relationship without compromising their sovereignty.

Strangio suggests in his closing pages that Southeast Asia’s fragmented nature may be its saving grace. This position, however, may be too optimistic. Southeast Asian countries are indeed unique and have considerable agency, but they cannot control the international context in which they operate. Fragmentation will save the region only if it is not caught, by forces far beyond its control, in the crosshairs of the new U.S.-China conflict—of which Southeast Asia has, much to its inhabitants’ dismay, already become “ground zero.”

Southeast Asians know their history. They know that while their region is unlikely to ever be controlled by a single great power, it has been and can again become a battlefield for combat between many of them—as it was, to disastrous effect, in the 20th century. The Cold War ran hot in Southeast Asia, leaving countless millions smoldering in its wake.

Southeast Asia’s leaders do not hold the reins of their region’s future. There is little they can do to ease Sino-American tensions; if their pleas to bring down the temperature go unheard, as they have so far, the region’s future could be a gloomy one. The cruel truth is that Southeast Asia will have peace, Eastphalian or otherwise, only if Washington and Beijing can keep it.

Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. He has reported from Southeast Asia for the New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

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