Inside Story

The power and proximity of the dragon

How can Southeast Asian countries embrace China without being crushed?

Graeme Dobell Books 2 May 2021 4671 words

Complex heritage: dragons depicted on Singapore’s Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge
Murray Hiebert | Center for Strategic and International Studies | $60.99 | 593 pages
In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century
Sebastian Strangio | Yale University Press | $26.95 | 337 pages

In July 1989, just back from reporting for the ABC on the aftermath of the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, I was sent from my post in Singapore to cover the meeting of the foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries. The annual confab rotates through the Southeast Asian members, and this year was Brunei’s turn.

The numbered paragraphs of the communiqué of that twenty-second ministerial meeting ranged over refugees, drugs, southern Africa, Afghanistan, Asia-Pacific cooperation, disarmament, the search for a settlement in Kampuchea… on and on it ran. By the time I got to the end of the eighty-seven-paragraph document my puzzlement had turned to astonishment. That 4 July statement said nothing at all about what had happened in Tiananmen a month earlier.

The word “China” wasn’t used, although paragraph 12 welcomed the Sino-Soviet summit that had been held during Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May. Not a word, though, about the bloody crushing of the democracy movement in June, which will always be the grim counterpoint to that November’s fall of the Berlin wall.

With document in hand, I wandered over to one of the senior correspondents gathered in Bandar Seri Begawan. His ranking as an old Asia hand had been established at breakfast when he’d piled sliced chilli on his plate. The advice he offered was similarly astringent: “You’re not in Canberra any more, mate. This is ASEAN. The silences say as much as the statements.”

ASEAN had only six member countries in those days, so the next time the foreign ministers gathered in Brunei was in 1995. By then, the ASEAN Regional Forum had been established, so this was a much larger jamboree, with foreign ministers coming from all over the Asia-Pacific.

China was a presence as well as a factor. My most vivid memory of the gathering was the ceremony to enrol Vietnam as the seventh member of ASEAN. That country’s foreign minister, Nguyen Manh Cam, walked on stage to be greeted by the other ASEAN foreign ministers. Sitting impassively in the front row of the audience was his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen.

As the Vietnamese minister turned to face the audience his eyes went directly to the Chinese minister. Vietnamese grin met icy Chinese stare. Here was a moment with a Sino-Vietnamese prehistory of thousands of years. Here, too, was a triumph of Southeast Asian regionalism: a grouping born amid fear of communism during Vietnam’s war was welcoming communist Vietnam into its midst.

In my notebook, I scribbled “China–Vietnam eyes lock.” Below that I wrote some commentary (which never made it to air) conjuring a version of Nguyen beaming out a message in incongruous Cockney-speak: “Hey, me old China, look at me with all my new mates.” Qian’s stony response I imagined as: “You’ll keep, and so will they.”

Journalists often start with a great headline, and two fine journalists have hit on the same defining image — China’s “shadow” — to frame what Southeast Asia faces. Murray Hiebert and Sebastian Strangio confront the same quandary: how does Southeast Asia embrace all that China offers without being crushed by its embrace? Each of them describes how China is flooding all aspects of Southeast Asia’s existence — how, in dealing with the push and the pull, the ASEAN countries are infinitely careful in talking to the giant, much less touching it.

The scale of China’s economic impact can be seen in Chinese tourism: twenty-eight million Chinese citizens travelled to ASEAN countries in 2017, Strangio reports, up from 2.2 million in 2000, making China the region’s number one source of foreign arrivals. And he gives that figure an Australian dimension: “In addition to Thailand, mainland Chinese are the top visitors to Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore, and recently surpassed Australians to become the number one nationality visiting the Indonesian island of Bali.”

In Bali, China now matters more than Australia. That’s a long shadow.

China is the largest trading partner of every country in Southeast Asia, Hiebert writes, and policymakers “see their economic destinies hitched to China.” But while China’s “economic miracle” helped propel growth to its south, he adds, Southeast Asia “is determined never to let itself be dominated,” viewing China with a mixture of “expectation and fear, aspiration and frustration.” How to navigate a destiny hitched to China without being dominated?

China is resurgent and assertive, says Hiebert:

China’s growing involvement in Southeast Asia prompts a blend of anticipation and uneasiness among its smaller neighbours as Beijing mounts its drive south with an assortment of tools. China’s toolbox is loaded with diverse instruments from “soft power” — economic, cultural, and education diplomacy — to “hard power,” ranging from threats of military force in the South China Sea to arms sales and military exchanges. Some of Beijing’s tactics verge on “sharp power” when it aims at distraction and manipulation in the political and information space.

Strangio writes of Southeast Asia’s “fraught” attitude to China’s rise as their most important economic partner, making it “their thorniest foreign policy challenge.” The region needs China, but respect for China’s power is flavoured by distrust:

Its wooing of the region was based not on natural attraction, nor on appeals to its rich and fascinating history. These various initiatives rather involved variations on China’s predominant theme: its economic strength. True to the Chinese Communist Party’s materialist roots, many Chinese strategists have assumed that China’s economic weight would exert an inevitable and irresistible pull on the small nations along its periphery… if a foreign country’s policy ran counter to its interests, China could cut off trade or employ other forms of economic coercion. Buried in China’s talk of mutual prosperity was a stark choice: flourish within a Chinese orbit, or languish outside of it.

China has a “tin ear” for public opinion, says Strangio. It is adroit at dealing with states and governments but “congenitally clumsy at its dealings with people.” Thus, Beijing rages that any opposition it encounters must be caused by “recalcitrance, ill-intention, or the malign influence of outside powers.”

China’s missteps, writes Hiebert, must be set against the huge advances it has made by using its “physical proximity, its mountains of cash, and the fact that it does not hector countries on democracy and human rights.” For Strangio, the ten countries of Southeast Asia have all been “promiscuous in tilting, balancing and hedging their bets.” Collectively, ASEAN has tried “to bind the Chinese Gulliver with a thousand multilateral threads,” to socialise it to the ASEAN way of “glacial consensus-based diplomacy.”

While ASEAN tries to mediate and socialise, China looms as the great change agent. “As China’s power increases,” Strangio writes, “it thus poses fundamental challenges to ASEAN’s cohesion, and perhaps, in time to the very idea of ‘Southeast Asia’ itself.”

In the Dragon’s Shadow and Under Beijing’s Shadow are ambitious books on the same big theme. Two fine reporters from different generations, both beguiled by Southeast Asia, apply all the tools of the trade to try to capture this cornucopia of countries.

Sebastian Strangio plunged in as a reporter on the Phnom Penh Post in 2008, after being “initiated into the journalism racket” as co-editor of the student magazine Farrago while doing his BA and master’s degree in international politics at Melbourne University. He’s now Southeast Asia editor of the Diplomat.

Murray Hiebert’s enchantment began when he was an aid worker in Vietnam in the closing days of the war. A career as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review included postings in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. He’s now with the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Strangio and Hiebert follow in the tracks of other journalists who have tried to cram modern Southeast Asia between covers. Reporters have been heading to the region for headlines since it was declared Britain’s “South East Asia Command” during the second world war. (The sardonic American view was that the initials SEAC stood for Saving England’s Asia Colonies.)

It takes journalistic brio and brashness — plus skill fuelled by stamina — to find unifying themes in this exhilarating contrast of countries. As Strangio comments, the term “Southeast Asia” suggests a “misleading degree of unity” for a region of bewildering diversity: Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic and Confucian-Taoist.

The tradition that Hiebert and Strangio are updating got going during the Vietnam war with two books — The Last Confucian: Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and the West (1964), by Denis Warner of the Melbourne Herald, and South-east Asia in Turmoil (1965), by Brian Crozier of the Economist. The London Observer’s Far East correspondent for a quarter of a century, Dennis Bloodworth, wove the magic twice, with An Eye for the Dragon: Southeast Asia Observed, published in 1970, and a revised edition in 1987.

Then, in the decade after the United States departed, Nayan Chanda from the Far Eastern Economic Review explained the third Indo-China war in Brother Enemy: The War After the War (1986). The Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett was already churning out books from the communist side (giving what he called the “anti-imperialist” view), including Grasshoppers and Elephants: Why Vietnam Fell (1977), The China-Cambodia-Vietnam Triangle (1981), and his memoir At the Barricades: The Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist (1980).

Michael Vatikiotis (initially with the BBC, then correspondent and eventually editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review) produced two impressive efforts in different periods, with Political Change in Southeast Asia: Trimming the Banyan Tree (1996) and Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia (2017). (Inside Story’s review of Blood and Silk headlined ASEAN as a “bloody miracle.”)

After the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Victor Mallet of the Financial Times weighed in with The Trouble with Tigers: The Rise and Fall of Southeast Asia. The journalist-turned-historian Martin Stuart-Fox makes the list with his 2003 book, A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence. That sits on my bookshelf alongside Milton Osborne’s Southeast Asia: An Introductory History, which has gone through eleven editions since 1979, and The Paramount Power: China and the Countries of Southeast Asia (2006).

In this century, the books see the region as a cockpit for great-power contest and potential clash: Robert Kaplan with Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (2014), Humphrey Hawksley’s Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion (2018), and Richard Javad Heydarian’s The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery (2019).

Strangio and Hiebert follow the journo’s tradition with vivid headlines and a mix of on-the-spot observation, travel tales and big-picture geopolitics. Writing about Southeast Asian countries as a group takes you only a little way along the understanding track, so Strangio and Hiebert trek the country-by-country trail, delivering much of the meat in separate chapters on each of the diverse cast of ASEAN.

Strangio argues that Vietnam’s fate reflects “in highly concentrated form” that of the region: “Today’s Vietnam stands at the confluence of the various strategic challenges pressing in on Southeast Asia. It faces China’s expanding power both on land and on water, and is impacted by its stranglehold on the upper Mekong River and its actions in the South China Sea.” Some superpower tensions work to Vietnam’s advantage, he says, and Hanoi’s greatest hedge against China is its former wartime enemy, the United States.

Hiebert starts his chapter on that country with a 2015 quote from China’s leader, Xi Jinping: “China and Vietnam have the same political system, share the same [ideals] and belief[s], have common strategic interests, we should be good comrades [with] mutual trust and mutual assistance.”

Vietnam might be China’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, Hiebert notes, yet this is an intimacy beset by constant strains:

China’s relations with Vietnam are more fraught than with any other Southeast Asian nation, given the more than two millennia of history between the countries. This history also colors the perceptions of Vietnamese people about China, even though Vietnam has more traits in common with China than any of its neighbours. More than two-thirds of Vietnamese words are borrowed from Chinese, and both countries are heavily influenced by Confucianism.

Both authors note the advances China has made in Thailand since the 2014 military coup. “Thailand today has the deepest and most longstanding military ties with China of any country in Southeast Asia,” Hiebert writes, “even though Thailand is one of five US treaty allies in Asia.” US–Thai relations began to rebound under Donald Trump, writes Strangio, because his administration downgraded the promotion of liberal values in favour of a transactional approach: “Thailand’s improving ties with Washington demonstrated how a cultivated flexibility and ambivalence could act as a reliable bulwark of Thai sovereignty.”

Like Thailand and Vietnam, says Strangio, Myanmar seeks balance, an “update of its older neutralism” for a new era of superpower competition:

Unlike many Western governments, [China] is willing to engage Burma’s troubled realities in order to push forward vital strategic interests. As long as they persist, Burma’s dynamics of ethnic conflict and division will therefore continue to exert a steady pressure in China’s direction. All this puts the Burmese government in a liminal bind. Apprehensive about China’s intentions, yet unable to escape its magnetic power, it remains stuck partway between the poles of fear and attraction, moving only so far in one direction before events send it sliding back.

Hiebert notes that China has worked hard on its “prickly” connections with Myanmar’s military. Despite decades of dependence on China for aid, trade and investment, he says, Myanmar’s “fiercely nationalist population” is wary and distrustful of Beijing’s intentions. “As the numbers of Chinese migrants in northern Myanmar soars,” he writes, “locals wonder why China does not do more to stem the flow and are anxious that the growing Chinese population will transform the country’s ethnic makeup and social dynamics in the decades to come. In Myanmar (like in Vietnam), China has its work cut out in overcoming the deep anti-Chinese sentiment and distrust of Beijing.”

China’s closest ally in ASEAN is Cambodia. But it wasn’t always so. As Hiebert writes, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen called China “the root of everything that is evil” in 1988. By 2006, though, Hun Sen was describing China as Cambodia’s “most trusted friend.” “Fear of Vietnam and Thailand may have been a factor pushing Hun Sen into the arms of Beijing early on,” writes Hiebert, “but more recently he appears to be seeking China’s help to serve as a counterweight to the West. He is looking to China to prop up his rule and, from his point of view, hopefully keep his family in power for the long term — and with the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.” Having ruled for three decades, Hun Sen is grooming his son Hun Manet to take over.

Strangio says Cambodia embraces China because it is more worried about its immediate neighbours. For most of Cambodia’s history, he notes, the greatest threats to its survival were from Thailand and Vietnam, not the more distant China:

Although Cambodia presents an extreme case compared to the other Southeast Asian countries, it showcases China’s main appeals to the region’s governments: its deep pockets and broad adherence to the norms of national sovereignty and “non-interference.” This is especially the case for small developing nations, which often fail to command much attention in far-off Western capitals. The Sino-Cambodian relationship also highlights the divergent ways in which ASEAN states see China. What for one is a threatening presence is for another a protective giant from the distant north. For small countries like Cambodia, for which dependency has been an historical norm, choosing the form of one’s dependency — one’s patron — was one way of exercising agency in a dangerous world. With some notable differences, much the same is also true for Laos, the other small satellite being drawn into close orbit around the red planet.

For Laos, says Strangio, China’s technical prowess is expressed in the railway due to be completed this year. The link from the Chinese town of Boten to Vientiane is 417 kilometres long, including 198 kilometres of tunnels and sixty-one kilometres of bridges: “These engineering challenges have done much to contribute to its controversial $6.2 billion price tag, equivalent to around 37 percent of Laos’s GDP in 2016 — or around $15 million per kilometer.”

The standard-gauge single-track line (carrying trains with a top speed of 160 kilometres an hour) serves China’s plan for an Indo-China railway running all the way to Singapore. Along with China’s Mekong dams, it is part of what Hiebert calls “the dramatic transformation” of the Lao landscape. Chinese companies are investing in plantations near the border, where “giant swathes of farmland are covered with rubber trees, bananas, pumpkins, and other crops for export to China.” Laos is “sacrificing sovereignty for prosperity,” Hiebert observes, although Laos has a bit more political space than Cambodia because of its deep ties with Vietnam.

The money–sovereignty equation has gyrated in Malaysia, where China’s role reached new heights under the now-disgraced leader, Najib Razak. In betting on Najib, Strangio observes, Beijing took “a long position on an over-leveraged asset.” As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, though, “Malaysia’s cronyism and patronage could not simply be put down to Chinese influence”; its leaders have always operated “a tight nexus between politics and business and the distribution of patronage.” Chinese money is only one element of the amazing political rollercoaster of recent Malaysian politics.

Across the causeway, meanwhile, Singapore struggles with how Beijing views the only country in Southeast Asia with a majority ethnic Chinese population. Hiebert quotes the warning of Singapore’s former top diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan, that multiracial Singapore must resist having a “Chinese identity” imposed by a China that “does not just want you to comply with its wishes” but “more fundamentally… wants to shape your thinking so that you will do [what] it wants without having to be told what to do.”

In 1979, Strangio notes, Singapore adopted Mandarin Chinese as one of its official languages in place of regional Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Teochew, with the aim of creating a unified Chinese community “from the country’s myriad dialect and clan allegiances.” The Speak Mandarin campaign built a linguistic bridge, Strangio writes, increasing the reach and penetration of Chinese broadcasting networks. Add to this the arrival over the past two decades of hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese who have settled in Singapore as part of a migration drive to boost the birthrate.

Hiebert labels the Philippines’ approach to China as “bipolar,” not least because of the way the country swings between the poles of the United States and China. The deep emotion in these swings is directed at the United States: the former colony is Asia’s flamboyant American replica, a nation shaped by Catholic beliefs and Hollywood habits. President Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016 signalled a major turn away from the United States, highlighted when Duterte declared that he’d “set aside” Manila’s victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which judged China’s claims in the South China Sea to have no legal basis.

Beijing’s disregard for The Hague ruling is matched by the lack of much regard or reward for Manila, Hiebert writes. “Despite Duterte’s pivot towards China, Beijing has given him anything but an easy ride in the South China Sea. The list of China’s continuing encroachment against the Philippines is long and almost nonstop.”

While Duterte has smashed a taboo with his rough treatment of Washington, says Strangio, that doesn’t mean the Philippines will drift fully into China’s orbit. Filipinos will elect a new president in May next year, and the dance will start anew: “The very things that granted Beijing its opening — the nation’s weak institutions and idiosyncratic, personalised political culture — would limit its ability to maintain influence over the long term. The same political structures that gave Duterte the power to wrench foreign policy in the direction of China would give his successors the power to reverse course.”

Characteristically, neighbouring Brunei is the quietest of the claimants in the South China Sea, showing what Hiebert calls “a high level of equivalence to the reclamation activities of all parties in the dispute.” ASEAN’s smallest member (population 430,000) was the last to normalise diplomatic relations with China, in 1991. Economic ties were slow to take off, Hiebert writes, but by 2018 China was Brunei’s largest trading partner, its largest foreign investor and its most important source of tourists.

But signs indicate China’s attempts at behind-the-scenes influence. Brunei’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, offered no explanation for an abrupt cabinet reshuffle in 2018 that replaced six top ministers. “But Brunei-based diplomats attributed the move to allegations of corruption,” writes Hiebert, “including senior officials granting family members contracts linked to Chinese-backed projects.”

From ASEAN’s smallest to largest member, the need is the same — to juggle and balance. As Hiebert writes, “Indonesia has managed in recent years to do what its neighbours bordering the South China Sea have had trouble doing: stand up to an increasingly assertive China without incurring the full wrath of Beijing and while still keeping the Chinese investment pipeline open.” Like previous investors in Indonesia, China is frustrated “by how slow it has been to get projects off the ground,” while President Joko Widodo “has been surprised at how much blowback he got at home for becoming so friendly with China.”

Because Indonesia is a G20 member that controls almost half of Southeast Asia’s economy, says Hiebert, it has enough strategic heft to hold both the United States and China at arm’s length. Lingering Indonesian distrust holds back military ties, he adds, and China’s crackdown against Muslim Uighurs hinders any attempt at “courting hearts and minds” in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population.

As the quintessential “Indo-Pacific” nation, Strangio says, Indonesia has led ASEAN’s effort to formulate a response to the new construct of the Indo-Pacific. The US policy pushback at China is built on its call for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Indonesia took the lead in drafting ASEAN’s “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” steering a middle course between the giants.

Strangio says Indonesia’s “sometimes toothless multilateralism has given rise to the perennial claim that Indonesia has failed to evolve into the regional power that its geographic and demographic size might suggest. To many outside observers — particularly in the US — it has long been conventional wisdom that Indonesia ‘punches below its weight.’”

But Indonesia’s very mildness — its reluctance to throw its weight around — is at the heart of what has made ASEAN a success. “Indonesia’s approach to the mounting regional tensions is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future,” writes Strangio. “Despite its maritime geography, the orientation of the Indonesian state remains overwhelmingly inward-looking, consumed with the challenge of unifying its fissiparous regions and delivering prosperity to its 267 million citizens.” In the end, he says, “it may well be decisions made in Beijing and Washington, rather than in Jakarta, that determine whether Indonesia holds to its middle path, or runs aground on the reefs.”

Whether we face a “new cold war” or a “new hot peace,” Southeast Asia is a vital arena for the great US–China contest that is just getting started. The era of engagement fades; superpower rivalry returns. Great power challenges great power. The world’s biggest economy faces off against the second-biggest. And now a pandemic accelerates history. “If power corrupts, then crisis reveals” is an aphorism for our times from Southeast Asia analyst Huong Le Thu, who says the region sees that it can’t rely on either the United States or China as the “external protector.” If non-alignment is the answer, it will need a lot of work, not just words.

Strangio judges that Covid-19 will not alter China’s central role, based on the fundamentals of size and proximity: “Southeast Asian nations would find themselves in the same conflicted position as before, in which apprehension about China’s power was balanced by a strong stake in its continued stability and growth.”

Hiebert may be based in Washington, but he’s clear on the size of the challenge to the United States and the limits to Washington’s power: “Because of their proximity to China and their dependence on its mammoth economy, no country in Southeast Asia would back a US effort to try to push China off its recently constructed outposts in the South China Sea. Many regional countries also have lingering doubt over the US longterm security commitment to the region.”

Strangio says the “erratic nature of American engagement has been compounded by the increasingly zero-sum language with which some US officials were framing American competition with China.”

Where Hiebert describes a region not willing to back the United States in the South China Sea, Strangio casts that in wider terms, arguing that “Southeast Asia is too economically intertwined with China to enlist in a US-led coalition aimed at curbing its rise.”

Strangio writes of Southeast Asia’s understanding of the flaws of the two giants as much as their power. The sharp turn in American policy towards China, he says, “stems as much from American anxieties and self-perceptions as it does from Chinese actions.” China’s relationship with Southeast Asia is based on “an increasingly tense contradiction between the Chinese Communist Party’s self-image as an aggrieved victim of Western designs and the reality of its own burgeoning imperial potential.”

China’s primary challenge to the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, Strangio writes, is not military or ideological but economic. Understanding that core fact, he says, should shape Washington’s response: “An effective American approach will be one that addresses the region’s development challenges and increases its ability both to avoid an unhealthy overdependence on China and to stand up to Beijing when necessary.”

The hot peace in Southeast Asia will be more about dollars than democracy. That reality rests on the values and interests of the ten governments (if not their peoples), as Strangio says:

If governments in Southeast Asia happen to be corrupt, illiberal, or non-democratic, that says less about China than about the particular conditions — political, economic, and social — of the countries in question. The region’s authoritarianism might be a worrying phenomenon, but it is an overwhelmingly Southeast Asian one. Instead, the Chinese government presents itself as a conservative defender of national sovereignty and self-determination: two ideas with deep resonance in postcolonial Southeast Asia. Unlike the US and many Western powers, China seldom lectures ASEAN governments on how to run their societies, and asserts the right of every nation to choose its own political path.

Choosing their own path now involves constant calculations about when and where to follow China. The shifting calculus of power means that Southeast Asia, as always, wants the United States to help play a balancing role.

Both books illustrate the region’s reluctance to line up too forcefully with America to set the balance. ASEAN’s constant, loud refrain is that it must not be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. Beneath the not-choosing language, though, Southeast Asia has an expanding area of no-go zones. Implicit choices are being made, as much by a refusal to act as by any ability to act.

China’s gravitational and magnetic effects — to push and pull simultaneously — play differently on each nation of Southeast Asia. But China puts new meaning into an old line for ASEAN: hang together, or hang separately.

So powerful has China become, it draws a diverse region together with a common cause and a united interest: the need to embrace China without being crushed, to navigate a destiny hitched to China without being dominated. •