For the countries of Southeast Asia, geographical proximity to China is a blessing and a curse. In the Dragon’s Shadow, Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, by Sebastian Strangio, manages to sketch the history these nations have with China and detail the current geopolitical situation in an engaging fashion. While the book is prefaced with an imposing list of acronyms for the political parties and economic agreements discussed, this Yale University Press publication is the work of a journalist with an excellent grip on history rather than an academic.
Being in China’s backyard is comparable to the situation Latin America faced in the 20th century with the USA. In his well-known “Open Veins of Latin America”, published in 1971, Eduardo Galeano claimed investments from the United States had industrialized the region but done little to improve standards of living. 21st-century Southeast Asian countries are generally more organized than were 20th-century Latin American ones; however Strangio, who is much more balanced and well-informed than Galeano, describes their situation relating to the rise of China as “fraught”.
While China’s claims in the South China Sea benefit none but China itself, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on the one hand, and Chinese tourism on the other, provide economic incentives for other countries to maintain a good relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The USA, especially under the Trump administration, has come to see China as a hostile power seeking to overturn the US global order. For Southeast Asian countries it is not as simple.
In Southeast Asia, views of China are more anguished and complex. Dwelling in China’s shadow, the region does not enjoy the luxury of simple binaries. While Southeast Asian governments view Chinese behavior with justified alarm, China’s economic centrality to the region makes it something they cannot ignore, as much as they might wish to.
In Vietnam, the wars of independence against the French and Americans are widely discussed, but there is official silence about the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. This silence was a decision leadership took in 1990 when relations between the two countries were normalized; a mutually beneficial relationship would be easier if this unpleasant history was forgotten. However, the fact that China invaded Vietnam in 1979 to teach it a lesson for deposing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is not forgotten by the Vietnamese people, nor are the various Chinese occupations of Vietnam over the centuries. In 1945, the Chinese army was in North Vietnam to oversee the postwar armistice before the return of the colonial French. Ho Chi Minh was keen for the Chinese to leave and have the French back as they would ultimately be easier to dislodge; he allegedly said: “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” To a greater to lesser degree the other countries analyzed by Strangio, like Vietnam, are working out how to gain economically from China’s rise while protecting their sovereignty and resources from the dragon to the north.
For the countries on the Southeast Asian mainland, dams on the Mekong (Lancang) in the Chinese province of Yunnan give the PRC control over the amount of water received downriver; this could have disastrous effects on fishing and rice cultivation in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing has begun a railway from Yunnan to Laos’s capital, and it wants direct rail to access the west coast of Burma, as Strangio refers to the country. This would limit its reliance on the Malacca Straits for importing oil, a development that Singapore dreads as its strategic position would be threatened. These infrastructure projects are not necessarily economic boons for the host nations: the Laos railway project could lead to “debt distress” according to the Washington Based Center for Global Development. Also there isn’t any assurance that the profits from expanding commerce will stay in Laos, Cambodia and Burma, etc rather than merely heading north to further enrich China.
While Laos and Cambodia are, due to their geography, free of South China Sea issues, they risk losing control in places where the Chinese have moved in to create sleazy gambling towns. Yet China is also a good neighbor who provides financing without involving itself in domestic politics, in contrast to Western countries who place conditions and withdraw support over human rights and environmental issues. An example of this is because of the 2014 coup in Thailand the USA cancelled military aid. This caused the Thai government to turn towards China for aid and investment.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese populations, despite being there for generations, are not as well integrated as in other countries in the region. They have long been scapegoats for economic and political problems. They are seen as having divided loyalties: this is partly caused by memories of the communist insurgency in British Malaya in the 1950s and President Sukarno’s turn to the left in Indonesia in the 1960s.
The PRC’s export of communism led many Southeast Asian governments to accuse the Chinese of acting as a “fifth column” for Beijing—a claim that was all the more insidious for containing a grain of truth.
Strangio makes the distinction between ethnic Chinese who have established roots in Southeast Asia, and new immigrants who came from the Chinese mainland after 1978. He labels as problematic Xi Jinping’s talk of all ethnic Chinese being part of one big Chinese family. This kind of declaration only stokes local anti-Chinese sentiment. In having a tin ear for what might go down well in other countries, Strangio says China suffers from “great state autism”, the gist of which is that large powerful countries are self-obsessed and don’t pay proper attention to the attitudes of smaller nations and hence make foreign policy blunders.
In the Philippines, the relationship with China changed greatly with the election of the maverick Rodrigo Duterte, whose move away from America and towards China is complicated by the two countries’ conflict in the South China Sea. Duterte has zigzagged on the issue, saying he’ll take China on over this while really doing nothing about it. This may be a wise move.
Duterte’s foreign policy team concurred. They believed that confronting China had brought the Philippines the worst of both worlds: it had done little to loosen China’s hold over Scarborough Shoal and its island fortresses in the Spratlys, and it had soured relations with Beijing, effectively locking the Philippines out of participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was announced at the height of bilateral tensions in 2013.
Many of the infrastructure projects Duterte arranged with Xi Jinping in 2017 hadn’t got off the ground a year later because of local criticism of their financing conditions and lack of transparency, whereas Japanese backed projects were progressing nicely. China is the number one trading partner of Southeast Asia, but surprisingly Japan is the biggest investor in infrastructure, and is seen as quite reliable. The USA is the other major player, but its former allies like Thailand and the Philippines are less reliant on it than in the past, although all nations in the book look to the US to be involved as a balance to China in the region.
Strangio paints China as a superpower rather clumsily throwing its weight around in trying to increase its power. Unlike the USA or the Soviet Union during the cold war it can do business with governments of any ideological hue.
The countries of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) through historical experience and cultural links are prepared to deal with the reality of China’s rise, but the balance of power is against them. Strangio suggests it will be a rocky but not impassable road.