Endless headlines about Chinese adventurism in land and sea—whether it is Beijing’s aggression at the China-India border or its heightened military activity in the Taiwan Strait—offer light insight into hard realities for Southeast Asian countries that have to strike a balance between China and the US in order to preserve their economic and security interests in a shifting political climate.
A new book called “In the Dragon’s Shadow”, written by Sebastian Strangio, an author and journalist who writes on the region, puts some of these headlines in context. It wasn’t like China was always this assertive in the region that comprises eleven countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, and the Philippines).
In the late 1970s, China began establishing ties with the countries it had alienated during Mao’s rule, which had lasted almost three decades from 1949 until 1976. In September 1980, China had passed a new nationality law that revoked dual citizenship for people from China living overseas.
This helped fix ties with the countries that were suspicious about Chinese intention to normalise relations. It also led to investment into China from ethnic Chinese living abroad, mainly from those living in Hong Kong and Taiwan. But now, things have changed drastically. Not only is China suspected of mobilising its citizens’ sympathies abroad into active support for the Communist Party, but it is also accused of using dubious measures to gather that support.
So are all of these concerns legitimate? The answer to that is a little complicated. Some concerns about the Chinese engaging its diaspora community for political ends are true in the sense that the Chinese government has placed greater importance on engaging its citizens living abroad.
In March 2018, one year after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a “new era” that promised to bring China back to prominence on the world stage, China placed its Overseas Chinese Affairs Office under the control of the Communist Party’s traditional arm for developing alliances with non-communist groups, including with population groups living abroad.
But that does not mean that China has always succeeded in gathering the kind of support it has desired. Instead, a spate of instances, from anger against the Chinese building new roads or diverting water resources or asserting claims to resources across the South China Sea, have given rise to anti-China sentiments in Southeast Asian countries that have typically been cautious (like Laos or Cambodia) about inviting Chinese backlash.
Some other concerns related to the Chinese infrastructure project, or the Belt and Road Initiative, may be partly misdiagnosed since it is not clear whether China really wants to displace all the US institutions and mechanisms from which it has itself benefited. Instead, there is clear evidence—Xi had spoken of the Chinese dream after taking office in 2012—that it does want to regain some of the centrality it enjoyed in East Asia before being subjugated by foreign countries in the 19th and 20th century.
This brings us to the number one concern that has been on the minds of both Western and Southeast Asian countries: China’s maritime disputes. Consider the dispute from the vantage point of the country at the frontlines of containing Beijing’s expansionism: Vietnam.
The Chinese had invaded Vietnam for a month in 1979 after Vietnam overthrew the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The invasion brought the two former allies—the Chinese and the Vietnamese fought the French and the Americans in the Vietnam War—to war. Both countries later found a common interest in developing their economies after the end of Cold War.
But, in 2014, China placed a massive deep-water oil rig in waters close to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The rig was placed in waters that fell within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, sparking off anti-China protests in Vietnam. Ultimately, the Chinese withdrew the rig. Vietnam became one of the few countries able to stand up to Chinese aggressiveness.
This is also why diplomatic forums like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are increasingly gaining clout since many of the countries prefer a middle course that suits the region best, instead of them having to choose between the US and China. The ASEAN nations have also backed India’s “Act East Policy.”
A noticeable shift in attitude among the countries of the Indo-Pacific has not gone unnoticed in China. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, for example, visited five Southeast Asian countries last week to deepen ties and “promote multilateralism” after the US signed a new partnership with some of the same nations in September. It is clear that the pandemic, which led to heightened tensions between the superpowers in the region, will not slow the march of the dragon.