Southeast Asia: China’s Long Shadow

Chinese foreign policy in Southeast Asia affects, and is affected by, the more despotic character of ASEAN’s mainland compared with its maritime member states. But the destiny of even the already undemocratic mainland portion of Southeast Asia is not—not yet at least—made in Beijing.
Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar hold banners. Protesters hold banners as they gather outside the U.S. Embassy for a protest against the military coup on February 16, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar. Hkun Lat via Getty Images

This essay was first published in the political quarterly Democracy Journal. It is part of a four-essay collection, titled The Stakes in Asia, on the future of U.S.-Asian relations. This essay focuses on the nations of Southeast Asia, the three other essays on China, Japan, and South and North Korea. 


EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY” read the t-shirt worn by 19-year-old Ma Kyal Sin, also known as “Angel,” in Mandalay, Myanmar, on March 3, 2021. Hundreds of thousands of mostly young Burmese had thronged the streets of their country’s cities to continue protesting the military’s seizure of power the month before. She had joined them to serve on the front line, hoping to protect her unarmed companions from the advancing police. She was shot in the back of the head and died. Soon after she was buried, the junta exhumed her body, took it away, and filled her grave with concrete. The regime then claimed that autopsy results showed the bullet in her brain could only have been fired by another demonstrator. Yet when she was shot, she had her back to the oncoming police.

Everything is not okay in Myanmar and won’t be for some time to come. As of the beginning of April, the country’s military, or Tatmadaw, led by the coup’s leader, army General Min Aung Hlaing, had killed an estimated 400 unarmed Burmese, who were guilty of nothing but peacefully protesting the general’s merciless usurping regime. By mid-April, the junta’s murders exceeded 700 in number.

Nor is everything okay next door in Thailand, another mainland Southeast Asian state. Seven years have passed since that country’s latest coup in 2014—the 13th successful seizure of power there since the overthrow of its then-absolute monarchy in 1932. Although elections were finally held in 2019, the military manipulated them to reinforce its rule. Young Thais have been demonstrating against the government off and on since early in 2020.

East of Thailand are three more China-facing states in mainland Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Cambodia’s dictator Hun Sen has kept his grip on power for more than 36 years, a record exceeded in Asia only by the Ayatollah Khameini in Iran. In March 2021, a Cambodian court did Hun Sen’s bidding yet again by sentencing the nine senior members of the country’s already banned opposition party, including its leader, to more than two decades in prison, effectively barring them from ever returning home from exile.

Laos is, in effect, a fiefdom of the harshly dominant Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), whose leaders have quashed opposition, curtailed liberties, and forcibly suppressed the formation of a civil society independent of that single-party state. Vietnam’s draconian law on cybersecurity outlaws the “organizing, activating, colluding, instigating, bribing, cheating or tricking, manipulating, training, or drilling” of “people to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” while also criminalizing undefined actions such as “causing confusion,” “distorting history,” and “denying revolutionary achievements.” Unsurprisingly, Laos and Vietnam rank 172nd and 175th, respectively, on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries.

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The Mainland-Maritime Contrast

Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam constitute sub-continental Southeast Asia. Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam share land borders with China. The remaining Southeast Asian states—the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Timor-Leste—are peninsular or insular in character and farther from China. It is common practice in Southeast Asian studies to distinguish the China-proximate five “landed” or mainland countries in northwestern Southeast Asia from the “maritime” six farther to the south and the east.

Six of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are “Not Free”: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. More than half of ASEAN is despotic by this measure, and of those six authoritarian members, five are on the mainland.

Geography and geology are not the same. Of the five mainland countries, four have seacoasts; only Laos is land-locked. All of the six maritime states are entirely or partly archipelagic. But Malaysia and Singapore are subcontinental in that they occupy the southernmost end of peninsular Southeast Asia. A projected three-stranded set of overland railroads connecting Malaysia and Singapore to mainland China, if completed, could socioeconomically enhance their subcontinental character. The strands would run southward from Kunming, the capital city of China’s Yunnan province, through Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to Bangkok in Thailand and onward through Malaysia to Singapore. Completing these north-south connections has been a priority of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Fears of “mainlandization”—Sinification—have arisen in that context. China’s presence is already amply manifest in the northern parts of Myanmar and Laos, where economic and cultural enclaves have formed around the influxes of tourists and immigrants from the PRC. Expatriate and local Chinese dominate the economy of Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, where young Ma Kyal Sin died. Mandarin is widely spoken there. If the BRI succeeds, if the north-south tracks are laid and maintained, and if traffic then flourishes back and forth to the mutual “win-win” benefit of China and all of the five Southeast Asian economies along the way, Beijing could further enlarge its footprint in the region.

Could does not mean will. The world economy shrank by more than 4 percent in 2020. Infrastructure is costly, and its returns are long-term. To varying extents in different countries, envisioned connectivity has become a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as governments have closed borders to reduce transmission of the virus and its variants. In 2019-2020, the pace of overseas lending by China’s policy banks slowed, and Chinese spending on megaprojects in the BRI fell to its lowest level ever. China’s latest five-year plan calls for “dual circulation,” abroad as well as at home, but the domestic economy is given priority.

That said, China’s economic growth in 2021 could reach 8 percent and thereby fuel Beijing’s campaign for influence in mainland Southeast Asia. In Laos, for example, aggressive Chinese lenders and corrupt local elites have indebted that country to the point that its lucrative electricity exports may soon be controlled by China. As one of the poorest members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Laos needs those revenues. Majority control over the country’s network of high-voltage power lines could give Beijing leverage that it could wield to ensure that Laos remains a compliant “friend” of China.

As illustrated by the case of China-facing Laos, the distribution of despotism in Southeast Asia tends to reinforce the mainland-maritime divide. “Many have said over the years that ASEAN is a club of dictators,” a Human Rights Watch official observed in 2016.

That harsh judgment is less of an exaggeration than one would wish. According to Freedom House, six of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are “Not Free”: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. More than half of ASEAN is despotic by this measure, and of those six authoritarian members, five are on the mainland. The only maritime autocracy is tiny Brunei, an absolute monarchy perched on the coast of Borneo facing the South China Sea. The remaining four ASEAN states—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore—are all maritime and rated “Partly Free.” The lone “Free” country in the region is Timor-Leste, which occupies three neighboring bits of territory in the Indonesian archipelago and is not a member of ASEAN, although it would like to join.

Three crude descriptions follow: First, mainland Southeast Asia is autocratic. Second, maritime Southeast Asia is semi-democratic—a middle or mixed position reflected in the balance between the two smallest sea-linked states by population, autocratic Brunei and democratic Timor-Leste. Third, ASEAN’s membership tilts authoritarian, being six-tenths autocratic, four-tenths semi-democratic, and zero tenths democratic by Freedom House standards.

China’s Role: ‘Stability’ Over Democracy

How should China and its strategy be factored into these comparisons? Is geography destiny? Xi Jinping and his advisors would like their Southeast Asian counterparts to think so. Consider Beijing’s proposal for an ASEAN-China Community of Common Destiny. Does “community of common destiny” express China’s empathy, its presumption, or its intention to possess and preempt? Beijing wants its Southeast Asian neighbors to treat the idea of sharing a community as reassuring proof of how much and how sincerely China cares about them and their region. But a common destiny precludes divergent scenarios and destinations. If China’s destiny is to remain a party-state dictatorship under one leader for life, does Beijing want that same fate to encompass the rest of Southeast Asia? Does it strive to “mainlandize” the entire region by reinforcing top-down rule in “Not Free” Southeast Asia and making the “Partly Free” maritime states “Not Free” as well?

Shorn of all pretense, Xi Jinping’s hope is that China’s southern neighbors will look at a map and give up [...] Although China’s political template is authoritarian, Xi is not an evangelist for autocracy in Southeast Asia.

China is not evangelically despotic toward its neighbors in an ideological sense. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is an unexportable mishmash—oxymoronic in theory, contingent in practice, and parochial by its very name. As a candidate for travel beyond the PRC, it lacks legs. Nor is China counting on converting Southeast Asians into loyal fans of a Chinese model. Beijing is vigorously trying to bolster its soft power and incentivize its neighbors to acknowledge and join a Chinese sphere of regional influence voluntarily. The ASEAN states collectively are already China’s largest trading partner and vice versa. But if public diplomacy and economic embraces fail, it is fatalism, not communism, that Beijing is betting on.

Shorn of all pretense, Xi Jinping’s hope is that China’s southern neighbors will look at a map and give up. Why? Because, as the PRC’s current top diplomat Yang Jiechi famously told his ASEAN counterparts in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” As if big China were saying to its small neighbors: Our common destiny is to experience and accept the disparity between us, for we and you are destined to remain unequal, whether you like it or not. Take the South China Sea. We—the PRC—were always destined to absorb nearly all of that body of water based on Chinese sovereignty “formed over the course of over two thousand years,” to quote Jiechi in 2016.

The South China Sea is not lebensraum. It is not viewed in Beijing the way Berlin saw Poland in August 1939. Nevertheless, Xi’s China continues to manufacture destiny with Chinese characteristics in the heartwater of Southeast Asia by creating maritime facts on the water that Southeast Asians cannot reverse. These include China’s forcible possession of land features claimed by ASEAN’s littoral states; its conversion of those features into military bases from which it can threaten the region; and its orchestration of at-sea collisions, near-collisions, encirclements, and swarmings to stop Southeast Asians from fishing or from lifting undersea oil and gas even within their own Exclusive Economic Zones, all in clear violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing hopes that someday its control over the South China Sea and the land features it has weaponized there will be “just a fact” that ASEAN’s members will have had to accept, their lack of China’s size and strength having convinced them that they have no choice but to kowtow. Rather than trying to seed the region with despotisms in China’s image, Beijing prefers to encourage Southeast Asian fatalism, and with it the passivity and resignation to subservience that sheer necessity would imply.

Although China’s political template is authoritarian, Xi is not an evangelist for autocracy in Southeast Asia. If, as has been claimed, Xi’s China is “ideologically bankrupt,” it has no surplus in ideas to spend convincing the world to mimic its doctrine. As exportable advice, the formula that Beijing does represent—regime legitimation by economic performance—is more pragmatic than ideological. There are, nevertheless, three ways in which Chinese foreign policy in Southeast Asia affects, and is affected by, the more despotic character of ASEAN’s mainland compared with its maritime member states.

As it seeks to influence its neighbors and the world beyond, Xi’s China may be ideologically promiscuous. But Beijing does love stability. When Adam Prezorskwi described democracy as “institutionalized uncertainty,” he noted its potentially beneficial effect. The unpredictability of electoral outcomes in a democratic system is stabilizing insofar as it motivates a losing candidate not to turn against the system but rather to run again within it. The chance of victory—positive uncertainty—may warrant another try.

But institutionalized uncertainty is anathema to the Communist Party of China. The power and authority of the CPC under a could-be leader for life supplies the institutionalized certainty that a stable dictatorship needs—or thinks it needs—to survive. Rapid economic growth and the systematic forestalling of civil society in China continue at least to postpone recourse to another Tiananmen massacre. In roughly comparable ways, institutionalized repression in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam has helped keep those dictatorships stable—so far. Beijing’s faith in the stabilizing power of institutionalized certainty makes dealing with foreign despots a subjectively rational choice. And doing so can at least simplify Chinese diplomacy. Democracies have more actors who need to be taken into account, including critics of China whose barbs are protected speech.

Consider Myanmar. Given Beijing’s economic and strategic stake in using Myanmar as a way station for greater Chinese access to the Indian Ocean, Xi is probably furious that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has rendered Myanmar unstable and unpredictable. The general’s regime is not innately pro-China. But Beijing likely calculates that a democratic alternative to military rule could jeopardize China’s position even more. In the days immediately following the Tatmadaw’s seizure of power, Beijing did not even acknowledge that a coup had taken place, calling it a mere “cabinet reshuffle” and blocking the UN Security Council from criticizing what had occurred. Inside Myanmar, anti-China protests ensued, with accusations stemming from rumors that China might even have encouraged the coup due to its own despotic character and inclination. The rumors sound unfounded, but the fact that they circulated among democracy-minded opponents of the junta could only reinforce Beijing’s preference for military rule.

Xi’s China craves praise. Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats in Southeast Asia have not been shy about urging and thus implicitly requiring recipients of Chinese “gifts,” including vaccines for local use against the COVID-19 virus, to publicly thank China for its generosity—preferably in profuse terms. In a democracy that values personal worth more than hierarchical deference and obligatory gratitude, kowtowing may be unpopular. In contrast, under a despot, obligatory upward fawning may be normal and thus more easily performed to please a foreign donor. An authoritarian patron may welcome such expressions of fealty as signs of submission. In addition, China’s often visceral dismissal of foreign criticism, compared with the normality of critique in democratic states, would suggest that Beijing prefers to deal with leaders of governments that enforce gratitude for reasons of material dependence on China, as opposed to those who refuse to self-censor. Looking back and forward toward the future, China’s history as a presumptuous empire and its Xi-led quest for “rejuvenation” to recover former glory, before its “century of humiliation” by the West, are not conducive to comportment as a Westphalian state dealing on a basis of equality with other states.

Third and finally, if authoritarian China is about product with little regard for process, whereas democratic society reverses those priorities, it stands to reason that China’s policymakers may, other things being equal, prefer to partner with autocratic heads of state who can get things done, never mind how.

Pushing Back and Looking Forward

Deterministically structural explanations of China’s influence in Southeast Asia—size, proximity, a magnetic economy—overlook the human factor: the capacity of the region’s people and leaders to question and reject dependence on tectonic conditions that stack the deck in China’s favor. To Beijing’s likely chagrin, that capacity is amply evident in the opinions of elite-level Southeast Asians who follow their countries’ foreign affairs. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s consecutive annual surveys of the views of these individuals have revealed their rising mistrust of China and, conversely, their rising trust of the United States.

Sampled in 2018, these elites mistrusted China and the United States in equal measure. In that year, 52 percent had little to no confidence that China would “do the right thing” in world affairs, while 51 percent said the same thing about the United States. But in 2019 and 2020, that pox on both houses has consistently and markedly evolved in China’s disfavor. By 2020, 63 percent of the Southeast Asian respondents mistrusted China, compared with 31 percent who mistrusted America. If that shift seems odd in light of the destabilizing idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump, it should be noted that the 2020 survey was conducted late in the final year of his presidency and the questions were about what China and the United States could be expected to do in the future. China’s hope for loyal neighbors received a further blow in the answers to a question about whether ASEAN, were it forced to align itself with one of the two big rivals, should side with China or with the United States. Although 39 percent of the respondents opted for China, 62 percent chose the United States.

Opinions are malleable. The popularities of China and the United States will fluctuate in tandem with future events. Although the survey research cited above has portrayed China as untrustworthy, expansionists in Beijing could take comfort in the data on Southeast Asian perceptions of relative power as a matter of fact, trustworthiness aside. Asked in 2020 which country or regional organization (such as ASEAN or the European Union) was the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, 76 percent said China. Merely 7 percent named America. China won as well, though by a less overwhelming margin, when the same question was asked regarding political and strategic influence. That China is most consequential in those regards garnered 49 percent agreement, compared with 30 percent who thought the United States fitted that description. In effect, the survey inadvertently endorsed China’s cultivation of acquiescent fatalism in Southeast Asia—destiny over opportunity, realpolitik over moralpolitik—to the marginal advantage of Beijing.

In the months and years to come, major outside actors—the United States, Japan, and India among others—could work with autonomy-seeking Southeast Asian states to slow the Chinese juggernaut in Southeast Asia.

China is not significantly or consistently more or less popular in mainland Southeast Asia than it is in the maritime part of the region. Mistrust of China, for example, is highest in mainland Vietnam and in the maritime Philippines, albeit for different reasons. The Vietnamese remember their history of resistance to domination by China and resent its current bullying in the South China Sea. The latter behavior also angers Filipinos, whose own post-colonial history has tended, with exceptions, to involve accommodation with the United States. But the existence of a structural straitjacket that a Sinocentric understanding of “common destiny” would imply is more evident in the countries located closer to China that are accordingly less able to ignore their huge, overbearing, and censorial neighbor.

China is not willfully spreading autocracy in Southeast Asia. China’s relations with its neighbors are motivated by interest not ideology. With the stark exception of Vietnam, however, one can envision an authoritarian symbiosis of sorts developing between despotic China and potential satellite despotisms along its southern land border. Myanmar could become a test case in this context. If the junta crushes the opposition, if ASEAN does little more than slap the wrist of its murderous member, and if Western outrage drives the Tatmadaw into China’s arms, the growth of a Chinese sphere of influence based on authoritarian connivance could someday even split ASEAN roughly into its northwestern-subcontinental and southeastern-archipelagic parts.

Nevertheless, at least for now, the bravery of the martyred Ma Kyal Sin and her co-protestors in Myanmar, and of their counterparts in Thailand protesting against their own military regime, evokes, at least for now, a less despotic and subordinated future for Southeast Asia. Authoritarian instability is not an oxymoron. China’s own domestic stability and prosperity are not guaranteed. Its soft power deficit is real, and its overreaching under Xi Jinping could continue to vindicate Southeast Asian distrust. In the months and years to come, major outside actors—the United States, Japan, and India among others—could work with autonomy-seeking Southeast Asian states to slow the Chinese juggernaut in Southeast Asia.

A fresh wave of democratization in Southeast Asia is not on the horizon. But the destiny of even the already undemocratic mainland portion of Southeast Asia is not—not yet at least—made in Beijing.

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