Rethinking China’s Influence in Southeast Asia: The Role of Non-State Actors and Unintended Consequences
Departing from international relations scholarship and popular media accounts that tend to portray China as a great power intent on establishing a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Southeast Asia Enze Han argues for conceptualizing China as an unconventional great power whose diverse actors, particularly non-state ones, impact its influence in the region.
When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a major China policy speech on May 26, 2022, outlined the Biden administration's strategy to outcompete China, he noted that China “has announced its ambition to create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power.” But what exactly is China's influence, and how do we know it when we see it? These are some of the questions Dr. Enze Han seeks to answer.
Han, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Politics and Public Administration, joined APARC as a Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia for the 2022 spring quarter. The fellowship, which is hosted jointly by APARC’s Southeast Asia Program (SeAP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore, enabled Han to advance his research into Southeast Asia’s relations with China. He recently discussed his work in a seminar hosted by SeAP.
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Conceptualizing China as an Unconventional Great Power
Most studies on China’s presence in Southeast Asia tend to focus on China’s power dynamics and how it wields it to gain influence within the region. The emphasis is on intention and causation: how China willingly uses its power to coerce, coopt, or persuade Southeast Asian states to behave in particular ways. This characterization, Han argues, ignores the contemporary Chinese state as fragmented, decentralized, and internationalized. Han goes beyond this conventional approach to explore the variety of actors and the intended versus unintended outcomes associated with China’s presence in Southeast Asia. It is necessary to understand such nuance and complexity, he claims, if we are to make sense of China’s relations with Southeast Asian states.
China’s presence in Southeast Asia is by no means monolithic, notes Han. Rather, it takes numerous everyday forms and involves not only state actors, such as diplomatic missions and state-owned enterprises, but also non-state actors that may or may not be closely associated with the Chinese state. These include civil society organizations, private businesses, and ordinary Chinese citizens who reside in Southeast Asia for work, study, or retirement, in addition to Chinese tourists. The actions of these multiple stakeholders can have intended and unintended consequences, Han argues. In particular, the effects of non-state Chinese actors’ daily encounters with local communities in Southeast Asia deserve attention, he says.
Shadow Economy and Offshore Gambling in Eastern Myanmar
Consider, for instance, the case of the “new city” of Shwe Kokko in Myanmar’s Southeastern Kayin State (known as 'Karen State' among the ethnic-Karen population living there), on the border with Thailand. The emerging “Chinatown” project in Shwe Kokko began attracting international attention as capital investment flowed into the former farmland on the banks of the Moei River and residential complexes, hotels, shops, Chinese restaurants, and glitzy casinos sprang up. Allegations of Chinese mafia involvement have plagued the massive city project, and media outlets and Western observers attributed culpability to the Chinese government, portraying the project as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
However, Han points out that empirical details show that the new city project was led by a company headed by a fugitive Chinese businessman fleeing the Chinese government’s crackdown on illegal offshore gambling. Therefore, Shwe Kokko is not quite a case of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative expansionism using complex networks of PRC citizens and ethnic Chinese in a neighboring country to fuel dangerous activities colluding with Chinese officials and government agencies. Instead, it demonstrates how shadow economies like the online gambling industry are responding to regulatory attempts by the Chinese state. According to Han, to make sense of the Shwe Kokko story, one must understand who the non-state actors are and how they interact with local communities in Southeast Asian borderlands.
Market Demand and Agricultural Transformation in Northern Myanmar
Now turn to Northern Myanmar, where Han conducted fieldwork in 2019. Over the past decade, he explains, Northern Myanmar has undergone accelerated deforestation due to rising agricultural production in response to increasing demand for grains such as maize and their elevated global commodity market prices. In Myanmar’s Shan State, which borders China, the expansion of maize cultivation is closely related to a surge in Chinese demand for animal feed resulting from the rising domestic consumption of meat. However, a Chinese state ban on maize import from Myanmar had created rampant smuggling coupled with irregular enforcement of border inspections and schisms between the commodity production cycle and financing for local farmers.
One may draw a correlation between the rising demand for meat consumption in China that seemingly created a ripple effect in Myanmar, leading to the expansion of maize cultivation, deforestation, and economic precarity for local farmers. But then again, is this a case of Chinese influence operations? There is no evidence pointing to such deliberate attempts by the Chinese state to influence its neighboring country, although the resulting economic and environmental consequences are related to conditions in China.
Thus, Han argues, understanding an increasingly globalized China and its variegated impacts around the world requires conceptual flexibility. In particular, when referring to China's presence and influence in Southeast Asia, one must not assume a monolith with hegemonic designs for its neighboring states but rather differentiate between multiple types of actors with long histories and multifaceted consequences, both intended and unintended.