Guest Column

For Myanmar, China Poses the Thorniest Foreign Policy Challenge

By Yan Naing 21 December 2020

Southeast Asia, as a region, has always played a key role in Chinese foreign policy, but in recent years its strategic importance has increased given heightened tensions between China and the US.

Significantly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accounted for nearly 15 percent of China’s imports and exports during the first half of 2020, more than the US or the European Union (EU). China is also a key commercial partner and a source of foreign investment for Southeast Asia.

The relationship, however, is not a simple or one-sided one.

Sebastian Strangio, author of “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century”, points out that while China is “the most important economic partner to nearly every nation in the region” it is also “their thorniest foreign policy challenge”.

From a Southeast Asian perspective, what are the challenges confronting the region in the face of a rising and assertive China?

National perspectives do matter in this regard. It should be noted, for example, that while for a nation like Cambodia, China is a protective giant, for nations like Vietnam or Myanmar, which directly border China, that same giant poses a threat.

Historically, the twin factors of Chinese expatriate presence and more recently, large-scale investment by China under the guise of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have laid the ground for penetration beyond its borders. From the outset, there is a lot of external negativity associated with Chinese state-owned enterprises working on BRI-related infrastructure projects.

Domestic laws are logically intended to govern Chinese investment, but often, either because of the lack of legislation or the ability of the Chinese to corrupt the prevailing system, it proves difficult to cope with Chinese penetration.

It has been seen on several occasions—in Malaysia, Indonesia and even in Myanmar—that pre-existing corruption is intensified with the entry of the Chinese. As a result, things are forced into operation despite local or popular opposition.

Consequently, there have been a number of negative outcomes such as damage to the environment, displacement of people and in some cases the aggravation of societal conflicts. These negative traits have been common across the Southeast Asian region. Examples of local resistance and potential environmental damage caused by dams on the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers are sufficient to emphasize this point.

The other obvious factor of import and concern is debt.

Simply put, this is the fear that nations in the region will become indebted to China, and this will, over time, compromise their sovereignty. In the current situation, this concern has been accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Regional economies have been squeezed by the pandemic, and this in turn has enhanced the debt trap fear. For instance, Laos, which is the country most indebted to China in Southeast Asia, has already started feeling the negative effects. Recently, a Chinese company, China Southern Power Grid Co, took a majority stake in the Lao National Power grid, because there were debts that the Lao state couldn’t meet.

The other element used by China to intensify its penetration is the existence of large ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

To fully appreciate this outreach to the Chinese ethnic communities in Southeast Asia one must understand that since President Xi Jinping took over, the Chinese state has decided to combine its goals of fostering neo-colonialism with the promotion of Chinese culture overseas. Historic Chinese support to communist insurgencies in Malaya and Myanmar for instance was based on the classic communist revolutionary theory. Additionally, Chinese communities in Southeast Asia faced discrimination in their countries of residence, which made it difficult for them to freely express their links to mainland China.

Today, the situation has been transformed and the social presence of so many Chinese in Southeast Asia provides additional leverage for China to make inroads in its influence. Chinese newspapers and Chinese language classes enjoy a resurgence today, as do economic connections between ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia and the Chinese mainland.

Today, we see President Xi Jinping referring to overseas Chinese as members of the great Chinese nation. He is inviting them to participate in a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and seeking to harness their economic resources. The objective is to convert their economic interactions into political loyalties and political support for key Chinese goals. In the past, Chinese citizens overseas were treated as part of their nation of residence. This has created new ethnic challenges in Southeast Asia. Many expatriate Chinese find themselves in a dilemma as to whether they should consider themselves as locals or as Chinese.

It is therefore not surprising that in a couple of Southeast Asian countries we have witnessed a re-emergence of nativist demagoguery often with religious overtones, focused on the belief that ethnic Chinese are a sort of fifth column.

Southeast Asia is at once an incredibly diverse and a fragmented region. As Strangio points out, there isn’t any logical unifying force binding the region together. That is why there was a recognition among the founding members of ASEAN during the Cold War that they needed to stick together to protect their interests.

Today, ASEAN has 10 countries with wildly diverse cultures, religions, languages and levels of development, but significantly, member states haven’t had any real conflicts for more than half a century. This is a considerable achievement.

One of the challenges facing ASEAN today is how to handle China. Each nation in the region looks at China from a different perspective, and in each nation, views of China are affected by a balance of factors: geography, history, ideology and economic interests.

Cambodia’s growing dependence on China has become a concern for many of its people and states in the region. Some analysts argue that Cambodia is vulnerable to evolving geopolitical shifts among major players in the international system. Given the high-stakes strategic competition in Southeast Asia today, dependence on China and alienation of the US and EU can lead to negative consequences.

Now there are increasing calls for Cambodia to rethink its foreign policy to counter the widespread perception that it is merely a Chinese proxy.

Meanwhile, for nations like Vietnam and Myanmar China is seen as a threat. Their apprehensions about China have been nurtured by centuries of tension and, in the case of Vietnam, quite a number of wars with China, not to mention the experience of being directly under Chinese imperial rule for large periods of history.

A broad shift has taken place in Chinese foreign policy from the era of Deng Xiaoping to that of Xi Jinping. Instead of “keeping a low profile,” China has moved into a phase that is clearly more assertive. Xi’s “China Dream” rhetoric offered a nationalist justification for a new Chinese foreign policy.

It is perhaps a result of Chinese expansionist policies that the South China Sea dispute has become a major concern. In 2013 and 2014, China’s relations with the Philippines and Vietnam deteriorated significantly due to escalations in the South China Sea. Even Malaysia, which has traditionally been a more China-friendly state, found reasons to worry about China’s strategic intentions.

As part of its strategy to extend its influence in Southeast Asia, China also employed the practice of “divide-and-conquer,” enticing its close partners in ASEAN, to prevent the organization from presenting a unified position against China. Due to the persistence of the dispute in the South China Sea, much of the strategic trust between China and ASEAN countries that had been built up earlier has been diminished. Xi has defined his era as the “New Era.”

This “new era” promotes a vision of China as the leader of a “community of shared destiny.” But so far, Southeast Asia remains cautious about fully accepting, let alone embracing, the Chinese vision.

Deepening economic cooperation with China has often been balanced by a security relationship with the US. That kind of hedging offers the region a rational response to China’s rise, albeit with increasingly narrower room for maneuver.

Yan Naing is the pseudonym of a regular observer on Myanmar affairs. The views expressed are his own.

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