How Well Is China Advancing Its Interests in Southeast Asia?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Xi Jinping traveled to Southeast Asia last month to attend the G20 summit in Bali before moving on to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ meeting in Bangkok. The meetings came on the heels of Premier Li Keqiang’s appearance at the ASEAN summit, where he repeatedly underscored the “shared future” of Southeast Asia and China. But what does that shared future look like? For 13 years, China has been Southeast Asia’s largest trading partner. Chinese roads, Chinese factories, and Chinese infrastructure projects have spread across the region. In early November, China and Vietnam signed 13 deals, following a trip to Beijing by the Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary—the first foreign leader to visit after Xi secured his historic third term. Last year, the inaugural section of a $6 billion Laos-China rail opened in the impoverished nation. In Cambodia, China’s “help” in upgrading a strategically located naval base has generated years of speculation on Beijing’s motivation. As China continues to grow its role in the region, how well is Beijing advancing its interests and what and where do its interests diverge most acutely from those of China’s neighbors? —The Editors


After Xi Jinping secured a third term as expected at the 20th Party Congress, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was the first foreign leader to congratulate him in person, paying a visit to Beijing at the end of October. Two weeks later, Xi flew to Bali and Bangkok for the Group of 20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meetings. But the regional stage onto which Xi is reemerging is one even less favorable to and more anxious about China than the one he left at the start of the COVID pandemic.

During the first year of the pandemic, Beijing enjoyed a public relations advantage in Southeast Asia, as it did globally. It delivered medical supplies and protective equipment throughout the region as the United States floundered. But by 2021, China was suffering from a perception of heavy-handedness in demands for gratitude and political concessions in exchange for aid, which only worsened as most in the region turned away from increasingly ineffective Chinese-made vaccines in favor of U.S. and European alternatives. Meanwhile, China spent the pandemic increasing its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, angering Southeast Asian claimants. It responded to any criticism on these fronts with increasingly nationalistic rhetoric.

As a result, China closes 2022 even less popular in much of the region than it was at the start of the pandemic. The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore conducts an annual survey of government, academic, and business elites across all 10 Southeast Asian countries. A majority of those surveyed across the region say that if “forced to align” with one great power or the other, they would choose the United States. For the U.S., those figures are highest in the countries of greatest strategic significance to Washington: 84 percent in the Philippines, 78 in Singapore, 74 in Vietnam, and 56-57 percent in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

These elite signals likely both reflect and reinforce public opinion across much of the region. For instance, a Social Weather Stations survey of Philippine public opinion conducted in 2020 found large majorities insisting that their government should more strenuously push back on China in the South China Sea and should hold Beijing accountable for hiding information about the initial COVID outbreak. As a result, trust in China among Filipinos was a net -36, compared to +42 for the United States. In Indonesia, a 2021 Lowy Institute poll found only 42 percent trust China compared to 56 percent for the United States. And 60 percent agreed that “Indonesia should join with other countries to limit China’s influence,” up 10 points from a decade ago. In Pew’s 2022 Global Attitudes Survey, 62 percent of Malaysians and 56 percent of Singaporeans said China’s growing military power is a problem.

China remains the preeminent economic power in the region, at least in terms of trade flows and popular perception. A majority of the elites ISEAS surveyed in every country say as much. But with the exception of those in Cambodia, most elites (ranging from 55 percent in Malaysia to 87 percent in Myanmar) greet that economic influence with worry. And with investment and lending under the Belt and Road Initiative way down and economic headwinds buffeting China, economic influence seems unlikely to paper over the growing anxiety about Beijing across Southeast Asia.

President Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and Thailand, his first to Southeast Asia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, were closely watched by many. The Xi-Biden meeting at the sidelines of the G20 in Bali garnered the greatest interest, but it appears that both leaders continued talking past one another on critical issues. The geopolitical rift between the two countries has widened drastically since the start of the U.S.-China trade war, exacerbated by the Russian-Ukraine war and other issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. The fear in Southeast Asia is that the so-called “guardrails” in the U.S.-China relationship are at risk of irreversible damage, which may inevitably lead to conflict.

China’s influence in regional affairs has been widely discussed within and outside of Southeast Asia. China is regarded overwhelming as the most influential economic power in the region by 77 percent and the most influential political/strategic power by 54 percent of respondents in a leading survey of the region. But these perceptions have generally translated into elevated anxieties and concerns about China’s influence, a consistent trend in the region since 2019. The question is, of course, why the worry, and not a welcome?

It has been said that Southeast Asia depends on China for its economic future and on the U.S. for security guarantees. Presumably if the region shared a common future with China, then it must be one that gives hope and fulfils aspirations. Yet, the chief reason respondents to that same survey elucidate for the distrust is that China could use its power and influence to threaten their countries’ sovereignty and independence. China’s determination to expand and deepen its scope of influence in the region is no secret; neither is its latitude in deploying coercive approaches towards countries that rebuff its advances.

Xi Jinping’s vision of a common future, or a “community of common destiny,” has been articulated and built upon through numerous policy statements since 2017. Xi has used this vision as a way to shape global governance and influence multilateralism, to counter what is perceived as U.S. hegemonic influence and what Chinese leaders view as the encroachment of U.S. influence in China’s “periphery.” China’s Belt and Road initiative, its new Global Security Initiative, and now a Global Development Initiative are all ways and means to achieve this. In reality, the vision remains vague and carries very little practical recommendations; it mostly carries reiterations of lofty principles of equality, justice, and harmony among nations. It is difficult to assess the extent of buy-in among Southeast Asian countries to this concept of a common future. The pragmatism of Southeast Asian governments will prevail when it comes to sharing certain benefits, but not when subscription to such a concept leads to a loss of autonomy and independence. In this regard, we might see countries asserting their agency when it comes to accepting “help” from China.

There is no perfect metric for judging how well China is advancing its interests in Southeast Asia, partly because Beijing’s perception of its own interests seems to diverge from what other countries tend to expect. One traditional Western yardstick, opinion polling, shows China suffering a crippling trust deficit among Southeast Asians. A 2022 survey by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute showed high levels of distrust towards China in stark contrast to scores for Japan and the U.S. Paradoxically, Xi Jinping’s slogans about a “Community of Common Destiny” and his banner programs like the Global Development Initiative all stress solidarity between China and its neighbors. But as countries like the Philippines and Vietnam can attest, again and again Beijing has chosen to use threats and coercion to compel Southeast Asian states to show deference to China’s declared “core interests.” To many Western observers, China is failing to advance its interests because it is not winning the hearts and minds of the region.

But could it be that Beijing would rather be feared than loved? Is there an ancient Chinese version of the quip, possibly misattributed to Teddy Roosevelt, that “if you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”? The crux of the tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors was voiced by an angry Yang Jiechi in 2010 when he yelled at an ASEAN forum: “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact.” China’s diplomatic and economic blandishments are undercut by Beijing’s seeking simultaneously to consolidate control over fish, oil, gas, mineral resources, and access in the South China Sea. The divergence of interests between China and its neighbors, however, is not fundamentally about disputed territory, political ideology, or the economy. It derives from Beijing’s apparent conviction that its own interests—particularly its “core” interests—are intrinsically more valid than the interests of its neighbors. In other words, while China talks a good game about respect for sovereignty, in practice it disregards the autonomy and rights of smaller countries.

Beijing is right to understand that regional countries prioritize economic development. But Southeast Asian governments simply can’t be seen by their citizens as trading sovereign rights to secure economic objectives. While these nations are fully mindful of China’s vast size, wealth, and power, they don’t regard themselves as merely part of China’s backyard. Southeast Asia countries may have had tributary relationships with past Chinese dynasties, but modern societies will not tolerate suzerainty for long, if at all. The unceasing demand for U.S. engagement in the region as a balancer is evidence of that urge to offset Chinese pressure and protect national autonomy.

The “shared future” of Southeast Asia and China is an economic one, but it is not necessarily a political one. For instance, China is Southeast Asia’s largest trading partner, but for a country like Cambodia, what does this mean exactly? It means Cambodia imports more from China than it exports to China—the reverse of Cambodia’s trading relationship with the U.S. and E.U. The U.S. and E.U. provide Cambodia’s foreign exchange, while China provides Cambodia’s inputs for that foreign exchange.

Meanwhile, what kind of “shared future” between China and South China Sea claimant countries can we expect if the nine-dash line remains China’s immovable stance? It would be an involuntary “shared future” to be sure, for countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. None of the countries of Southeast Asia wants a Chinese presence that overwhelms locals, causes cyber slavery, and turns the country into a mafia state—all of which Cambodia has been contending with in recent years.

The signing of 13 deals in Vietnam and rapprochement of Hanoi and Beijing shows a desire on the part of both nations’ leaders to engage despite historical wars and modern tensions. Vietnam understands that there is no way to ultimately avoid China; counting on the United States to balance China has seen limited success. Moreover, the signing of a deal for a U.S.$1.6 billion expressway to Bavet on the Cambodian-Vietnam border, following the successful completion of a $2 billion expressway (Cambodia’s first) from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, only further enhances China’s ability to outflank Vietnam through its neighbors. The same Ho Chi Minh trail that resupplied North Vietnamese fighters going up against American G.I.s has become the Xi Jinping trail cutting through Cambodia and going right up to the western side of Vietnam.

So, as China continues to grow its role in the region, Beijing advances its interests systematically on the checkerboard of Southeast Asia, in countries that often have different interests. And when those interests do align, it can be an alignment of authoritarianism against the population. Beijing and Phnom Penh, for instance, often see eye-to-eye. But if what’s good for Beijing is good for Phnom Penh, it’s not good for Cambodia. Case in point is the Ream Naval Base, which Beijing is all too eager to upgrade and possibly occupy a portion of. A Chinese presence at Ream would fly in the face of the Cambodian Constitution, which prohibits foreign military bases on Cambodian soil. A draft agreement seems to evade this constitutional measure by affording Cambodian passports to Chinese personnel on the base. Will the Chinese PLA Navy personnel become Cambodian citizens? In what can only be a post-Vienna Convention innovation, countries no longer need to engage in colonialism. Instead, they are invited in and deputized as nationals of the country they are stationed. Whether it is a “shared future” or shared prosperity, China’s embrace of Southeast Asia can feel at times unwanted and suffocating.