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Under Beijing's Shadow: Southeast Asia's China Challenge, by Murray Hiebert.

Bully or benefactor? New book explores China’s relationship with Asean states

  • Murray Hiebert’s Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge is a valuable compendium to understand China-Asean ties, this book reviewer writes
  • Hiebert, who is associated with the Washington-based CSIS, focuses on the South China Sea and Belt and Road Initiative
Back in 1988, the prime minister of Cambodia denounced China, describing it as “the root of everything that is evil” in his country. Hun Sen, still the Cambodian leader, is singing a vastly different tune now, praising China as Phnom Penh’s “most trusted friend”.
That isn’t the only example of a big pendulum swing from decades ago for China’s relations with Southeast Asia. With some countries, ties were frosty at best; China supported insurgents in at least three countries (Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar).
Relations with Indonesia, the region’s most populous nation, went from warm when Sukarno was in power to frozen for 25 years after anti-communist General Suharto elbowed him out in the mid-1960s. Now, there’s a free-trade agreement linking China and all its neighbours to the south, and Beijing is the biggest trading partner of most of them. Until Covid-19 forced a halt, huge numbers of Chinese visitors poured into the region’s resorts and tourist hotspots.

Explainer | Why are tensions running high in the South China Sea dispute?

But among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean), China’s rise to become a superpower has stirred mixed emotions, with appreciation for the economic support and opportunities as well as anxiety about how much a more assertive China might undermine the neighbours’ sovereignty and treat Southeast Asia as its own backyard.
The greatest source of concern has been the commercially vital and resource-rich South China Sea, where Beijing has stuck with a claim to ownership of about 80 per cent of it. Cambodia, almost a client state of China, in 2016 blocked an Asean joint statement from citing an international tribunal’s rejection of Beijing’s claim and from stating that international law should be respected.

China has caused dismay by installing military hardware on artificial islands, and it has harassed Vietnamese, Indonesian and Philippine fishermen as well as pressed Vietnam and Malaysia to stop oil and gas exploration in their 200- nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.

The sea has long been a point of contention between China and the United States, and the issue has heated up since July when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toughened US policy and said most of Beijing’s claims were “completely unlawful” – a view China rejected.

At this time of rising tensions, the relationship between Asean countries and their giant neighbour is the subject of a new, comprehensively researched book by a veteran Southeast Asia hand, Murray Hiebert. Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge recounts in detail the history of the sometimes-fraught ties of each of the 10 Asean states with China.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang (C) poses for a group photo with Asean leaders during the 22nd Asean-China Summit in Bangkok last November. Photo: AFP

Hiebert writes that a 2017 editorial in the Thai newspaper The Nation summed up the sentiments of many in the region: “While China’s economic assistance to countries in Southeast Asia is most welcome, territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea have cast our giant neighbour as an arrogant bully.”

The editorial appeared soon after Chinese President Xi Jinping said it was time for China to “to take centre stage in the world”.

The country chapters are the biggest strength of Hiebert’s fine book. Their titles convey the main themes.

One is Cambodia: China’s Proxy in Southeast Asia, and another is Singapore: “You Are Ethnic Chinese, So You Shouldn’t Oppose Us”. (That chapter contains remarks from retired Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, known for his often-blunt views.)

Asean choose between China and US? Singapore, Indonesia officials say no

These chapters give readers a full picture of the nuances and factors shaping relations between China and Asean nations, including the position of ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.

A major subject is, naturally, the South China Sea. Four Asean members – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – have exclusive economic zone claims that overlap and clash with China’s assertion that it has sovereignty over most of the sea based on a “nine-dash line” on an old map.

Respective claims in the South China Sea. Graphic: SCMP

In 2013, when Benigno Aquino III was its president, the Philippines challenged China’s claim at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, following a tense stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels the previous year in Scarborough Shoal. In 2016, just after Rodrigo Duterte became president, the court ruled in Manila’s favour, saying China’s nine-dash line violated international law. China rejected the landmark ruling and Duterte, pursuing economic benefits from friendship with Beijing, has basically ignored it.

Later that year, Duterte visited Beijing and signed US$24 billion in MOUs for infrastructure projects. As of end-2019, Hiebert writes, “almost none of these pledges have been implemented” and only three small schemes worth less than US$200 million had been started.

In South China Sea, Asean states set course for Beijing’s red line

Hiebert notes that China years ago moved to draw Asean members “into its economic juggernaut through its massive Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure programme”.

And when the United States and Europe complained in 2017 about Cambodia’s move away from democracy and Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority, “China was ready with diplomatic support and offers of aid and investment”.

But in the author’s view, China has in recent times shown “surprising flexibility” in renegotiating some belt and road projects with interest rates or terms upsetting host countries, including a train line in Laos, the East Coast Rail Link in Malaysia and the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar.

Hiebert, who is associated with the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, is a reporter by background.

He has been based in multiple Asean countries for the Far Eastern Economic Review , and in China for The Wall Street Journal .

His text covers through the end of last year, which means it is missing some big developments, including Covid-19 and the US toughening its stance on the South China Sea.

Given how much history and context it lays out, the book is a valuable compendium for anyone wanting to understand the important China-Southeast Asia relationship and get beyond today’s headlines on South China Sea friction and disputes between China and the US.