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
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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. ■