Friendship, Courtship, Hatred? Love?

China has anchored in its favourite part of the world – favourite, at least for now. At a time when the United States is no longer proactively courting Southeast Asia, the Chinese are aggressively pursuing their object of interest. The rest of the world may not think that the individual wooed countries are particularly appealing; be it politically or economically. But the Chinese understand the collective power of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, as a force to be reckoned with. China is going after what it wants, leaving no stone unturned along the way.

The great power has succeeded in forming bilateral and multilateral relationships, stemming from mutually beneficial offers of friendship. Countries in the region find China’s offers too attractive to resist. Every state wants to do better. Every state can do better. When fortune knocks, states find no reason keep their doors shut. It is no surprise that the great power has seized opportunities and incrementally worked its way into the heart of Southeast Asia from different angles, using different approaches, without taking even a step back.

Firstly, China has used its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a catalyst for strengthening bilateral relationships with individual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states. This initiative is one of the main reasons for Chinese interest today, in the region. China also has a history of joint ventures with Malaysia and Singapore.

Secondly, the great power is a prominent member of the soon-to-be finalised RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), which is a free trade deal led by ASEAN. When the RCEP is concluded, it will be the largest trading bloc in the world, with the Chinese as dominant players.

Thirdly, China is the most powerful member state in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which also includes Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam; these five countries make up Continental Southeast Asia and they are half of ASEAN. Meaning, China has triple opportunity to strengthen ties with Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam; given that the great power has successfully built robust relationships with the other half of ASEAN. Clearly, the Chinese can exert a stronger influence in Southeast Asia, ASEAN, RCEP and GMS, by working their way into the heart of Continental Southeast Asia. A high possibility, but at what cost?

Distrust of Chinese intentions is brewing across ASEAN’s populations, slowly but surely. Some people are fuelled by their country’s acrimonious history with the great power; others choose not to trust. Some have secured jobs as a result of China’s presence; others are still unable to find a way to survive, amidst thousands of Chinese migrant workers in their country. Some are happy because they can sell their goods across borders; others are unhappy because they are unable to find jobs across the border.

Agricultural livelihoods have been disrupted and locals have been forced to vacate their land to make way for BRI projects. Poor farmers have lost their only source of income and their government is not helping them. Fishermen who depend on the South China Sea for survival, are frustrated that their country has given in to China; they cannot earn as much as they need to, because the dominant force is imposing unreasonable restrictions in their territory. Many are afraid that China would compromise their national sovereignty by interfering in their domestic and foreign policies. Many do not want their country to be indebted to the great power.

Unfortunately, despite China’s calculated love for Southeast Asia, it is still unclear if people in the region will be able to reciprocate.

China-Southeast Asia Map (Photo: iStock, Asia Times)

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