Southeast Asia is Ground Zero in the New U.S.-China Conflict—and Beijing Is Winning

Southeast Asia is Ground Zero in the New U.S.-China Conflict—and Beijing Is Winning

Sometimes the signs are scattershot. Investigative journalists imprisoned for doing their job in Thailand or the Philippines. Another forest razed to make way for an industrial-size plantation producing rubber or palm oil in Myanmar or Laos. Fishers and farmers losing their livelihoods in Vietnam after the construction of more than a dozen dams along the Mekong River. A high-speed rail system under construction in Malaysia using credit that drives the country deeper into debt. Casinos rising up to transform Sihanoukville, Cambodia, into an Asian Las Vegas.

At other times, China’s growing presence is visible for all to see. Chinese tourists crowding tropical islands, ancient temples, and shopping malls. Deal-makers from Guangzhou and Shanghai shuffling in and out of hotel lobbies and government offices. Chinese navy ships bullying neighboring countries’ fishing boats, military patrols, and oil exploration vessels to assert Beijing’s dubious claims over the South China Sea.

Chinese officials have become unabashedly open in their talk about a “Greater China” unconstrained by national boundaries, integrated into the Chinese economy, and anchored by Chinese communities across Southeast Asia. Many in the region worry that China is trying impose a new version of colonialism.

Traveling around parts of the region as I did last year, there was no mistaking the whiff of Chinese imperial arrogance—and of fear. Cambodians I’ve known for years whispered that their country is a Chinese colony in all but name. They told me about being disparaged by Chinese as “lazy,” and of more than a few Chinese-owned businesses in their country refusing to hire Cambodians even as they quash the local competition. In Vietnam, I was warned not to mention China in any of my public talks.

In his new book, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge, Murray Hiebert performs the extraordinary service of uncovering, in precise and meticulous detail, what these countries are up against—and China’s strategy to pull each of them ever more tightly into its orbit. He describes how China, whose history with each country goes back centuries, pays close attention to its would-be client states, seeks weaknesses, and brings to bear all its leverage and enticements regardless of international rules or standards. Routinely, Beijing ignores human rights and the rule of law in order to ensure that authoritarian leaders friendly to China stay in power.

Hiebert’s approach is the equivalent to that of a fine craftsman who puts together a sophisticated timepiece before our eyes so we can see how the gears work. A former journalist and now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hiebert steers clear of punditry. He is also the rare authority who knows both sides of this issue from the ground up: Not only was he posted in Beijing at the Wall Street Journal bureau, but he also covered Southeast Asia for the Wall Street Journal Asia and the Far Eastern Economic Review, based in Hanoi, then Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.