Murray Hiebert, a lanky, polyglot Canadian journalist, earned his spurs while reporting in authoritarian Southeast Asia. He has been trailed by intelligence agents, had a visa revoked, threatened with seizure of his notebooks and even spent a month in jail - all for reporting unpalatable truths in the pages of the Far Eastern Economic Review (disclosure: I was his colleague and had the sad task of accompanying him to prison in Malaysia). Now Hiebert has summoned his nearly two decades of reporting and impressive contemporary research to produce a book that will serve as a benchmark for the new era dawning in Asia.
When Hiebert began reporting in the 1980s, China was emerging out of the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution and establishing its presence in the region. In the years since, China has bulked up and cast ever-lengthening shadows over the region. In this most recent single-author study of China and Southeast Asia, Hiebert narrates how “Asians view and respond to China” and also analyzes Beijing’s interests and thinking about its southern neighbors.
He has divided the countries into three groups based on their proximity to China and the nature of their relations with the country. The first grouping consists of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos - countries most indebted to China and likely to support it. The second grouping includes Vietnam and Thailand, the former a “hard balancer” and the latter a “partial hedger.” The third group consists of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, on China’s maritime periphery. The author traces in great detail various tools that China has deployed in its effort to win them over, from economic and military aid to investment, trade, tourism, soft power persuasion and sharp pressure. Based in large measure on newspaper reports and scholarly articles, Hiebert’s book adds value through his contemporary interviews with officials from these countries. His invocation of history and observations about the role of the ethnic Chinese in many of these countries offer a perspective that is often missing in books of this type.
Despite the differences in political and historical context and China’s treatment of these countries, a common theme emerges in the book. Chinese policy has brought large-scale investment in infrastructure, investment in exploitation of natural resources, trade and cultural development. These have already produced social and economic impacts - not all for the good. To a large or small degree, Chinese involvement has cast dark shadows. Infrastructure building has often benefited Chinese investors and employed Chinese workers, leaving the recipient countries mired in debt. Some construction projects have produced long-term damage to the environment; tourism has harmed social and cultural norms while enriching Chinese companies engaged in tourist trade. The influx of Chinese aid and investment have brought with its large-scale corruption, emboldening some governments to violate human rights.
‘If you have your hand in one man’s pocket, you have to walk where he walks.’
Along with traders and tourists, many Chinese scammers have entered Southeast Asian countries. They have used their Southeast Asian perch to carry on various fraudulent businesses. Whether in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar, Chinese construction projects have uprooted farmers without compensation. The arrival of large numbers of Chinese immigrants, and the creation of special housing, shopping centers and casinos for them have produced simmering discontent, but the locals have had to live with the outcome of government policy. As Hiebert quotes a Cambodian scholar, “If you have your hand in one man’s pocket, you have to walk where he walks.” The Chinese military also has made significant gains in the region, building a military-grade airfield in Cambodia and possibly acquiring a submarine repair facility in Thailand.
Beyond noting the grumbling of disadvantaged citizens, Hiebert’s study produces a more serious and broader conclusion. Mainland Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam and countries along the Mekong River, seems to be caught in a vise of Chinese military pressure in the east and dam-building in the west. While Chinese military construction and buildup in the South China Sea have had the effect of strangling Vietnam’s energy resources and fishing, massive dam building on the Mekong in China, Laos and Cambodia has resulted in the asphyxiation of agriculture and fisheries in the lower Mekong Delta. As Hiebert notes, large-scale dams have been causing disruption to sediment flows and fish migration, which are critical for farming and nutrition in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. With river banks eroded, a surge of saltwater from the South China Sea could inundate fields, destroying Vietnam’s bread basket in the Mekong Delta.
It is, however, not all gloom and doom. Hiebert provides an important corrective to the common notion that Southeast Asian countries are helpless in the face of the Chinese juggernaut. His fine-grain reporting shows many occasions where even weaker countries have stood up to Chinese pressure and maneuvered to gain some advantage during protracted negotiations, and sometimes blocked China’s self-serving projects. Visiting a stalled project in Vientiane, Hiebert found, “There were no workers in sight and the temporary housing for workers from China had caved in and the yard around it was overgrown with tall weeds.”
No Southeast Asian country, even the most indebted to China, wants to be left at China’s mercy. Nor do they want to choose between China and the United States. Hiebert concludes that “to varying degrees, each nation looks to the United States as a hedge against China, but most fear Washington’s attention span is too short, its focus too distracted, and its resources too limited to be very reliable, outside perhaps of the Pentagon.” As China’s competition with the US intensifies and China ramps up its pressure on countries in the region to expel US influence, Southeast Asian countries cannot expect, Hiebert rues, that the “United States will suddenly appear over the horizon to support its Southeast Asian friends to stand up to China.” Left to its devices, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is trying to diversify its ties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India and the European Union to balance its giant neighbor to the north.
Hiebert’s calm, balanced and rich perspective on the most urgent question facing Southeast Asia is a must-read.