BGA Head of Research Murray Hiebert’s much-awaited new book on China-Southeast Asia relations “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge” is now available for purchase. In the book, which draws on Hiebert’s nearly half-century of expertise on Southeast Asia including stints in journalism, think tanks, and business, he delves into what has become one of the key storylines of Southeast Asia’s present and future.
Hiebert’s on-the-ground, country-by-country assessment of Beijing’s role in the subregion, based on interviews with key interlocutors, epitomizes BGA’s commitment to
granular, ground-based insights which is reflected throughout the company including the research team which he leads. His book will continue to be promoted in the United States and across the Asia-Pacific in the coming months.
Below is a brief interview with Murray about his book and his experience in engaging with audiences in the Asia-Pacific thus far.
You’ve been working on a range of issues across Southeast Asia and Asia more generally for decades. Why did you decide to focus this latest book on China’s role in Southeast Asia?
I had been watching how China was snaring features from Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea since the late 1980s and the boost and challenges the Southeast Asia countries had experienced since China’s economic growth exploded, so I thought it would be useful to document with more detail and granularity what was going on. I also realized that the most recent books on the impact of China’s rise on Southeast Asia had stopped before Xi Jinping took office, so wanted to explore if he had brought changes to China’s policies to its neighbors to the immediate south.
While China’s role in the region may not be new, the central premise of the book is that Beijing’s influence has grown, along with the shadow it has cast in the region in terms of opportunities and challenges. What would you say are some of the key distinguishing features of China’s shadow in Southeast Asia today relative to the past?
China has become more assertive in the South China Sea since about 2013. It’s continuing to build dams on the mainstream of the Mekong in China – 11 are completed and nine more are being planned – has a giant impact on the Lower Mekong countries which are suffering from drought; the reduced water flow is affecting fish spawning and the lack of silt is threatening Vietnam’s Mekong Delta with salt water intrusion from the sea. China’s enhanced levels of trade and investment are boosting economic growth in Southeast Asia. China is also stepping up military cooperation, including arms sales and military exchanges, and bolstering its soft power by inviting more students to study in China and establishing more Confucius Institutes for language training.
The book takes a very granular approach to understanding how the region is responding to China, down to delving into country responses and grouping them. What are some of the key similarities and differences that you found between these country responses?
Some like Vietnam and Singapore would like to respond to China collectively through groupings such as ASEAN. Others like Malaysia want to keep their heads down in the hope that China won’t step up its pressure against the country’s claims in the South China Sea. President Jokowi in Indonesia wants to focus only on getting China to provide maximum investment to infrastructure development, so he tries to ignore China’s activities in the South China Sea and only gets activated when China challenges Indonesia’s claims over the Natuna Islands. Cambodia wants to ignore China’s assertive behavior and tries to block ASEAN consensus on the South China Sea, for example, hoping it will be rewarded with stepped up levels of Beijing’s largesse.
The book also addresses aspects of how we might think about China’s role in the region moving forward that goes beyond the extreme scenarios sometimes talked about, including total dominance. How should we think about the various scenarios for Beijing’s role in Southeast Asia in the coming years?
China certainly doesn’t want Southeast Asia siding with the United States in the dispute between Washington and Beijing. China wants Southeast Asia to be cooperative, particularly on the trade and investment front. Beijing would like enhanced military cooperation. If Southeast Asia is friendly to China, Beijing feels no need to try to dominate the region, but it looks increasingly like China will want to dominate the features and resources within its nine-dash line in the South China Sea.
As you’ve been talking about the book to regional audiences, what is the question you most often get and what are people most interested in understanding more about?
I get asked over and over again: what are China’s long-term goals, and is it seeking to dominate Southeast Asia? These are difficult and important questions, and my hope is that the book will provide at least an attempt at answering them.
Head of Research