Webinar on “Southeast Asia in the Shadow of a Rising China”

In this webinar, Sebastian Strangio discusses his new book In the Dragon’s Shadow that examines the dramatic effects of China’s rising economic and political power on Southeast Asia.


Monday, 31 August 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Southeast Asia in the Shadow of a Rising China” on Monday, delivered by Mr Sebastian Strangio. Mr Strangio is a journalist and author focusing on Southeast Asia, having previously served as an editor and reporter at The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia. His writing has appeared in leading publications including Foreign Affairs, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. He is also the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia (Yale University Press, 2014), a path-breaking examination of Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Sebastian Strangio, with  Dr Ian Storey as Moderator
Mr Sebastian Strangio examines the dramatic effects of China’s rising economic and political power on Southeast Asia. Dr Ian Storey moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Strangio began his presentation by highlighting China’s growing influence in Cambodia – China is now the Cambodia’s leading trading partner, as well as an increasingly important source of investment, security support, military aid and tourists. Cambodia, Mr Strangio argued, is a particularly interesting case study of China’s resurgence, given the country’s history. Reborn as a symbol of the new liberal world order after the Cold War, much time and money was spent by Western powers to refashion the country into a liberal democracy. Some 30 years later, however, this promise has frayed as Prime Minister Hun Sen has tightened his control on the country and hollows out its democratic institutions. China, as an increasingly important partner of Cambodia, has played an influential role by reducing Cambodia’s dependence on Western aid and support, allowing it to pay less attention to Western demands for democratic reforms. Cambodia has thus morphed from a prized post-Cold War liberal project into a small satellite of international politics, pushed by the shifting balance of power in Asia.

Today, Southeast Asia’s relations with China continue to be informed by geographic proximity. Bound by interactions of trade, tribute and movement of people, Mr Strangio argued that the line between Southeast Asia and China has always been hazy. Southeast Asia thus continues to be of crucial strategic importance to China today. Geographically hemmed in by rivals and US treaty allies, China sees Southeast Asia as a place from which it is able to break the “chain of encirclement” engineered by the US and its allies. China’s stance on the South China Sea, likewise, stems from its desire to secure the vital seaway needed for its export-oriented economy, in a region bounded by US maritime allies. Breaking its centuries of continental inward focus, China has ventured out into the oceans to protect its maritime sea lanes.

Another key aspect of China-Southeast Asia relations, Mr Strangio pointed out, is infrastructural development. New infrastructural networks of railways, highways and special economic zones in mainland Southeast Asia have broken down the barriers and distance between Southeast Asia and China. This growing proximity, however, has brought about increased concerns about China’s actions in the region. China’s attempts to engage the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, for instance, has increased communal tensions in the region.

Overall, however, Southeast Asia tends not to view China’s resurgence as an unequivocal bane. A prosperous and stable China has benefitted Southeast Asia, helping stem the flow of Chinese migrants southward into the region. Gone too are the days of Mao, who actively sought to stoke revolution and undermine the governments of Southeast Asia. Instead, China is now a vital and prominent economic partner in the region. Chinese schemes like the Belt and Road Initiative as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while not free of challenges and complications, have definite attractions for nations with a great need for development.

Thus, Southeast Asia’s geographic proximity and economic entanglements with China have deterred Southeast Asian nations from signing up to US-led initiatives aimed at containing its East Asian rival. Instead, Mr Strangio argued that Southeast Asian nations see no reason why they are unable to enjoy fruitful relations with both the US and China, as well as with other major powers. The challenge facing Southeast Asia, going forward, would therefore be maintaining strategic autonomy amidst escalating US-China rivalry.

The webinar was attended by some 200 participants from both Singapore and abroad. Issues that were discussed during the virtual Q&A session included challenges to ASEAN centrality, the impact of COVID-19 on the region’s relationship with China, progress on South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations, as well as the effect of Southeast Asia’s “democratic regression” on its relations with China.