Webinar on “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge”

In this webinar, Murray Hiebert discussed his new book, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge, and also discussed China’s complex toolbox in Southeast Asia and how countries in the region view Beijing’s long-term political, economic, military and “soft power” goals.


Thursday, 3 September 2020 – Mr Murray Hiebert, a Senior Associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C, delivered a webinar to an audience of 165 participants at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute to discuss his recently-published book, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge. In writing the book, Mr Hiebert drew from his extensive experience as a journalist in the China bureau of The Wall Street Journal and various regional bureaus of the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER). 

Mr Murray Hiebert, and moderator Dr Ian Storey
Mr Hiebert discussed China’s complex toolbox in Southeast Asia and how countries in the region view Beijing’s long-term political, economic, military and “soft power” goals. Dr Ian Storey moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Hiebert began by describing how Chinese trade has boosted the economies of its Southeast Asian neighbours. In particular, Chinese tourism has helped the expansion of the region’s services sector. However, China is struggling to get traction on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its signature infrastructure development policy. Although an estimated US$200 billion has been invested in various infrastructure projects around the region, actual progress has been relatively slow. This is partly due to concerns about corruption, especially in Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam. For instance, Malaysia under the Pakatan Harapan government sought to renegotiate the bill for the East Coast Rail Line project. The original costing, according to Mr Hiebert, had included kickbacks to help former Prime Minister Najib Razak cover the losses of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Mr Hiebert stated that, in order to get the BRI projects running, China has demonstrated considerable flexibility and compromise in its engagements with partner countries, including reducing the cost of the ECRL. In parallel to its interest in physical infrastructure development, China is also increasingly active in establishing a “Digital Silk Road”, which involves investing in start-ups as well as developing e-commerce and online payment platforms. Chinese digital presence is also helped along by Huawei’s involvement in the region, where the company has a hand in developing the 5G infrastructure of almost all Southeast Asian countries save for Vietnam and Singapore. 

Mr Hiebert discussed the various ways that China has sought to exercise its soft and hard power to influence the region. China has notably sought to expand opportunities for educational exchanges: more Southeast Asian citizens are now increasingly open to studying in China, while the Chinese have established 30 Confucian Institutes in the region, with fifteen in Thailand alone and a further five in Malaysia. Local party functionaries from countries around the region are also invited to China to learn about organisational-building and maintaining party discipline. These exchanges are also meant to strategically burnish China’s international image. Mr Hiebert described how imams from Indonesia were invited to visit Xinjiang and affirm the Chinese narrative that the Uighur Muslims were not being ill-treated. For their efforts, one of the imams was given an irrigation system for his village by the Chinese. These exercises of soft power do, not, however, preclude the use of more coercive means by China if it deems necessary. Mr Hiebert recounted how China sought to leverage on Singaporeans with commercial and business interests in China as a pressure point against Singapore as a result of their unhappiness with its response to the South China Sea arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016. He also discussed China’s hacking and phishing efforts against countries in the region, including Chinese attempts to access Vietnam’s negotiating positions in the run-up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks. 

Mr Hiebert highlighted China’s contentious role in the two major water bodies of the region: the Mekong River and the South China Sea. The Mekong was subjected to a severe drought last year, which reduced the water levels in the downstream countries. The lack of water flows also meant that the Tonle Sap in Cambodia stayed mostly dry even during the monsoon season, decimating the rice and fishing industries that are dependent on the annual flooding of the lake. The lack of silt and water has also caused the increasing salinisation of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The drought was initially attributed to the El Niño weather pattern and climate change, but an examination of satellite imagery by Eyes on Earth revealed that two Chinese dams in the upper Mekong have held back significant amounts of water from flowing downstream. Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, China has been increasingly aggressive in disrupting Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s oil exploration efforts. Mr Hiebert suggested that other than trying to prevent other claimant states from developing oil reserves in the South China Sea, the Chinese may also be hoping to deter foreign oil and gas companies such as Shell and Rosneft from helping those countries explore and develop their energy resources in the South China Sea.

Mr Hiebert concluded the webinar with his thoughts about the impact of Covid-19 and the future trajectory of U.S.-China strategic rivalry. He explained that the pandemic has not only severely affected Chinese tourism and trade due to border closures, but has also prompted other countries to diversify their supply chains and reduce their dependence on China. As a result, China is likely to reduce its expenditure on BRI projects while pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy. Mr Hiebert suggested that the trend of wolf-warrior diplomacy, and picking fights with other countries, might indicate that the Chinese leadership is turning to nationalism as a mode of legitimising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. On U.S.-China rivalry, Mr Hiebert argued that even a change to a Democratic administration will not change the general bipartisan agreement that China has taken advantage of the United States, especially through intellectual property (IP) theft and unfair Chinese state subsidies to domestic companies. He predicted that while a President Biden may soften the U.S. approach “around the edges”, and seek agreement with China on issues such as climate change, America’s overall stance will remain. 

After his presentation, Mr Hiebert fielded a number of questions, including those that touched upon the possible strategy of a second Trump administration towards China, the American response to Huawei’s involvement in the region, and the future of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in Myanmar. 

Webinar on “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge”
Over 160 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)