Episode 24

Southeast Asia and China: Too Close for Comfort?

Released on December 21, 2020

Southeast Asia is becoming an increasingly important geopolitical battleground - and so this week, we put the region’s complex relations with China in the spotlight.

Although many ASEAN nations have deepened their economic ties with Beijing in recent years, there remains a fair bit of wariness towards China’s expansion of interests in the region. And of course, responses vary dramatically among individual countries - with factors like historical experience, trade relations, and security dynamics all coming into play.

From China’s perspective, as it seeks to cement its status as a regional - and even global - superpower, its strategy in Southeast Asia is increasingly important. It recently pledged to ‘deepen cooperation with ASEAN’ and ‘maintain peace and stability’ - but can this be taken at face value? How will China’s economic interests in the region interact with some of its security disputes? And what does China’s growing influence mean for the US in the Indo-Pacific?

This episode is a collaboration with Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme. Our guest-host Bill Hayton is joined by Pon Souvannaseng from Bentley University, and The Diplomat website’s Sebastian Strangio, to talk about how closer ties with China are being seen from within the ASEAN nations themselves. Then, to get a sense of what China’s strategy in the region might be, we speak to Enze Han from the University of Hong Kong.

Pon Souvannaseng (@ponopticon)

Pon Souvannaseng is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University. A political economist by training, her research examines state and business behavior in global infrastructure competition and its social, environmental and fiscal implications. Pon is a Mansfield-Luce Asia Fellow 2020-2021, APSA Asia Scholar 2019- 2021, and a Visiting Fellow of the East-West Center, Washington DC. Her research has been funded by Fulbright and UKRI grants. She has served as a researcher at the UN Research Institute for Social Development and as a former Fellow at University College London. She is a Research Affiliate of the Centre for Crisis Studies & Mitigation at the University of Manchester. She is a member of the Executive Committee and serves as Reviews Editor for the Association for Southeast Asian Studies (UK). She holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.

Sebastian Strangio (@sstrangio)

Sebastian Strangio is Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat. He is the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, a path-breaking examination of Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century, a recently released book met with critical acclaim. In 2008, he began his career as a reporter at The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, and has since traveled and reported extensively across the 10 nations of ASEAN. Sebastian’s writing has appeared in leading publications including Foreign Affairs, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times, The Diplomat, and Nikkei Asian Review, among many others. Sebastian holds a B.A. and Master’s degree in international politics from The University of Melbourne.

Enze Han (@EnzeHan)

Enze Han is Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include ethnic politics in China, China's relations with Southeast Asia, especially with Myanmar and Thailand, and the politics of state formation in the borderland area between China, Myanmar and Thailand. He is the author of Asymmetrical Neighbors: Borderland State-building between China and Southeast Asia. During 2015-2016, he was a Friends Founders' Circle Member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA. In 2017, he was a fellow at the East Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea. Prior to Hong Kong, Dr. HAN was Senior Lecturer in the International Security of East Asia at SOAS, University of London. Han received a Ph.D in Political Science from the George Washington University in the United States in 2010.

Bill Hayton (@bill_hayton)

Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House in 2015 and has worked as a journalist with BBC News since 1998. He is the author of The Invention of China and The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia. He was the BBC’s reporter in Vietnam in 2006/7 and spent a year seconded to the state broadcaster in Myanmar in 2013/14 working on media development. He focuses on the South China Sea disputes and current affairs in Southeast Asia. He has briefed government departments, officials and companies in the UK, the USA, Europe and Asia and written for numerous media outlets on these subjects. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century

By Sebastian Strangio
Today, Southeast Asia stands uniquely exposed to the waxing power of the new China. As China seeks to restore its former status as Asia’s preeminent power, the countries of Southeast Asia face an increasingly stark choice: flourish within Beijing’s orbit or languish outside of it. Drawing on more than a decade of on-the-ground experience, Strangio explores the impacts of China’s rise on Southeast Asia, the varied ways in which the countries of the region are responding, and what it might mean for the future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
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Asymmetrical Neighbors: Borderland State Building between China and Southeast Asia

By Enze Han
Is the process of state building a unilateral, national venture, or is it something more collaborative, taking place in the interstices between adjoining countries? To answer this question, Asymmetrical Neighbors takes a comparative look at the state building process along China, Myanmar, and Thailand’s common borderland area. It shows that the variations in state building among these neighboring countries are the result of an interactive process that occurs across national boundaries.
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Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge

By Murray Hiebert
China’s rise and stepped-up involvement in Southeast Asia have prompted a blend of anticipation and unease among its smaller neighbors. This compelling book provides a snapshot of ten countries in Southeast Asia by exploring their diverse experiences with China and how this impacts their perceptions of Beijing’s actions and its long-term political, economic, military, and “soft power” goals in the region.
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The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century

Edited by Donald K. Emmerson
This book’s expert authors address this pressing question in multiple contexts. What clues to the future lie in the modern history of Sino-Southeast Asian relations? How economically dependent on China has the region already become? What do Southeast Asians think of China? Does Beijing view the region in proprietary terms as its own backyard? How has the relative absence, distance, and indifference of the United States affected the balance of influence between the US and China in Southeast Asia?
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Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia

By David Shambaugh
After the end of the Cold War, it seemed as if Southeast Asia would remain a geopolitically stable region within the American-led order. In the last two decades, however, the re-emergence of China as a major great power has called into question the geopolitical future of the region and raised the specter of renewed great power competition. In assessing the likelihood of a regional power transition, Shambaugh examines how ASEAN and its member states maneuver and the degree to which they align with one or the other power.
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The Invention of China

By Bill Hayton
China’s current leadership lays claim to a 5,000-year-old civilization, but “China” as a unified country and people, Bill Hayton argues, was created far more recently by a small group of intellectuals. Ranging across history, nationhood, language, and territory, Hayton shows how the Republic’s reworking of its past not only helped it to justify its right to rule a century ago—but continues to motivate and direct policy today.
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