China’s efforts to present itself as a benign big brother to Southeast Asian nations are being met with widespread scepticism, according to a survey released earlier this week by a Singaporean think tank.
The survey was conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and sought responses from government representatives, civil society groups, academia, business people, and media in all 10 Asean countries on a number of topics, chief among them perceptions of China economic and political influence.
The good news for China is that Asean attitudes towards China’s chief global rival are souring quickly. The survey’s authors noted that the typical perception that China is an economic leader while the US influences Geo political orientations seems to have evaporated. About two-thirds of the respondents said US engagement with Southeast Asia has declined, while an even bigger majority, about 73 percent, said China was the now both the major economic and strategic influence in the region. Furthermore, about a third of the respondents said they had little to no confidence in the US as a provider of regional security or as a strategic partner.
Recognising the reality, however, does not mean everyone is comfortable with it. In fact, the survey results indicated that wariness toward China is growing. Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was viewed by half of the respondents as a means for China to pull the region into a closer orbit; about a third complained that the vast infrastructure program lacks transparency, and about 16 percent said they believed it would ultimately fail.
Clearly, positive perceptions of China are rare; only about 10 percent of the survey’s respondents agreed that China was “a benign and benevolent power.”
The biggest problem for China is the widest perception that the BRI is a debt trap; 70 percent of the respondents said their governments “should be cautious in negotiating BRI projects, to avoid getting into unsustainable financial debts with China.” According to researchers, this view is most strongly held in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, although it is the majority opinion across all the Asean countries.
The survey’s conclusions raise two questions. First, are the perceptions of China fair? Second, are the perceptions expressed in the survey fairly representative of attitudes in the Asean?
In terms of China’s aims to establish some level of hegemony over this part of the world, the perceptions appear accurate, objectively speaking. China’s persistence in building up a dominant presence in the South China Sea and recent stronger statements on the reunification of Taiwan with the rest of China are evidence enough of that. In addition, there has been some at least partly politically motivated backlash against Chinese investment in recent years, particularly in Malaysia and Vietnam, but also in places where China in the past has been routinely welcomed such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
Debt trap worries, however, are a bit harder to justify. Indeed, the potential is there, and China perhaps unwisely demonstrated it with the virtual seizure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port when that country was unable to pay its
Chinese creditors and contractors. That could conceivably happen elsewhere, since many of the countries along the broad swath of the world covered by the BRI have been given the opportunity by China to extend themselves far beyond what they ordinarily would consider doing, or be allowed to do by Western investors.
While Sri Lanka’s trouble might be an example of what could happen, Sri Lanka may not be a typical case. That country’s finances are in terrible shape, hamstrung by corruption and not yet having recovered from years of civil war. China may have taken advantage of the situation, but the situation was created by Sri Lanka; the same thing probably would not happen in countries with stronger economies and better management.
Nevertheless, perceptions are what they are, whether valid or not. Changing them by doing something to create better perceptions is always more effective than arguing that the perceptions are wrong, even if they are in fact.
In the case of the Philippines, apart from addressing the South China Sea issue, which the Duterte government has completely mismanaged anyway, the best move for China would be to accelerate the pace of turning investment and development pledges into actual work. The most substantial complaint about China’s interest in the Philippines has been that Chinese promises have so far largely failed to materialise.
If they did materialise, or at least started to at a healthy rate, that gesture of reliability would do much to undercut the already questionable worries about disadvantageous debt arrangements or security risks. From China’s point of view, the Philippines is much less problematic than some of the other countries where it is engaged, even with the nagging issue of maritime sovereignty; taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit would do much to boost its sagging image in the region.