China’s rising influence in Southeast Asia

WASHINGTON  – China has been expanding its economic, political and military presence in Southeast Asia, a region of vital strategic importance for global trade and security. How have the countries of Southeast Asia responded to China’s growing influence? What are the implications for regional stability and cooperation? These are some of the questions that the Brookings Institute, a leading think tank based in Washington D.C., addressed in its recent report titled “China’s Influence in Southeast Asia: Implications for the United States and Its Partners”.

The report, which was published in April 2023, is based on extensive field research and interviews with government officials, experts, civil society leaders and business representatives from 10 Southeast Asian countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The report analyzes China’s objectives and strategies in Southeast Asia, as well as the sources and limits of its influence. It also examines how each country balances its relations with China and other major powers, such as the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Finally, it offers recommendations for enhancing U.S. engagement and cooperation with Southeast Asia to advance shared interests and values.

Some of the main findings of the report are:

– China’s influence in Southeast Asia is multifaceted and varies across different domains and countries. China is the largest trading partner and a major investor for most Southeast Asian countries, but it also faces challenges and competition from other actors in areas such as security, diplomacy, technology, governance and culture.
– China’s influence is not monolithic or deterministic. Southeast Asian countries have agency and autonomy in shaping their relations with China and other powers. They pursue a hedging strategy that seeks to maximize benefits and minimize risks from different partners. They also leverage their collective strength through regional institutions such as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to promote dialogue and cooperation on common issues.
– China’s influence is not necessarily benign or malign. It depends on how China uses its power and how Southeast Asian countries perceive and respond to it. Some aspects of China’s influence can be constructive and beneficial for regional development and stability, such as its support for infrastructure projects, pandemic response and climate action. Other aspects can be disruptive and detrimental for regional order and norms, such as its assertive behavior in the South China Sea, its coercion of weaker states and its promotion of authoritarian values.
– China’s influence is not static or irreversible. It is subject to change and adaptation depending on domestic developments in China and Southeast Asia, as well as external factors such as U.S. policy and global trends. The report argues that the United States and its partners have an opportunity and a responsibility to shape a more positive and balanced regional environment that can accommodate China’s rise while preserving the interests and values of Southeast Asia.