• Malcolm Cook

China in Southeast Asia: Losing Hearts, But Not Minds



Filipinos’ bad and worsening views of China are shared by many in Southeast Asia. The Duterte administration’s accommodation and non-provocation of China are too.


A recent poll of Southeast Asian policy elite opinion, The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, may have made many in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department uncomfortable. At first and second glances, the results for China are bad and worse than the two prior annual surveys. China appears to be losing hearts in Southeast Asia, a proclaimed “testing ground” for China’s leadership potential. Public opinion polling by the Pew Research Center and the growing Milk Tea Alliance corroborate China’s growing image problems. China’s rulers are well aware of this soft power failure.


Three out of four respondents in the 2021 ISEAS survey worry about China’s paramount economic influence in Southeast Asia, and nine out of ten about China’s growing political and strategic influence. Only in Laos, a party-state dictatorship like China, did fewer than 70 percent of respondents express this latter fear. In the 2021 survey, only one out of sixty-seven (1.5 percent) agreed with Beijing that “China is a benign and benevolent power”. Thirty-one of these same sixty-seven (46.3 percent) thought that “China is a revisionist power and intends to turn Southeast Asian Asia into its sphere of influence.” In the 2020 survey, only 38.2 percent of respondents perceived China is such hegemonic terms.


Digging deeper, when asked about what contributes to China’s worsening image, a majority chose “China’s growing economic dominance and political influence in my country,” beating out 2020’s favored option, “China’s strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea and the Mekong.” When asked about what China could do to improve its image, seven out of ten respondents chose “China should respect my country’s sovereignty and not constrain my country’s foreign policy choices,” besting last year’s favored option “China should resolve all territorial and maritime disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.”


Chinese propaganda insists that China is genetically incapable of hegemony. The three ISEAS surveys suggest that many in Southeast Asia believe that China is the region’s hegemon and acting like one too. Despite denying China’s propaganda and self-image, this Southeast Asian frame of mind may be favorable to China. The 2021 survey showed that three times as many respondents expected their country’s relations with China to improve than worsen. So, despite growing fear and distrust of China, China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries are widely expected to improve. The 2020 survey showed a very similar result.


This apparent disjuncture suggests that the poll respondents not only see China as a hegemon but that relations with China can and should improve despite this. The onus for better relations is not on China, the perceived hegemon, but on the Southeast Asian states that view themselves as subjects of Chinese hegemony. Southeast Asian states are more hesitant to “provoke” China than states from most other regions in the world.


No Southeast Asian state has filed a complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. The USA has been the respondent to fourteen trade complaints from Southeast Asian states. This is despite, or because of, China being a larger trading partner for each Southeast Asian economy than the USA.


No Southeast Asian state was among the twenty-two states that signed the July 2019 joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council criticizing China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines signed China’s opposing letter. No Southeast Asian state was among the twenty-seven that the United Kingdom spoke for at this same Council against Hong Kong’s new National Security Law. Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar were among the fifty-three states that Cuba spoke for against the United Kingdom’s intervention. Only one Southeast Asian state, the Philippines, is among the sixty-two states supporting the Canada-initiated Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations launched in February 2021 that Chinese Communist Party media has labelled as an ill-timed provocation.


The first two issues are arguably Chinese internal affairs and all the states that criticized China in the Human Rights Council were Western ones except Japan. The most recent Canadian declaration is harder to dismiss as an internal Chinese issue or Western interventionism, and the silence of Southeast Asian states minus the Philippines is harder to ignore. Nine Caribbean and Latin American states, two African, and two South Pacific states have endorsed this declaration.


China is recognised by many in Southeast Asia as a hegemon and losing the hearts of those that fear it and fear it more. This same recognition though may be winning minds in Southeast Asia and supporting Southeast Asian governments’ choices not to provoke the Xi Jinping administration. It may be better for China to be feared but perceived as needed in Southeast Asia than liked and trusted.

Malcolm Cook is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore and coordinates the Institute's Philippines project. Prior to joining ISEAS In 2014, Malcolm was the Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University of South Australia from 2011 to 2014; the East Asia program director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney from 2003 to 2010; and from 1997 to 2000 a lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University.


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