Are There Any Consequences to China’s Growing Unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

As China grows, so too does its ambition to regain its historical status as the hegemon of Asia. It employs economic coercion, territorial expansion, and rhetorical devices to enforce its will and deference from lesser powers in the region. Naturally, China’s bellicosity has made it unpopular within domestic populations across the region, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Across Southeast Asia, the negative view of China increases in scope and intensity year after year in most countries. Despite this trend, many Southeast Asian countries publicly still employ deference to Beijing. This then begs the question: Are there any consequences to China’s growing unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

Like many countries across the world, those that make up Southeast Asia have seen an increase in its population’s negative perception of China. The ISEAS 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey Report is illuminating in this regard. Researchers found that when they asked if their respective countries are forced to align themselves with one of the two major powers- China and the US- who should they choose, a majority picked the US (61%). Importantly, those that would choose China shrunk from 46.4% in 2020 to 38.5%, despite a year of its “mask diplomacy.” When asked whether they welcome or are worried about China’s growing influence in their respective country, all were overwhelmingly worried. All but Singapore, Laos, and Malaysia (although only slightly) have grown more worried in the last year. We have seen increases in the usual suspects, Vietnam and the Philippines, yet, China’s image has become progressively hostile in some countries that it shares its closest bond with—such as Cambodia.

When reviewing Chinese behavior in the last two years, it is not difficult to understand why its perception is growingly negative. Dating far back but intensifying under President Xi Xinping, China has increasingly used its growing power to bully other states into a series of deferential relationships. Nowhere is this more true than in the South China Sea, where China has utilized a Grey Zone Strategy that increased its strategic position and control of the area incrementally without escalating the disagreement into a conflict. For example, in March of this year, China sent 220 fishing vessels to the Philippine claimed Whitsun reef, daring the Philippines to force it out, normalizing its presence there in the process. China has utilized its air force for similar purposes, including in June 2021 when China sent sixteen PLAAF aircraft to Malaysian claimed territory off its coast (Luconia and James Shoals) without communication.

China’s aggressive rhetoric by its diplomats—known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”—has also contributed to its growingly negative image. Peter Martin, author of the book: China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, describes it as a “strident and assertive —exhibiting behavior that ranges from storming out of an international meeting to shouting at foreign counterparts and even insulting foreign leaders.” For instance, in the 2021 US-China high-level talks in Alaska, the Chinese diplomats extolled the US for its alleged human right and claimed it was in no position to point out China’s abuses. Yet most examples occur on more casual platforms like Twitter, where Chinese officials hit back directly at criticism of the CCP. The most egregious example came when a spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chao Lijian, accused the US of being the origin of the coronavirus, subsequently spreading it to Wuhan. This new brand of Chinese diplomacy positions itself in stark contrast to the “peaceful rise” rhetoric China pushed for years.

Normally, the justification for dealing with China’s belligerence is the benefit of an unaffected trade and investment relationship. China’s massive economy and initiatives to invest its excess in developing economies in Southeast Asia is alluring, to be sure. Yet, China conducts trade and investment in such a way that it hurts many in the domestic population. Take Laos, for example, where China is its largest investor, pouring $2 billion into over twenty-one projects in 2020 alone. Nevertheless, Chinese companies bring in a majority of the workers from China and pay the Laotians lucky enough to find work a lower salary. Even Laotians who are not involved in the projects deal with displacement and environmental degradation. Worse still, Laos is dealing with massive debt from these projects, with experts estimating its obligation to be $13.3 billion and almost three-quarters of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Yet, Southeast Asia countries are often silent to China’s benefit or publicly side with them on more significant security issues. Consider the recently signed Australian-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) nuclear submarine deal. Although it was a deal meant to balance Chinese military influence in the region, Southeast Asia’s response was either muted or outright discouraging. In total, the Philippines was the only Southeast Asia country to come out in strong support of the deal and welcomed its balancing effect on China. Malaysia and Indonesia publicly stated their worries about its consequences on great power competition and the nuclear arms race in the region. Meanwhile, Thailand remained silent, and Vietnam and Singapore were explicitly neutral while probably implicitly supporting it. A similar reaction occurred when the Quad jump-started its alliance.

Nevertheless, China faces notable consequences for its behavior across a spectrum of issue areas. With trade and investment, In 2018, newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahatir suspended all Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects after China featured prominently as the boogeyman in the 2018 election. Corruption directly connected China and the BRI projects to the maligned former Prime Minister Najib after reporters discovered that Najib accepted these projects at an inflated price in exchange for the Chinese paying off the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)- Malaysia’s state fund that was run dry due to corruption. Although subsequent Prime Ministers reinstated some of the projects, they reinstated them at a reduced price.

China has also pushed countries closer to the United States, even if it isn’t overt. Vietnam, for example, has exponentially increased its relationship with the United States since President Obama’s 2015 trip as a way to hedge against China. Following Obama’s opening up to the country, America has lifted its arms embargo, anchored multiple aircraft carriers at Vietnamese ports, had multiple high-level visits, increased its trade from $451 million in 1994 to $90 billion in 2020, and inched the bilateral relationship towards a strategic partnership. 

In the security realm we saw the Philippines abandon its China bandwagon after just four years. After Filipino President Benigno Aquino III enhanced the historically deep Philippine-American security relationship, the 2016 elected President Rodrigo Duterte quickly reversed this trend and pivoted to China. In his first official visit as President to Beijing, Duterte declared a “separation” from the United States that was “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.” Fast forward four years later when Duterte gave a speech in which he scathed China and its actions in the South China Sea. A more telling example came in February of 2021 on tour at the American Clark Air Base in Manila when Duterte admitted that the “exigency of the moment requires [the U.S.] presence” there. This endorsement of the Visiting Forces Agreement—an agreement that allowed America to station troops on Filipino territory—was a significant reversal of his previous policy to suspend the deal. Now, the Philippines’ security is as linked to the United States as it was before Duterte, while it also severely discredited the idea of band-wagoning with China. This is summed up well by the provocative title from Rand corporation’s Derek Grossman’s article, “China Has Lost the Philippines Despite Duterte’s Best Efforts.”

Aside from the Philippines, these shifts have been subtle and orchestrated so as not to draw the ire of China. Although this can be incredibly frustrating for Washington policymakers, China’s economic threat for indiscretion is a reality for Southeast Asia. Australia served as the prime example of this punitive strategy when it faced extreme Chinese tariffs after it called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Due to this reality, the United States can and should do more to assist the region economically to give Southeast Asian nations alternatives and cover from Chinese retaliation. It can also prove that it takes the region seriously on its own terms, with its own issues—not just when it conveniently fits into its competition with China. Finally, it needs to prove it is there to stay and won’t disengage after the next election, leaving it vulnerable to Chinese reprisal. Until then, the United States can expect a toned-down Southeast Asian response. Nevertheless, as China continues to overplay its hand, Southeast Asia will, albeit quietly, push back.

Vincenzo Caporale
Vincenzo Caporale
Vincenzo Caporale has a BA from UC Berkeley in Comparative Politics and a M.Phil from the University of Cambridge in International Relations. He is currently a feature writer at the Borgen Magazine and an editorial intern at the national interest. His work focuses on development and geopolitics in Southeast Asia. You can reach Vincenzo or follow his work on Twitter @VincenzoCIV