Enze Han on China’s Multifarious Presence in Southeast Asia

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Enze Han on China’s Multifarious Presence in Southeast Asia

“There is a tendency to attribute everything associated with China to the Chinese state and the CCP, as if they dictate every aspect.”

Enze Han on China’s Multifarious Presence in Southeast Asia

A row of Chinese cargo boats anchored in the Mekong River at the town of Chiang Saen, northern Thailand, June 24, 2015.

Credit: Depositphotos

As China’s power and influence has grown, observers in the West have begun paying increasing attention to Southeast Asia, which has emerged as a key arena of competition between Beijing and its main rivals, including the United States. However, many studies of China’s relations with Southeast Asia tend to prioritize the role of the Chinese state, focusing on bilateral state visits, security cooperation, and official schemes such as the Belt and Road Initiative.

In a new book, Enze Han, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, argues that this state-centric approach is at best insufficient. In “The Ripple Effect: China’s Complex Presence in Southeast Asia” (Oxford University Press, 2024), the latest in a growing corpus of books on China-Southeast Asia relations, Han makes a convincing case that China’s influence in Southeast Asia is much more multifarious, extending beyond official state initiatives to encompass the activities of expats, itinerant immigrants, private businesspeople, organized criminals, and Chinese consumers of Southeast Asian goods, whose uncoordinated actions interact with – and sometimes even help shape – the goals of the Chinese state.

He spoke with The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio about the new wave of Chinese migrants to the region, how China’s giant consumer market is molding Southeast Asian economies, and why we need to broaden our view of what constitutes “Chinese influence.”

Let’s start with the core thesis of your book that China’s influence in Southeast Asia extends far beyond the state, to private businesses, immigrants, expats, Chinese community associations, and even criminal enterprises with a presence in the region. Give us your argument about the “fragmented, decentralized, and internationalized” nature of Chinese engagement. What do more traditional state-centric accounts get wrong?

Conventional literature concerning China’s international influence often adopts a state-centric perspective. This perspective tends to focus on the actions of the Chinese state and sometimes wrongly assumes that all Chinese actors are aligned with the state’s interests. Consequently, there is a tendency to attribute everything associated with China to the Chinese state and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as if they dictate every aspect. However, such an assumption oversimplifies the situation. This is not to downplay the importance of the Chinese state; rather, it suggests that we should also consider the significant role played by various non-state actors originating from China and their impact on global state-society relations. With a population of 1.4 billion people and the second-largest economy globally, China possesses a substantial internationalized private sector. The outward mobility of Chinese individuals and their affiliated businesses represents a formidable force, particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where such interactions occur frequently and extensively.

Over the past two decades or so, there have been considerable numbers of “new migrants” from the People’s Republic of China moving to parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the mainland nations directly to China’s south. Past waves of Chinese migrants, particularly those that came to the region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have shaped Southeast Asian nations in important ways. Have the newer waves of immigrants had a similar impact? How have these migration flows hindered/facilitated the expansion of Chinese influence in the region?

The long history of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia contributes significantly to the deep-seated relationship between China and countries in the region. Early waves of Chinese migration not only left a profound impact on domestic politics within China but also influenced the dynamics of political contestation in many Southeast Asian nations. Today, we witness a resurgence of Chinese mobility in various forms: tourists, students, workers, investors, and even retirees are increasingly making their way to Southeast Asia. How Southeast Asian countries navigate these new waves of migration, given the historical context of previous migrations, presents an intriguing and important phenomenon to observe. However, it’s worth noting that these new migrants from China differ from their predecessors in significant ways. Unlike earlier generations, whose perception of “homeland” often regarded China as a place to escape from, contemporary migrants view China as a vibrant economy and a great power. Consequently, they may be more inclined to align with the interests of the modern Chinese state and possess greater financial and business capabilities to exert influence within local Southeast Asian societies.

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has spoken quite openly about the role that “Overseas Chinese” can play in contributing to China’s “great rejuvenation,” without drawing a clear distinction between the recent migrants and ethnic Chinese who have been living in Southeast Asia for many generations. How would you characterize the Chinese government’s current policy toward the Overseas Chinese, and how has this affected perceptions of China in the region?

The relationship between the Chinese state and the overseas Chinese diaspora has long been a delicate issue for China and various Southeast Asian governments. During the Cold War era, both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China vied for the loyalty of overseas Chinese in the region. Later, Southeast Asian overseas Chinese played pivotal roles in China’s economic opening and development. Consequently, winning the hearts and minds of the overseas Chinese has consistently been part of the domestic legitimization process for the Chinese government in Beijing. Presently, Beijing appears to be pursuing a balanced approach toward the overseas Chinese in the region. On the one hand, Liu Jianchao, currently the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department, recently emphasized that overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia should prioritize loyalty to the states where they hold citizenship. On the other hand, Beijing evidently desires the support of overseas Chinese to bolster a positive public image of China in the region. Achieving this delicate balance can be tricky.

Given the rapid growth and massive size of China’s economy, and the huge amount of trade that now takes place, how have changing Chinese consumption patterns affected the region?

China’s large population, coupled with rising living standards, has led to increased consumption levels. While the United States still holds the top spot for beef and chicken consumption, China ranks second, surpassing the US in seafood and pork consumption. This trend extends to agricultural products in general, including tropical fruits from Southeast Asia. However, due to the imbalance between its population and available land, China heavily relies on imports to meet its agricultural needs. This presents a significant business opportunity for Southeast Asia to supply agricultural products to the Chinese market, offering local businesses the potential to profit substantially. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note the potential environmental consequences of extensive commercial agriculture expansion in the region. Over-exploitation of land for agricultural purposes can lead to environmental degradation, impacting local societies negatively.

Let’s talk about Chinese organized crime, which has become a global issue with the rise of “pig butchering” cyber-scam operations, many of them based in Cambodia and peripheral parts of Laos and Myanmar. This and other longer-standing issues (i.e. narcotics and “black money” flows) seem like a classic example of the “unintended consequences” that you discuss in the book. How has the Chinese government responded to the Chinese criminal operations in the region, and what impact have these operations had on China’s influence, particularly in the security realm?

The rise of Chinese criminal networks operating in Southeast Asia has emerged a significant concern for both the Chinese government and regional authorities. Exploiting the fragmented nature of certain Southeast Asian countries and their limited capacity for effective law enforcement, these networks have thrived. Their operations, particularly in areas such as online scams, have proven highly lucrative due to the vast Chinese market. In response, the Chinese government has exerted pressure on regional governments to tighten regulations. For instance, Beijing urged Cambodia and the Philippines to shut down online casinos. Moreover, recent military actions in northern Shan State, Myanmar, suggest Beijing’s readiness to collaborate with local ethnic armed groups to combat these criminal networks. The proliferation of the Chinese illicit economy in Southeast Asia poses a significant non-traditional security threat to the entire region. Addressing this issue will require substantial regional cooperation to enhance law enforcement mechanisms. This is an area I believe Beijing will increase its cooperation with the region in the years to come.

In your book, you discuss China’s possible impact on the durability of authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia. What role do you think China has played in recent political trends in the region? Are Western critics right when they claim that China is seeking to shape other nations in its own image?

I don’t believe Beijing aims to impose its own political model on other nations. In fact, China constantly emphasizes Chinese characteristics in its own political regime and economic system. Instead, China generally adopts a stance of non-interference in the governance structures of other countries. Beijing is willing to collaborate with governments regardless of whether they are democratically elected or authoritarian. However, it’s worth noting that China’s cooperative relationships with certain regional governments have indirectly enhanced their international legitimacy and bolstered their authority. This is definitely the case with the military junta in Myanmar, with whom Beijing is willing to work. Having said that, when the military junta is overthrown, I also do not believe Beijing will shed any tears for the generals.