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Analysing China’s Role in Southeast Asia Today
21 Sep 2020

On 21 September 2020, Mr Murray Hiebert, Senior Associate of Southeast Asia Programme, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia, spoke at the webinar series on multilateralism studies organised by the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, RSIS. Delivering a talk on “Analysing China’s Role in Southeast Asia Today”, Mr Hiebert introduced key themes from his new book, Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge. The book outlines how Southeast Asia is responding to China’s rise and examines the differences on how countries in the region perceive Beijing.

Mr Hiebert highlighted that trade with China has played a critical role in driving economic development in most countries in the region, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has focused on financing infrastructure gaps. Countries participating in the BRI want to take advantage of China’s rise without risking their sovereignty. While there is scepticism towards the BRI, Mr Hiebert noted that Beijing has demonstrated considerable flexibility and willingness to compromise at least on rail projects. China and the far smaller Laos had haggled over the terms of a railroad project for five years before Beijing finally dropped its earlier demand for sizeable swathes of land along the railroad.

Mr Hiebert drew attention to Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea and the holding back of water behind its dams along the Mekong as the region enters its second year of drought. Most countries have long looked to Washington to hedge China’s rise, prompting some to fear they could be forced to choose sides between the two superpowers as their relations have spiralled into deeper hostility. In conclusion, Mr Hiebert noted that countries in Southeast Asia have shown great diversity in how they receive BRI funding and respond to Beijing’s rise in an evolving regional order.

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