By Richard Cronin – In a subregion defined by a 4,880 kilometer-long river system, worries about a too powerful China include both nontraditional and conventional security elements, but broader geopolitical considerations remain uppermost. For this reason, the perceived decline in American regional engagement was the primary window through which Southeast Asians in the lower Mekong Basin view US policy. The criticisms expressed there about American policy towards Iraq and the Middle East tend to be less about the policy itself than the fact that the United States seems disengaged at a time when they desire it, along with Japan, to play a balancing role against China.
American diplomats and consultants associated with American aid projects also expressed concern that China’s was stealing a geopolitical march on the United States, despite the fact that comparatively small US assistance programs are appreciated and US business investment and the US market remain highly important. China thus far is not a major aid donor but it concentrates on high profile projects that generate substantial press coverage. American and many Southeast Asian interlocutors contend that China is playing a corrupting role by providing substantial funds for infrastructure development projects with little if any accountability.
Worries in the lower Mekong countries about Beijing’s economic and strategic weight tend to overshadow its potential to become an engine of growth. While China’s trade with the Mekong Basin countries is growing rapidly, many in the region are concerned about an adverse economic “division of labor,” in which Southeast Asian countries export low value added natural resources and other industrial inputs in return for under-priced and low quality manufactured goods. Many interlocutors also complained that under the “early harvest” provisions of a China-ASEAN agreement to achieve free trade in goods by 2010, China is dumping fruit and vegetables that are not of sufficient quality to be sold in developed country markets. The Thais and Vietnamese, who produce many of the same products as China, are particularly bitter on this score.
Especially among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), China’s seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials and energy are seen as major contributing factors in accelerating environmental degradation and threats to traditional livelihoods. This is becoming a serious problem because traditional occupations, especially farming and fishing, must remain the mainstay of the vast majority of people in Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and parts of northern Thailand for the foreseeable future. NGO and some academic interlocutors also decried that their own governments were pursuing development projects that threatened human security and traditional livelihoods, such as constructing hydropower dams that decimate migratory fish populations.
Because of poor governance, the lack of human capacity and infrastructure, and corruption, Laos and Cambodia in particular have been unable to stem illegal tree cutting and mining operations that are destroying natural resources at an unprecedented rate. Most of these operations involve collaboration between local officials and Army personnel and Chinese, Taiwanese, and Malaysian resources extraction companies.
The fact Chinese investment remains comparatively small and is concentrated primarily in rubber and palm oil plantations, mining and hydropower also reduces the potential for the Chinese economy to be an engine of growth for the region. Southeast Asian investment in China exceeds Chinese investment in Southeast Asia by several magnitudes. While the companies that invest in China, usually through Chinese business networks, may make profits, the investments generally involve the replacement of domestic production by Chinese imports. Some Southeast Asian conglomerates that previously produced medium technology products have become primarily distributors for Chinese made goods.
Some criticisms of China are partly hypocritical. For instance, while lower Mekong countries have very legitimate concerns about China’s huge hydropower dams in Yunnan Province, which already have done considerable downstream ecological and environmental damage, they ignore the consequences of their own hydropower projects. Hydrological experts say that due to poor governance and the lack of comprehensive planning, hydro projects in Laos and Vietnam have done far more damage to the environment and traditional livelihoods than is necessary.
Despite China’s growing economic and political footprint, there is scant actual evidence of increasing Chinese “soft power.” It is widely believed that China gets its way through direct payoffs to officials or indirectly though loans and grants for infrastructure projects that require little or no accountability. While decrying Beijing’s ways of promoting its influence, some officials and scholars with a more strategic perspective viewed China’s implicit coercive power as the ultimate potential threat.
Despite worries about China’s growing power and the environmental and socioeconomic problems that are accompanying development and regional economic integration, the lower Mekong countries remain highly optimistic about their future. Growing confidence and a strong sense of purpose are especially evident in Vietnam and despite the enormous tragedy of the Khmer Rouge era and obstacles to development, Cambodians are remarkably forward looking and increasingly hopeful about their future.
Southeast Asians in the lower Mekong region continue to regard good relations with the United States as key to staying in the main current of history. The American regional role is valued all the more because of concern that, in time, China’s current “smile policy” towards Southeast Asia may give way to a drive for regional hegemony.
* This brief essay distills the some of the most noteworthy views and perspectives of more than 40 official, academic and nongovernmental interlocutors that the author interviewed during a three-week long research trip to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan. The research trip focused primarily on emerging transboundary and nontraditional security issues in the four countries of the Lower Mekong subregion of Southeast Asia, not on China’s relations with its neighbors, but anxiety about China’s rising economic power and geostrategic weight emerged as a major concern in every country.