AmCham Indonesia’s ASEAN Committee met on March 18 to hear author and veteran journalist Murray Hiebert discuss ASEAN, China, and points in between. The author of the recent, critically acclaimed book, “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge,” Hiebert, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, explored the potential direction of the new Biden administration on China and how Southeast Asia might respond.
Murray spoke about how Southeast Asian countries see China as both a challenge and an opportunity. China’s rise has prompted a blend of anticipation and unease among its smaller neighbors, who benefit from the investment but fear encroachment and overreach from their powerful neighbor. The stunning growth of China has yanked up the region’s economies, but its militarization of the South China Sea and dam building on the Mekong River has nations wary about Beijing’s outsized ambitions.
Much of Southeast Asia still relies on the United States as a security hedge, but that confidence began to slip after the Trump administration launched a trade war with China and questioned the usefulness of traditional alliances, Hiebert said.
China made an ambitious pledge through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), touted by President Xi Jinping as the “Project of the Century,” to plow $1 trillion in investment into much-needed railroads, roads, bridges, ports, and power plants. These projects will use bucket loads of Chinese financing, technology, expertise, and workers to expand Beijing’s geopolitical influence and bind other nations more tightly to its side.
However, the BRI is moving slowly, with many projects on hold. The US presence in Southeast Asia is not totally lost, its military is still the major force in the region, but it seems to be missing out in other areas, such as economic clout.
Hiebert, who covered much of the region as a journalist with the Asian Wall Street Journal for many years, said the US presence is needed to balance China’s influence. Tensions are also increasing between China and India. In addition, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes the US, will likely help reduce trade barriers and boost investment between China and Southeast Asia.