Though China has been aggressively pursuing investment opportunities in Southeast Asia, it is seeing an increasing resistance from the countries in the region. And one of the main concerns of Southeast Asian nations is the terrible reputation that Chinese investments have.
The Chinese are known to provide loans to underdeveloped and developing countries with the intention to make them agree to Beijing’s demands when they default on the high-interest loans — the modus operandi of illegal loan sharks. Though several Southeast Asian nations were desperately looking forward to infrastructure investments, they have become more alert after Sri Lanka was forced to lease out its Hambantota Port to China because of their failure to repay the loan.
Southeast Asian concerns
Thailand is spearheading a regional infrastructure development fund in association with other Southeast Asian nations like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The aim of the fund, which is expected to start operations from 2019, is to lessen the region’s dependence on Chinese investment.
Thais also feel that the Chinese are getting more aggressive. “One retired Thai official disclosed that Chinese officials used to be humble. But now their prevailing mentality is that ‘you need us.’ Unintentionally, they have placed the pride of a stronger Chinese economy above mutual trust and respect,” from an article by Today Online.
Malaysia too is considering scrapping some Chinese investment projects out of fear that they may not be able to repay the loans when the time comes. Two Chinese-backed projects were halted by the Malaysian government after it found that the costs were ballooning out of control. And though some of the money had been paid, the government estimated that a large portion of the cost cannot be recouped.
In Vietnam, thousands of people have been protesting against Chinese investments, since the natives feared Beijing would end up dictating the future of the country. Signs from the protest include those that say “No leasing land to Chinese communists for even one day.”
“The government underestimated the amount of anti-China sentiment in the country. There’s a constant undertone among many in Vietnam that the government isn’t doing enough to protect the country’s sovereignty against China,” Reuters quotes Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia specialist from Washington.
China is also said to be using cyber-attacks to meddle in the elections in Southeast Asian countries. According to a U.S. investigation, China had engaged several hackers to run a smear campaign against the rival of pro-Beijing leader Hun Sen during the recent Cambodian elections. This has also made many Cambodians wary of Chinese investments in the region.
America’s alternative choice
In order to counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, the U.S. has been actively developing projects aimed at two things — helping the region get funds for infrastructure development and protecting it from any Chinese military aggression.
“Our strategy is an affirmative and positive one, and it’s inclusive. And while it is not aimed at any particular country, there should be little doubt that much of the Chinese behavior is demonstrating objectives that run counter to our objectives for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” The Epoch Times quotes Randall Schriver, Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.
The U.S. has set up a US$113 million investment program for Southeast Asia. And considering that most of the countries in the region, from Thailand to Vietnam, are suspicious of Chinese investments, the U.S. expects its investment initiatives in Southeast Asia to reap rich rewards, while protecting the democratic nature of these societies.