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Concerns about China's hegemonic ambitions, mostly over the Belt and Road Initiative, are rising across Southeast Asia. While some countries in the region have succumbed to Chinese pressure, the rest are resisting it.
"China's economic role in the region has been especially robust since the BRI increased financing for Chinese infrastructure investment and the US-China trade war launched by the Donald Trump administration caused China to shift many of its economic activities to the Southeast Asian region," Carla Freeman, director of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute, told DW.
The $1 trillion infrastructure project's maritime route runs through the disputed South China Sea(SCS), a resource-rich waterway over which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China have overlapping claims. There are concerns that China will seek to tie the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) hands to control the strategic waterway by wielding its expanding economic influence gained from infrastructure projects in the region.
Read more: South China Sea - what you need to know
According to Alexander L. Vuving, a Vietnam specialist at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center, the BRI bundles two Chinese endeavors. "One is China's quest to find markets for its excess capacity, and the other is China's quest to enlarge its influence through physical, financial and personal connectivity that bind regional countries to it," Vuving said.
The BRI has generated high hopes of bridging infrastructure and connectivity gaps, but there have also been doubts and criticism over its details and goals. One concern raised is the "debt-trap diplomacy" through which Beijing gains influence over economically weak countries by pushing recipient nations into indebtedness.
"Whether China is deliberately throwing its partners into debt traps is debatable. Nevertheless, several countries have accumulated and will substantially increase their debts to China to the extent that they won't be able to pay them back," Vuving added.
China's 'rightful place'
In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha raised eyebrows last month when, in the presence of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, he compared his country to an ant and China to a lion. This asymmetrical and imbalanced nature of relations has caused other nations in the region to become increasingly wary of China's clout.
Nearly half of Southeast Asian respondents in the most recent survey by the Singapore-based think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said that "China will become a revisionist power with an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence."
Vuving points out that China's geographical position, its growing size and power and its historical ambition to return to its "rightful place at the top of Asia" will naturally lead to its becoming the leading power in the region. "Call it hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence, it is basically Chinese dominance," he underlined.
Duterte under pressure
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has been sharply criticized for kowtowing to the Chinese government and putting his country's maritime interests on the back burner in favor of attracting Chinese aid.
Domestic pressure on Duterte to toughen his stance toward the Asian giant has been mounting, especially following the June 9 ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat in the Reed Bank, an area within Manila's exclusive economic zone in the SCS.
Public trust in China has plunged to its lowest level in the Philippines, a Social Weather Stations survey released in November found. According to Salvador Panelo, a presidential spokesperson, the outcomes are "foreseeable and understandable" due to the "conflicting positions" between the two countries over the SCS.
However, he expressed optimism that "China, like any other country, will be eventually appreciated by the Filipinos because of President Duterte's independent foreign policy, which has resulted in significant benefits favorable to the Philippines."
Revitalized relations with China have brought economic benefits to the country. According to data from the Philippine Central Bank, Chinese foreign direct investment skyrocketed to nearly $200 million (€180 million) in 2018 from a mere $570,000 (€514,527) in 2015 before Duterte came to power.
Despite warmer ties with Beijing, Manila is now seeking to expand and diversify relations with other regional powers such as Japan, India, Russia and the Philippines' long-time traditional ally, the US.
"Duterte is improving economic ties with China, but is also aware of the political costs of growing too close," said Freeman.
Resistance and mistrust
Vietnam is arguably the place where China meets the most resistance due to its ambitions in the South China Sea. Beijing claims nearly all of the energy-rich waters in the area, where it has turned a string of islets and atolls into military bases. Compared to other claimants such as the Philippines and Malaysia, Hanoi has been the staunchest defender of its sovereignty in the disputed sea.
"Vietnam is one of the countries that are most exposed to two of China's major stratagems in foreign policy: 'befriend the far and attack the near,' and 'harden the hard and soften the soft,'" Vuving underlined.
After four months of stand-off, the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 departed Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in late October. The ship had been conducting seismic probes in waters near contested Vanguard Reef since July.
The incident bore similarities to another that took place five years ago, when China's oil rig, the HYSY-981, was deployed to Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. The move evoked strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the Southeast Asian country and "plunged the relationship to a historical low and shattered the fragile trust between the two nations, including their communist leaders," according to Vuving.
Due to these historically strained relations with Beijing, Hanoi has been cautious toward the BRI. Vuving predicts that "although Vietnam's location may be ideal for being a BRI partner, geography and strategic culture suggest that the Sino-Viet relationship will become cooler in the age of China's Belt and Road Initiative."
A debt trap?
When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took office last year, he made a bold statement against China's "new version of colonialism" due to its lopsided deals with poorer nations.
The 94-year-old premier also promised to review "unequal treaties," including Malaysia's China-backed railway project, the East Coast Rail Link. Earlier this year, the stalled project resumed after Mahathir had brought China back to the negotiating table and struck a better deal which slashed the construction cost by nearly a third.
According to Freeman, this development could prompt other countries suffering from large sums of debt "to assess the terms of Chinese investment."
Tham Siew Yean, a senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, suggested that "all countries should negotiate carefully with China on large projects."
According to Tham, when foreign direct investment or official development assistance projects are not assessed carefully before being accepted, corrupt governments "share the blame."
"A debt cannot be imposed, if the borrower does not consent," Tham added.