Listen to this story
There have been many editorials on the pages of this outlet dedicated to countering, exposing, and shedding light on China’s increasing influence in South East Asia and the Asia Pacific region.
For the past ten years, Beijing has courted, bribed, invested, and threatened their way into domestic political conversations from Bangkok to Tokyo, from Seoul to Yangon. Like it or not, the region now lives under the shadow of Beijings growing military and economic might.
The west has looked on with alarm as Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative snares one country after another while its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank now rivals the IMF and the World Bank prestige and credit.
Yet despite its anxiety at China’s growing might, the “west” (if there is such a thing anymore) continues to mismanage its Far East policy and continues to lose influence and prestige among leaders in the region.
Take Thailand for example, years of neglect by Washington and her allies have ensured that today’s batch of leaders look to Beijing for investment, military equipment, and direction. While Washington’s drawdown of ties during the coup years was both necessary and warranted, the lack of imagination from the state department ensures that more and more everyday Thais, and the leaders they elect, are warming to Beijing.
American cars, American movies, and American values are still important and valued in Thailand but increasingly they find themselves competing with alternatives that were not there before.
Unlike Washington and London’s incomplete outreach in Thailand, Beijing’s is much more holistic and all encompassing. That is because China’s influence campaign is not merely the remit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Although it should be noted that the Chinese government were the first to provide Covid-related aid to Thailand and readily supplied us with our first batches of vaccines at a time when the United States was busy hoarding its share and shutting out the rest of the world – something not overlooked by members of the Thai government and the Thai public.
Further to that, China’s influence campaigns involves an encompassing strategy including business outreach, lucrative trade deals, and a willingness to engage in cultural practices (eg corruption/tea money/wining and dining) that the west thumbs its nose at. That is not to say the US should engage in corrupt practices but to show that China’s diplomats and businessmen not only understand local culture but are willing to use their deep pockets to bend it to their whim. The clearest manifestation is perhaps seen in tariffs. While auto-imports from the US still suffer from crippling import-tax, China’s electric vehicles are already flooding the Thai market due to a free trade agreement.
It hasn’t helped that the United States’ foreign service has been in disarray over the last six years due to poor direction and staffing decisions under the previous administration and a lack of care during the current.
To put it short, it has been increasingly clear to observers in Thailand that the US has not placed a priority on the local stakeholders in this region. The US Embassy in Thailand is one of the largest missions in the region if not the world and to this day still does not have an ambassador appointed. Washington’s moves within the region to counter China have also been increasingly oblivious, dictated by Washington-based types that don’t understand the culture, spend little time in Asia, and think of the world through imperial or Cold War terms.
For example, the biggest move in the last five years to counter China’s increasing hegemony in the region has been the signing of a new tri-partite alliance between Australia, the UK, and the US. They then make a great big showing of sailing shiny warships through the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea and pat themselves on the back.
Meanwhile, countries that would normally be sympathetic to Washington – with historical axes to grind with Beijing – have been left out of the new alliance and our just second-tier partner to the old imperialist nations. That is why governments in Manila, in Hanoi, in Taipei, in Bangkok, are increasingly wary of the old Anglo chums and are reconsidering Beijing’s Faustian bargain.
If the war in the Ukraine has shown us anything it is that the Washington think tanks are historically incompetent and the State Department should start listening to local stakeholders and engage with them in meaningful days. If that day doesn’t come soon where the leaders and people of this region feel valued, then Beijing will be the sole leader in this part of the world.