Beijing’s Ambitions and Tactics to Control Southeast Asia

June 30, 2021 Updated: July 4, 2021


The Chinese regime’s tactics of global domination largely focus on periphery diplomacy, strategically focusing on Southeast Asia, where Beijing has made some progress as seen by the shift of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s stance toward China.

Southeast Asia includes the Indochina Peninsula and the Malay Archipelago. It is at a crossroad of Oceania, the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean, where the Strait of Malacca serves as a chokepoint, and covers land around 1.76 million square miles. The ten members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. In 2019, the ten ASEAN member nations had a combined GDP of $3.17 trillion in 2019, less than a quarter of China’s GDP, and a population of 655 million, which is close to half of that of China and 142 million people more than the European Union’s (EU’s) total population.

The ten ASEAN member nations have great differences in GDP. Indonesia, for example, is the largest and the only ASEAN nation with a GDP exceeding $1 trillion and, in 2019, it was $1.12 trillion with a population of 267 million. Brunei, the smallest ASEAN nation, had a population of only 460,000 and a GDP of $13.47 billion in 2019. The ASEAN’s vitality and influence are second only to the European Union globally as a regional joint development since its establishment in 1967.

Curbing the expansion of communism in the region was one of the main purposes of ASEAN’s establishment. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been exporting revolution to Southeast Asian countries since the Mao Zedong era. Consequently, multiple scales of anti-Chinese movements took place in a few countries, but the CCP’s clout continues to expand in Southeast Asia, which is, to some extent, manifested in the failure of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Today, the Philippines still suffers from guerrilla warfare from the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Since the end of the Cold War, the CCP has made rapid progress in developing relationships with ASEAN, establishing diplomatic relations with each of the ASEAN member states, and restricting Taiwan’s international space.

Epoch Times Photo
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is pictured on the screen (R) as he addresses his counterparts during the 4th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit being held online in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Nov. 15, 2020. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images)

China has become ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 12 consecutive years. Moreover, in 2019, ASEAN became China’s second largest trading partner, surpassing the United States, and in 2020, it overtook the EU as China’s largest trading partner.

In 2004, an article published in China Report Weekly analyzed that Southeast Asia is not only of general importance to Beijing, but more of “a life and death” significance. First, Southeast Asia is the springboard for the CCP to become a world power; second, Southeast Asia is the commanding heights of the CCP’s containment of the United States and Japan.

Since “Xi Jinping’s New Era,” the CCP has shifted from “participatory diplomacy” in Southeast Asia to “shaping diplomacy,” employing a self-centered practice of “proactive attack, both civil and military.” The CCP has been successful in actively shaping the complex and volatile situation in Southeast Asia. In fact, when the strategic direction of the world is evolving into the Sino-U.S. bipolar confrontation and global encirclement and suppression of the CCP, the ASEAN nations hesitate to pick a side because of its economic dependence on China. This, to some extent, suggests lingering effects of the CCP’s attempt to control Southeast Asia.

Judging from the CCP’s policy toward ASEAN in recent years, the CCP’s tactics can be classified as the following.

Economic Absorption

In general, ASEAN is an emerging economy. The member countries’ combined GDP at the establishment of ASEAN in 1967 was $20 billion, accounting for 3.3 percent of the global economy. After 50-plus years’ development, their combined GDP amounted to $3 trillion in 2018, which doubled their share of the world economy to 6.9 percent, ranking themselves the fifth largest economy in the world and the third largest economy in Asia. ASEAN states are export-led economies. In 2018, intra-ASEAN trade only grew to 23 percent while their dependence on the Chinese economy increased over the years.

China’s economic absorption prominently manifests in the drastic growth of bilateral trade. According to official data, in 2004, the bilateral trade volume between China and ASEAN exceeded $100 billion for the first time; in 2007, it exceeded $200 billion, in 2011 it exceeded $300 billion; in 2012, it exceeded $400 billion. And in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, trade ramped up to $684.60 billion, an increase of 6.8 percent, according to the Bangkok Post.

China’s manufacturing industries migration to Southeast Asia is a major factor of drastic growth of bilateral trade. From 2009 to 2018, the average annual growth of China’s direct investment in ASEAN soared by 19.8 percent, which was 10.9 percent far higher than its total foreign investment in the same period, according to official data. As of August 2019, China and ASEAN had about $230 billion mutual investments and set up 25 overseas economic and trade cooperation zones, attracting more than 600 enterprises, according to state-run media Xinhua. As such, this draws two direct implications: first, China’s trade with ASEAN has turned from a deficit state before 2011 to a surplus; second, electromechanical products currently make up more than half of the mutual trading goods, indicating that China-ASEAN economies are highly complementary with integrated industrial and supply chains. The CCP is now promoting the mechanism of yuan settlement in China-ASEAN trade, boosting the internationalization of the Chinese currency.

The CCP attempts to dominate the economic integration of Southeast Asia and Asia to compete with the North American economic region and the European economic region. The economic absorption of Southeast Asia has become the top priority of the CCP’s foreign economic policy.

Embellishing South China Sea Issue With Soft Strategies

The South China Sea issue involves six countries and seven parties, including Taiwan, Beijing, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, affecting the CCP’s core interests. Therefore, it is an imperative approach for the CCP to contain ASEAN states.

The CCP’s hardline stance and arbitrary manner on the South China Sea issue is regarded as a fierce move to deter ASEAN countries when compared with its lenient move of economic absorption. This is prominently manifested in three aspects. First, Beijing ignored the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), claiming the nine-dash line sovereignty, and refused to recognize, participate in, or accept the South China Sea Arbitration between the Philippines and China in 2016. Second, China continues to build islands in the South China Sea for paramilitary bases. Third, China practices intimidation to threaten relevant countries occasionally. For example, in March this year, 200-plus Chinese fishing ships were anchored at a disputed reef claimed by China and the Philippines; and on May 31, Malaysia detected 16 Chinese military aircraft into its airspace, within 60 nautical miles of the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak.

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Chinese boats fish at the disputed Scarborough Shoal on April 5, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

The CCP played politics under the banner of “peace and principles.” It first signed the non-legally binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) with ASEAN, and then engaged in the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea negotiations to constrain ASEAN states. During the negotiations, the CCP insisted on its stance with protracted negotiations and arbitrary manner to form a negotiation trap, discussing the issues of the CoC’s scope of application, whether the CoC will ultimately adopt a legally binding form of treaty, and the interpretation of self-restraint that does not complicate and exacerbate disputes and the like. Meanwhile, the CCP continues to expand paramilitary bases in South China Sea, where it has built a deep sea fortress that can impose a worldwide nuclear deterrent, forcing nations to accept the fait accompli. Some experts pointed out that the situation in the South China Sea is becoming the “fog of peace,” a new version of the “fog of war.”

Weaponization of Water Resources

Known as the “Water Tower of Asia,” the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau significantly impacts Asia’s water resources distribution as an origin of ten major water systems—eight of which are international rivers that run through China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia apart from the Yangtze River and Yellow River. Among them, the Lancang-Mekong River in Southeast Asia, flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and into the South China Sea, and the Nujiang-Salween River, flowing through China, Thailand, Myanmar, and into the Andaman Sea, have huge water volume that greatly affect countries that they flow through. Therefore, the CCP weaponizes water resources, exploiting the advantage of the upper reaches to threaten and manipulate these countries’ policies toward China.

This is most prominent on the Mekong River issue. The Mekong River whose upper reaches in China is called the Lancang River is known as the “Danube of the East.” The CCP extensively builds hydropower bases on the Lancang River mainstream, which is included in China’s 13 national hydropower bases plans. The 11 dams built on the Lancang River enable the CCP to control the Mekong River faucet. The Mekong droughts in 2010, 2016, and 2019 were related to the CCP’s use of reservoirs to store water, which has been confirmed by various studies.

The CCP has long regarded the Lancang River hydrological data and the dam operation as confidential. Under pressure, the CCP signed an agreement on Oct. 22, 2020, with the Mekong River Commission (MRC), established by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in April 1995, having Myanmar as its dialogue partner of the MRC. It agreed to share year-round hydrological data of two hydropower stations in the upstream Mekong River. Of the two stations, however, only Jinghong Hydropower Station is on the Lancang River mainstream and the southernmost one of eleven hydropower stations built on the upper Mekong River. Not to mention its storage of the reservoir is far from the largest. Rather, the downstream Mekong countries need to obtain more data on the hydropower stations with the largest storage capacity further upstream, including the volume of discharged water and discharge time, to more effectively forecast floods and droughts.

The CCP, despite signing the agreement, did not fully comply with it. Hydrologist Dr. Wang Weiluo revealed that on Jan. 6 this year China notified some downstream Lancang River countries of a 20-day water restriction, starting from Jan. 5 to Jan. 25. Chinese authorities later explained that the water discharge was halved for transmission lines repairs. The MRC issued a statement saying that the notification came on Jan. 6, but China had reduced water flow on Jan. 5 and that it had held back the water since the end of December 2020 as the MRC saw drops in river level consistent with its monitoring system. The excuses of maintenance of transmission lines in the electricity grid could not justify the water restriction.

The CCP’s harnessing the Mekong faucet has gained itself political bargaining chips for restricting ASEAN states because the five downstream Mekong states account for half of ASEAN members. In 2016, the CCP led the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism and has held high-level meetings since then. The CCP’s weaponization of water resources imposes extraordinary restrictions on ASEAN states.


ASEAN member countries have complex international stances—they are self-reliant, yet redress the balance within the bloc with respective power; they have wishful thinking about the CCP, yet fear its power; they seek help from the United States, yet worried about being exploited. In recent years, the increasing investment in Southeast Asia by the United States, Japan, and India has not offset the CCP’s clout of its three-pronged approach: diplomacy, economic strength, and military power.

ASEAN states need to have a comprehensive recognition toward the CCP, prompting themselves to make correct strategic decisions in due course.

Wang He has master’s degrees in law and history, and has studied the international communist movement. He was a university lecturer and an executive of a large private firm in China. Wang now lives in North America and has published commentaries on China’s current affairs and politics since 2017.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Wang He
Wang He
Wang He has master’s degrees in law and history, and has studied the international communist movement. He was a university lecturer and an executive of a large private firm in China. Wang now lives in North America and has published commentaries on China’s current affairs and politics since 2017.