ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Are Southeast Asia’s Anti-China Nationalists Democrats?

Taking anti-China positions is easy for politicians in opposition. Things get more complicated once they take office.

David Hutt
Are Southeast Asia’s Anti-China Nationalists Democrats?
Credit: Flickr/World Economic Forum

It is not difficult to notice the growing backlash against Chinese trade and investment in Southeast Asia.

In Cambodia, anti-Chinese sentiment has somewhat pushed aside the populace’s virulent and more historic anti-Vietnamese nationalism, a key pillar in the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party’s rise to become the dominant pro-democracy movement by 2013. In Vietnam, anti-China nationalism has a much longer history, with the neighbor to the north considered the county’s bête noire for centuries. In recent years, the largest protests seen in Vietnam (in 2016, against the toxic spill of a Taiwanese-owned steel plant and the 2018 demos against the SEZ bill, for instance) were predicated on keeping the worst of Chinese investment out of the country, a charge often made by pro-democracy activists. In fact, the Vietnamese Communist Party has lost a good deal of its nationalist legitimacy in recent years because of allegations it’s a mere Beijing lackey.

In Laos, now arguably the closest China has to a colony, anti-Chinese sentiment is inescapable, and is increasingly the one issue that could seriously imperil the ruling communist party’s grasp on power. While the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Thailand are most specifically against the military-cum-civilian government and the monarchy, anti-China sentiment hangs on the edges of remarks. “Everyone is the victim of China and its authoritarianism,” Parit Chiwarak, one of the most prominent leaders of the protests, has said. Indeed, the so-called Milk Tea Alliance united democrats in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand explicitly commingles pro-democracy and anti-Beijing sentiments. Meanwhile, at Thailand’s rigged general election last year opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose democratic Future Forward party came in third at the 2019 elections before being banned, stressed his solidarity with the Hong Kong protestors struggling against Beijing’s tyranny.

There is, then, a striking overlap between pro-democracy and anti-China sentiment in Southeast Asia, yet there is no iron law stating that anti-China sentiment is inevitably the nationalism of democrats in the region. Ahead of Myanmar’s 2015 general election, it was well-known that Beijing preferred the military junta that had run the country for decades over Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). After victory, not only did Aung San Suu Kyi quickly dissipate all hopes that she was a liberal, especially after her collusion in the Rohingya genocide and her government’s crackdown on human rights, but she was extremely keen on forging closer ties with China.

With a general election due next week, Bertil Lintner noted in an article in Asia Times that “Chinese government representatives have made no secret in recent private discussions that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her [NLD] win and are wary of the generals.” And we’re even in the situation where the old autocrats, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, are now those taking up the anti-China charge. “Myanmar’s military sees it as their duty to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seek to lessen national dependence on China,” Lintner added.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Of course, no regional party can afford to come out too strongly behind China. Even the ruling parties in Laos and Cambodia, China’s two closest allies, have to publicly distance themselves from Beijing from time to time. Aung Zaw wrote in The Irrawaddy that since Aung San Suu Kyi “has been accused of being a pro-China politician in the recent past, the State Counselor will have to walk a tightrope.” After entering the Malacañang Palace in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tried swinging his country closer to China, if only to attract more investment from Beijing and frustrate his critics in Washington. But, after four years, Manila is now returning to its traditional pro-Western foreign policy, one suspects because Duterte knows how unpopular China is with the Filipino electorate, while his PDP–Laban party (and others) sense that this could be important campaign issue come elections in 2022.  Social Weather Stations, a pollster, found in July that vastly more Filipinos trust the U.S. over China. In fact, trust in China has declined over the years, especially comparing the pollster’s surveys between 2019 and 2020.

Others volte-face in the opposite direction. Mahathir Mohamad, the candidate of the broadly liberal and democratic Harapan coalition at Malaysia’s general election in 2018, campaigned on an anti-China ticket, which contributed to the first hand-over of power between parties in the country’s history. Not long after becoming prime minister, he stood at a press conference in Beijing and stated: “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.” Less than eight months later, however, he said that Malaysians must now “accept that China is close to us.” “And it is a huge market,” he added. “We want to benefit from China’s growing wealth.”

In mid-2017, I remember debating with other analysts in Phnom Penh what would happen if the opposition CNRP, before it was forcibly dissolved, won the 2018 general election. Would this virulently anti-Vietnam party side with Beijing against Hanoi in South China Sea disputes, just as Cambodia’s ruling party did notoriously in 2012 and 2016? Would the free-trade party string up tariffs and investment barriers against Chinese money? Would the financier in Sam Rainsy, the party’s former president, allow Cambodia’s national debt to soar from having to pay for its own infrastructure projects so as to make sure Beijing no longer funds its development? My sense at the time was that if the CNRP ever won power it would have to U-turn on its China comments with extreme haste, just like Mahathir, a pragmatist with few scruples, did after 2018.

Anti-China nationalism, one senses, may work for Southeast Asia’s democrats when campaigning and deriding incumbent parties but if they ever get into office they’ll have to make their own peace with trade and investment from China. More to the point, they’ll be confronted with the question that Mahathir tried to propose during his two terms in office: Is one more of a nationalist by accepting greater trade and investment with China in order to stimulate economic growth, or by hampering growth lest increased trade and investment pose threats to national sovereignty?

Laotians and Cambodians, moreover, may well argue that their authoritarian governments now put Beijing’s interests ahead of their own citizens (and there’s some truth to this), but follow the logic and it oftentimes excuses the tyrannical impulses of their own governments. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party isn’t devoid of agency, and it isn’t the case that it yearns to be democratic but is being held back by Beijing. Nor was it Xi Jinping who forced Aung San Suu Kyi to deny a genocide took place in her country or to lock up journalists. Southeast Asia was a cauldron of authoritarianism long before Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative and before Washington realized that China’s ascent might not be peaceful.

As a result, anti-China sentiment may be useful for berating authoritarian governments – but it is no basis on which to build democracy in Southeast Asia.