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The Scale of the Dragon’s Shadow: Chinese Aid and Investment in Southeast Asia (2000–2022)

Aide et investissements chinois en Asie du Sud-Est (2000-2022) : mesurer l’ombre portée de la Chine
Nathalie Fau et Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux
Traduction de Hayley Wood
Cet article est une traduction de :
Aide et investissements chinois en Asie du Sud-Est (2000-2022) : mesurer l’ombre portée de la Chine [fr]


Ce numéro de la revue Moussons s’appuie sur un ensemble de résultats collectifs issus du programme de recherche Asean-China Aid financé par l’appel d’offres Emergence en Recherche de l’Université Paris Cité dont l’objectif est de mesurer et d’analyser l’aide au développement et les investissements chinois en Asie du Sud-Est. Ayant rappelé les temporalités du rapprochement entre la Chine et les pays sud-est asiatiques, cette contribution introductive présente le positionnement et la méthodologie du groupe de recherche puis en expose les principaux résultats.

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1In 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping launched the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, which in 2017 was renamed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This initiative, which also functions as a vast diplomatic endeavor (Cabestan 2022: 71), seeks to link China to Africa, Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia via a complex, multimodal infrastructure network, and is without doubt the most ambitious transnational corridor project ever pursued by a state. Its land, road, rail, and energy components (originally announced as the Silk Road Economic Belt) were presented in a speech made in Kazakhstan, and a maritime component (the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road) was launched on an official visit to Indonesia. The BRI has been developed further by the formalization of a digital route centered on China (via undersea cables) in 2016, and the announcement of a “Polar Silk Road” project to develop shipping lanes in the Arctic in 2018.

  • 1 The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. As of 2023, it includes all (...)
  • 2 “Nanyang,” which literally translates as “Southern Seas,” is the Chinese term for the region immedi (...)

2Southeast Asia, a region made up of eleven countries, eight of which have land or sea borders with southern China, is one of the main regions affected by the economic and political rise of China, which in 2009 became the leading trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).1 China’s growing presence on the international stage is amplified in Southeast Asia by its geographic and cultural proximity, strong economic ties reviving relations that go back a very long way (Tagliacozzo & Chang 2011), and cultural ties sustained by the presence of large Chinese diasporas in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia (Yan & Enderwick 2019). Despite ongoing territorial and maritime disputes, China is now a central and vital political, strategic, and economic actor for the countries of Southeast Asia. The Chinese government sees both mainland Southeast Asia and the Nanyang region2 as an ancient, natural zone of strategic influence, a space of resources and trading partners. The Southeast Asian states, however, have an ambivalent relationship with Communist China, which they see as both the source of trading opportunities and economic growth that it objectively represents, and as a source of threats and conflicts, as illustrated by the persistent tensions in the South China Sea. This ambivalence is maintained by Chinese policies that regularly swing between inducement and coercion (Huong 2018): between the deepening of an economic partnership that creates a “horizon of expectations” for these developing countries (in particular by offering to support the economic regeneration of abandoned or peripheral territories), and acts of intimidation designed to enforce Chinese claims. Using this dual strategy, China has been able to significantly increase its economic, industrial, and financial involvement in the region.

3This issue of Moussons takes a detailed, contextualized look at how China has projected its power in Southeast Asia over the past two decades. The contributing authors analyze relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia from the point of view of the latter—an approach that challenges the idea of China’s rise as being imposed in a unilateral, overwhelming, homogeneous, or unambiguous way. Their articles emphasize the autonomy of the Southeast Asian states, which are by no means exclusively dominated partners, even within the framework of an asymmetric relationship (Allès & Frécon 2018), and paint a more nuanced picture of the Chinese presence by considering the role played by other influential major powers in the region.

  • 3 This stands for “Aide au développement et investissements directs chinois vus d’Asie du Sud-Est. Ré (...)

4This issue is based on the findings of the ASEAN-China Aid3 research project, funded by the Université Paris Cité’s “Emergence en Recherche” program, the objective of which was to measure and analyze Chinese development aid and investment in Southeast Asia. In this introduction, we provide an overview of the chronology of the rapprochement between China and the countries of Southeast Asia before describing the positioning and methodology of the research group, and finally outlining its main findings.

China-ASEAN Relations since 1949

5The essentially asymmetric relations between ASEAN and China have evolved in the contemporary period (Storey 2013), and have developed considerably since the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared in 1949. But the rapprochement has been a gradual process; one that has had several stages, and particularly accelerated in the early 2000s (Grillot & Tan 2014; Fau & Franck 2019: 382–402). In the regional context, the BRI can be seen more as a catalyst giving new momentum to existing trends than as a true break with the past (Bouhali & Chuang 2019). The dynamics of Chinese capitalism in Southeast Asia are not dependent solely on the policies of the Chinese state, transnational Chinese banks and entrepreneurs, or even Chinese people living in Southeast Asia. Chinese financing also plays a role in the regionalization of the ASEAN economic community (Santassombat 2019), which it is helping to redraw (Tréglodé & Frécon 2018).

From Distrust to Economic Cooperation: 1949–1997

6Between 1949 and 1971, Southeast Asia was divided and destabilized by Chinese influence. This was mainly political in nature, initially manifesting itself in the Chinese Communist Party’s support for communist forces in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The PRC’s support for communist North Vietnam and local communist insurgencies meant that the noncommunist Southeast Asian states, newly independent and in the process of postcolonial consolidation, saw China solely as a destabilizing force. One of the drivers behind the creation of ASEAN in 1967 was the desire to present a common front to counter the spread of communism in the region. In economic terms, since China had opted for a strategy of import substitution and self-sufficiency it placed little value on foreign relations, and economic relations between these partners were very weak.

7In the early 1970s, against a backdrop of the Sino-US rapprochement and China taking its seat at the United Nations (UN), the founding states of ASEAN renewed their ties with China: the PRC was officially recognized by Malaysia in 1974, followed by Thailand and the Philippines in 1975, and Indonesia in 1985. In 1975, China officially recognized ASEAN. The joint condemnation by China and ASEAN of the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia between 1978 and 1991 sealed the normalization of diplomatic relations, and fostered trust between the partners. Finally, the end of the Cold War, followed by the successive accessions to ASEAN of Vietnam (1995), Laos and Burma (1997), and Cambodia (1999), confirmed this change in strategic direction, and favored a policy of constructive engagement with China. From 1991, the PRC was invited to attend ASEAN ministerial meetings, and in 1994 it was involved in the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a multilateral forum for discussing security in the Asia-Pacific region whose participants include the world’s major powers. Its objective is to foster relations based on cooperation rather than conflict, by adopting consensual measures and actions, such as joint efforts to combat maritime piracy, terrorism, and environmental issues.

8Improved political relations were supported by the development, albeit slow, of trade: as China opened up to foreign markets following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the value of trade between China and Southeast Asia grew from less than $3 billion in 1984 to over $21 billion in 1996. But political distrust turned into fear of economic competition, as the growth in Chinese exports and the shift of direct investment from the industrialized countries to China came primarily at the expense of Southeast Asia. The opening up of China and the establishment of the special economic zones in the home provinces of the Chinese diaspora also attracted interest from Southeast Asian entrepreneurs with Chinese roots. In the early 1980s, the Thai company Charoen Pokphand and the Indonesian Salim Group opened subsidiaries in Shenzhen. China’s rapprochement with Southeast Asia was thus driven both by the new roles played by overseas Chinese people, and the new waves of Chinese migrants to the countries of Southeast Asia. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) was partly created as a means to counter Chinese competition, presenting itself to foreign investors as an integrated market of 500 million people with comparable commercial appeal to China.

The Turning Point in Relations: The 2000s

9Since the 2000s, in line with its strategy of encouraging its companies to go global (the “Go Out” policy, 1999) and its desire to establish itself as a major actor in international relations, the Chinese government has pursued numerous geostrategic initiatives backed by considerable financial resources (Shambaugh 2013). The “Go Out” policy encouraged Chinese companies to globalize in order to attain global size (Huchet, Ruet & Richet 2015), and generated an unprecedented boom in Chinese outward direct investment (ODI). Gradually released, this investment rapidly spread to a wider range of host countries and sectors (Wang & Gao 2018). China’s share of global ODI grew from less than 1% in the early years of the millennium to 20% by 2020. Adding ODI flows from Hong Kong takes this share to an unparalleled third of the global total.

Fig. 1. The growt...Fig. 1. The growth in global Chinese ODI since 1999 (China and Hong Kong)

Fig. 1. The growth in global Chinese ODI since 1999 (China and Hong Kong)

Source: UNCTAD data, 2022

10In the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, which hit ASEAN members hard, China refrained from devaluing its currency, the yuan, and offered financial aid to Thailand and Indonesia. It was thus able to burnish its image as a “good neighbor” and a more reliable partner than either the United States (US), which did not offer any direct aid at the time, or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose financial aid conditions irritated the countries in the region. This episode, which led to the creation of joint monetary and financial institutions centered on ASEAN (the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office or AMRO, and the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization or CMIM), undoubtedly represented another important turning point in the relationship (Colin 2011).

  • 4 The RCEP was first drafted in 2012, and initiated by ASEAN (Indonesia) in response to the Trans-Pac (...)

11From the 2000s onward, China thus focused its diplomacy toward the countries of Southeast Asia on trade, investment, and development aid in order to establish itself as a partner and a responsible regional leader. The formation of vast global value chains in East Asia from the late 1960s onward (in the electronics, automotive, and textile industries), and China’s entry into these industrial networks in the 1990s, notably after it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, further strengthened the links between China and Southeast Asia. Ties between the partners were strengthened by ratification of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area agreement (ACFTA) in January 2010, which favored economic integration through the development of production networks. This agreement also encouraged a shift toward ASEAN of the ODI that had moved to China in the 1990s. The institutionalization of trade and investment relations recentered on Asia was sealed by the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2020 (Nicolas 2017).4

The Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia: An Additional Boost

12Since October 2013, China has also pursued a “Good Neighbor” policy and encouraged a new “diplomacy with the countries on its southern border” in line with the active “rim diplomacy” it had introduced in the early 2000s to restore its authority over the region (along with Central Asia and the Korean peninsula) (Cabestan 2022: 107-119). This policy, which is applied in a tailored manner (ibid.: 120), is designed to persuade Southeast Asian leaders of the mutual benefit to be derived from closer economic ties with China through approving investment, infrastructure construction projects, and free trade agreements. This rhetoric is reflected in a very tangible reality: China’s double-digit growth makes it an engine of economic growth for the region. In turn, it relies on complementarity with the countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen these regional links along chains of production and trade, which the BRI is set to boost.

13China’s strategy for projecting its power in its immediate geographic region is indeed increasingly centered on the BRI, which has a sufficiently flexible and vague remit to encompass a broad range of projects. This Chinese program, steered by a party-state and largely implemented by state-owned enterprises (SOEs), is underpinned by infrastructure financing packages targeting Africa and Central Asia in particular—countries that saw less benefit from globalization after the fall of the Berlin Wall than those in Central Europe or Southeast Asia. Despite this, the countries of Southeast Asia remain the leading destinations and partners for the BRI and for Chinese ODI.

Fig. 2. Breakdown...Fig. 2. Breakdown of Chinese ODI between 2008 and 2019 (in US$ billion)

Fig. 2. Breakdown of Chinese ODI between 2008 and 2019 (in US$ billion)

Source: MOFCOM (2021)

  • 5 MOFCOM, “Investment Cooperation Between China and BRI Participating Countries, January-August, 2020 (...)
  • 6 MOFCOM, “China’s Investment Cooperation with BRI Participating Countries from January to March of 2 (...)

14As Figure 2 shows, by the end of the period shown (2018–2019), ASEAN had become the leading host region for Chinese ODI. Subsequently, although global Chinese investment slowed down in 2017, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it continued to grow in the countries targeted by the BRI, particularly in Southeast Asia. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), in 2020, investment under the BRI was up 35% year-on-year, with Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar among the main beneficiaries (in 2020, the top 10 BRI host countries included eight ASEAN members).5 Similarly, in the first quarter of 2022, investment along the Belt and Road ($5.26 billion; +19%) accounted for 20% of total Chinese ODI—a greater share than in 2021 and 2020 (by around 17%)—and Southeast Asia was again strongly represented among the top ten destinations.6 It is therefore vital, in the broader context of exploring the globalization of the Chinese economy and its effects, to take a close look at Southeast Asia. How is the region reacting to this particular focus and these capital flows?

A Multidisciplinary Research Project

15The BRI has acted as a major catalyst for the academic literature on China’s international role, which is primarily dominated by political scientists and those specializing in geopolitics and international relations, and by numerous analyses of the BRI taken as a whole (Cai 2017; Devonshire Ellis 2015; Rolland 2017; Djankov & Miner 2016; Hoering 2018; Lasserre, Mottet & Courmont 2020). This literature covers a broad range of topics, including the geopolitical strategies of the Chinese government (Summers 2017; Wang 2016), the official doctrine and rhetoric (Ferdinand 2019; Lim T. W. 2018), the aims and tools of power of Chinese diplomacy (Callaghan & Hubbard 2016), risk management and international security (Arduino & Gong 2018), China’s efforts to impose its own social and political norms (Ekman 2019), and the legitimation of the BRI through historical references to the Silk Road (Frankopan 2018). The common thread between these studies is their view of the BRI as a hegemonic policy primarily intended to rival US influence in Asia (Leverett & Wu 2017; Ferdinand 2016; Rolland 2017). They analyze and interpret China’s presence in Asia (Flint & Zhu 2019; Godehart & Postel-Vinay 2020) as a way of promoting and building a Sino-centric order in Asia that will in turn “make China a normative power that sets the rules of the game for global governance” (Callaghan & Hubbard 2016; Saint-Mézard 2022). Taken together, they see the various components of the BRI as forming an alternative “model” to that of the Washington Consensus, which foregrounded the liberal norms of privatization and openness to international trade based on seeking out comparative advantage.

  • 7 On the contribution made by Singapore and other ASEAN countries to the AIIB, see the article by Els (...)

16The financing of the BRI, a subject more often tackled by economists, is analyzed in relation to the unprecedented scale of investment involved. Sometimes likened to a Chinese Marshall Plan (Su & Leggeri 2020), the BRI is as much a source of hope as of disquiet and opposition. But the academic literature does a poor job of untangling the economic and geopolitical issues from one another, and is often too hasty in its analysis of the complexities of BRI financing, which is provided by Chinese state-owned banks and investment funds, in an organic relationship with SOEs and large private companies. The Export-Import Bank of China (or China Exim Bank) and the China Development Bank (CDB) are most often involved, but the Agriculture Bank of China (ABC), and, since 2015, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (Chin 2016)7 also play a role. In terms of investment, understanding and characterizing the links between the BRI (which relies massively on loans from China’s state-owned banks) and ODI is not a straightforward matter (Yu, Quian & Liu 2019). The analyses also rarely address the specific features of Chinese official development aid, whether in terms of its definition, scope, aims, or sectors of intervention and actors (Sears 2018). One reason for this gap in the literature is the complexity of the Chinese financing model, which combines development aid instruments with investment instruments, joining up flows of different kinds between heterogeneous Chinese economic and political actors (Bertuzzi et al. 2019). It was not until the late 2010s that a political economics of investment emerged, notably of Chinese direct investment in Southeast Asia. This research, either focused on specific countries (on Myanmar, see Mark & Zhang 2017 and Mark, Overland & Vakulchuk 2020; on the Philippines, see Camba et al. 2021a; and on Malaysia see Lim G. 2015, 2019, Lafaye de Micheaux 2019a, and Camba et al. 2021b) or taking a regional view (Lafaye de Micheaux 2019b, 2019c; Lim G. 2019; Chiang & Lafaye de Micheaux 2022; Suryadinata 2022), highlighted problems with measurement and emphasized the continuity in flows, which clearly preceded the launch of the BRI. The other persistent problem with studies of Chinese financing is their failure to consider local public actors (at the provincial or even district level, particularly in border regions), and their lack of interest in local field studies. Looking at this topic solely from the perspective of central policies and institutional actors, and intergovernmental relations, makes it hard to appreciate the pragmatic nature of Chinese investment and its adaptability to political vagaries in both China (Séhier 2019) and host countries, as demonstrated by the examples of the Kunming-Vientiane-Bangkok high-speed railway line (Taillard 2019), and Chinese investment in Malaysia (Delfolie, Fau & Lafaye de Micheaux 2016).

17This issue of Moussons examines the respective roles played in the international projection of Chinese power by financing methods, target sectors, political operators, and central and local financial actors, in particular state-owned banks (both policy and commercial) and SOEs. It also aims to assess the respective share of the main financial tools—development aid, direct investment, and commercial operations—that are mobilized for the purposes of power projection, within a combined structure exemplified by the BRI. Since Chinese aid and financing involve a wide variety of economic and financial actors, the analysis needs to present the breakdown of flows for each different funding source. It should also identify the relative involvement, in arrangements that evolve over time, of public agencies, banks, and nationwide companies, and of the three Chinese provinces with the strongest ties to Southeast Asia (Yunnan, Guangxi and Hainan), or more specifically the involvement of actors in the margins of these provinces.

18The articles in this issue do not approach the topic through the lens of a homogeneous, sweeping globalization on a planetary scale, but in terms of its regionalization in Southeast Asia. They therefore largely take a comparative approach, as the temporalities and nature of Chinese projection vary across the different countries and societies within Southeast Asia. Reflecting on these temporalities also raises the question of whether the BRI represents a fresh approach compared to previous Chinese projects and investment, or simply a continuation of the same Chinese strategy. It is also important to understand how Chinese flows dovetail or clash with, or reinforce the national policies of host countries, based on an analysis of the interplay between their political and economic elites. This approach thus leads on to discussion of the idea of Chinese exceptionalism and Sino-centric Asian globalization.

19This issue is based on a multidisciplinary collective study bringing together economists, geographers, sociologists, and political scientists specializing in China and the countries of Southeast Asia. Their work draws on the experience of previous collective projects exploring the regionalization of globalization in East Asia (Pelletier & Taillard 2004; Fau, Khonthapane & Taillard 2015, Taillard 2009). The project also sits within the broader CNRS ASEAN-China-Norms international research network (2019-2023), which brings together researchers exploring the vectors for a new circulation of norms between China and Southeast Asia (Lafaye de Micheaux 2019c). These papers are the product of collaborative research in the form of workshops in which participants shared their further reading and jointly developed research material and document analysis, and thematic approaches. They are also based on the finalization and critical analysis of two data corpora: the AidData database (Custer et al. 2018; Malik et al. 2021) compiled on global Chinese public aid by a research team at William & Mary, and a second corpus of data on Chinese ODI in Southeast Asia, by sector of activity and location. These data analyses were developed by qualitative case studies, conducted at different scales, which provide a detailed picture of the evolution of Chinese projection and its reception in each of the partner countries.

Measuring and Analyzing the Diversity of Relations between China and Southeast Asia and the Actors Involved

Defining and Measuring Chinese Projection in Southeast Asia

20The first three articles in the issue (Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux; Manuelle Franck & Nathalie Fau; Christian Taillard) share the common objective of methodological clarification. To study Chinese projection in Southeast Asia, it is necessary to define the concepts and tools used by China, and the resources and databases available to assess its true scale. Basing analyses on hard data with clearly identified limitations and characteristics provides a way to look beyond the rhetoric about China’s shadowy actions, the grand announcements full of big promises, and the fears of a “threat from China” and the grand narrative around the “New Silk Road.”

21Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux’s study focuses on Chinese development assistance in Southeast Asia, a phenomenon that is rapidly growing but is still little understood despite being the subject of both political and academic debate, as well as intense interest with regard to Africa (Brautigam 2009, 2013). She analyzes the definition of development assistance used by the PRC, which differs in many respects from the one proposed by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and ultimately adopts China’s broader definition of aid. This lexical difference presents a challenge for measuring Chinese aid, making it necessary not only to consider the specificities of the Chinese model and its temporalities, but also to unpick the web of institutions and actors involved. It is only after this work of clarification has been done that the scale of Chinese aid in Southeast Asia can be evaluated, and comparisons can be produced: comparisons with the role of other OECD countries in the Southeast Asian region, and with the amount of Chinese aid in Africa and South-East Asia, and finally a comparative breakdown of the aid received by the various countries in Southeast Asia. These various comparisons greatly put into perspective the ability of Chinese aid policy to destabilize the assistance architecture established by the DAC, or to challenge the relatively long-standing balance of power in international cooperation in the region.

22Manuelle Franck and Nathalie Fau assess China’s strategy and rise to power in Southeast Asia based on a detailed analysis of the AidData database (Malik et al. 2021), which documents China’s international financial projection using data on official finance (in the broad sense) and development assistance. In addition to its methodological contribution—which consists of analyzing the value and limitations of this database—this article uses the processed data to map the geographic distribution of Chinese projects: their temporalities, types of financing (loans, trade credits, grants, and others), Chinese financing actors (development or commercial banks, companies, and ministries) and the economic sectors concerned. This mapping reveals the spatial configurations of Chinese aid in Southeast Asia, which are strongly associated with the proximity of the border with China and the location of continental transport corridors, and provides a basis for a typology of Southeast Asian countries, and an analysis of the spatial distribution of projects within each country. The article also shows how China has to deal with local constraints, and adapt to regional geopolitical and national political changes.

23Christian Taillard’s article is also based on the AidData database, but with a focus on the specific national context of Laos. He examines the spatial distribution and nature of Chinese projects, and analyzes their complex financial arrangements based on two examples: the hydroelectric dams and high-voltage power cable network built in partnership with Électricité du Laos (EDL), and the Laotian section of the Kunming-Vientiane-Bangkok high-speed railway line, which is the biggest Chinese-financed project in the country. These detailed analyses of financing arrangements show how Chinese financing strategies have evolved and adapted, often pragmatically. They also reveal the debt trap risk inherently linked to the complexity of Chinese financing. Taillard also takes the original approach of analyzing the connections between AidData projects and projects funded by ODI or private actors, in order to understand Chinese financial projection as a whole.

Differentiating Southeast Asian Countries Based on their Relations with China

24The countries of Southeast Asia do not all interact with China in a similar way, in either economic or political terms, and it is possible to develop a typology based on the intensity and nature of the Chinese presence in each state. It should be noted, however, that although there are constants, relations between China and Southeast Asia are highly dependent on domestic political events within each country, and both diplomatic and economic U-turns are very common, with contracts for major Chinese projects regularly challenged following changes of government (Fau & Franck 2019; Delfolie et al. 2021). In this sense, the BRI is indeed an “initiative,” i.e., a proposed partnership that is discussed and negotiated with countries on the receiving end of investment (Kratz & Pavlicevic 2018). The dominant factors influencing relations between China and the ASEAN countries are their integration into the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), their position on conflict in the South China Sea, and their level of economic development. The articles in this issue by Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux, and by Manuelle Franck and Nathalie Fau, differentiate between the countries of Southeast Asia by showing that the distribution of Chinese aid and projects reflects not only Chinese strategies, but also those of the host countries, based on their geographic and political proximity to China and their negotiating skills. In many cases, such projects have to comply with competitive bidding rules, and fit in with national priorities. The articles by Christian Taillard, Anaïg Williamson, François-Xavier Bonnet, Daniel Peterson, and Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux and Murielle Périsse refine these analyses at the national scale. This issue thus identifies four very different types of relationship between China and the countries of Southeast Asia.

25China has a particularly strong influence and presence in Laos (Christian Taillard) and Cambodia (Anaïg Williamson). In both countries, Chinese financing is mainly steered toward the energy sector (hydroelectricity and coal) and infrastructure (transport and industrial zones). In Cambodia, stronger bilateral cooperation with China serves both economic and domestic political objectives: the major and growing influence of Chinese aid and ODI on economic development gives legitimacy to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime, while serving as a shield against criticism from Western countries and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) regarding corruption and disregard for human rights and press freedom. These issues mean Cambodia has a lack of options among traditional donor countries. Chinese financing is, unlike Western aid, often presented as coming without any conditions on use or any attempt to interfere in the domestic politics of the recipient countries. Williamson shows, however, that under an implicit contract the price of this aid is support for Chinese policy—for example with regard to the conflicts in the South China Sea or with Taiwan—and economic preference: the centralization of political and financial power in Hun Sen’s hands means he is able to ensure preferential access for Chinese companies to all of Cambodia’s resources. Cambodia is a prime example of a country in which aid and investment policies support one another. In his article on Laos, Christian Taillard explores both the economic and political risks of the country becoming over-indebted to China: it has been forced to hand over the management of its high-voltage power lines, resulting in a loss of control over the export of electricity to neighboring countries, has had to grant China land and mining concessions, and is increasingly dependent on China’s international policy.

26Relations between the Philippines and China are dominated by tensions in the South China Sea. They are extremely unstable and dependent on government priorities: the nationalist priority—and thus condemnation of China’s actions in the South China Sea—encourages breaking off relations, while the economic priority favors rapprochement. Since his election in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared himself strongly in favor of developing economic ties with China, and has thus deliberately overlooked the 2016 ruling against China by a tribunal in The Hague, even though it was in favor of the Philippines. This U-turn in Filipino policy brought an end to a four-year period of high tensions (May 2012–July 2016) and to Chinese economic sanctions. In his article, François-Xavier Bonnet shows that these unstable bilateral relations have led to the implementation of specific strategies by Chinese investors in the Filipino mining sector: Chinese mining companies are opting either for the clandestine small-scale (or “artisanal”) mining sector, notably for gold, which involves negotiating directly with local authorities, or the large-scale commercial sector, notably for nickel, which involves developing partnerships with local and national family dynasties, who are key players in the development of mining in the country. The absence of an intergovernmental relationship means that Chinese private actors are by no means in a strong position to negotiate contracts.

  • 8 AUKUS stands for Australia, United Kingdom and United States. This trilateral military cooperation (...)

27Indonesia, which is geographically more distant from China, has long sought to develop economic relations with China while maintaining its decision-making autonomy. This ambivalent stance is reflected in what political scientists call a “hedging” strategy. This term originated in the world of finance, but in international relations refers to a strategy whereby a country seeks to minimize risk by simultaneously pursuing several options designed to neutralize opposing trends against a backdrop of uncertainty. Such countries thus refuse to align themselves with China, but also avoid provoking it by allying themselves exclusively with a rival power. Economic relations with China are also part of a diplomatic tradition of finding a balance between the great powers, and in particular of maintaining close ties with the US. They are also subject to political U-turns due to recurrent anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, and the emergence of a maritime dispute between the two countries over the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. In his article, however, Daniel Peterson shows that this Indonesian strategy could be challenged by the new scale of Chinese investment, and by what he describes as China’s “elite capture” model as part of economic relations with Chinese companies. He also argues that the biggest investment projects—focusing here on the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail, the Morowali Industrial Park, and the hydroelectric power plant in North Kalimantan—are all “Trojan horses” that are not being pursued by China for the purposes of their—sometimes questionable—economic profit, but rather to influence Indonesian policy in its favor. But this bilateral rapprochement, especially evident since 2014 under the presidency of Joko Widodo, has not been clearly reflected in military and strategic terms, with the Indonesian army turning more to the US, Western powers, and the members of AUKUS8 than to China when it comes to armaments, cooperation, and military exercises.

28Singapore is a model for China in more ways than one. In economic terms, the development strategy pursued in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping and his government was heavily influenced by that of Singapore: a model based on attracting foreign investment, in which the state still maintained a strong presence by intervening directly in economic activity. Singapore’s development strategy, which combines economic liberalism with the hegemony of an authoritarian single party, is a model of modernity compatible with the Chinese system. Singapore is a model and a favored partner for urban development. In the early 1990s, the city-state began to invest in urban development projects in China (such as Suzhou Industrial Park), thus enabling “a transfer of Singaporean knowledge in economic management and public administration,” as Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux and Murielle Périsse argue in their article. Based on an analysis of Chinese investment in Singapore, the two authors also show how relations between the two countries are evolving: once a model, Singapore has become a favored partner and a staging post or gateway for Chinese investors in establishing new economic and digital networks in Southeast Asia. Singapore receives the lion’s share of Chinese ODI, but also stands out from the other Southeast Asian countries due to the concentration of this investment in new information and communication technologies. Based on the example of the Chinese companies Alibaba and Huawei, this article shows the role played by the digital economy in establishing new digital connectivity in Southeast Asia. This benefits Singapore by strengthening its central role in the region, but also helps assert Chinese power in the digital sector.

29These different relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia thus manifest themselves in unequal dependence, in distinct temporalities—the temporal continuity of relations between China and Laos, Cambodia, and Singapore contrasts with the recent relations between China and Indonesia and the Philippines, in which U-turns are not uncommon—but also in the distinct priorities of Chinese investors in each country: energy and transport in Cambodia and Laos, mining in the Philippines, mining and transport and Indonesia, and new information and communication technologies in Singapore.

Analyzing the Role of the Different Actors Involved

30To understand relations between China and Southeast Asia, it is important to analyze the roles of the various stakeholders and actors involved, and not limit studies of project negotiation to the analysis of bilateral intergovernmental relations. François-Xavier Bonnet illustrates this point by showing that it is impossible for Chinese companies to invest in the Philippines without considering the local level and focusing on business-to-business relationships. The various articles in this issue also reveal the diverse array of institutional actors and Chinese banks involved in negotiations. It is also true that China’s projection in Southeast Asia does not rely solely on the initiative of the central government in Beijing. The central government’s “Good Neighbor” policy is also pursued through a strategy of opening up the border areas (Colin 2011), and the Chinese provinces bordering Southeast Asian countries thus play a very specific role in these relations. While early relations between Singapore and China were based on flagship projects (such as the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city) managed at the intergovernmental level, Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux and Muriel Périsse reveal the new role played by provincial actors (Guizhou, Guangxi, Ningxia and Gansu, and the metropolitan area of Chongqing) in improving connectivity between southern China and Southeast Asia. Similarly, Manuelle Franck and Nathalie Fau highlight the significant number of provincial investors (mainly from the Chinese border provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi) in the projects listed in the AidData database.

31Chinese foreign policies are not monolithic and solely dependent on the grand strategy of the central state, but are the product of interactions between many different actors and interests. In their article, Hui-Yun Cher, Xavier Delannay, and Aymeric Mariette use the concept of “fragmented authoritarianism” to analyze the important role played in Chinese foreign affairs by provincial actors, who enjoy “relative autonomy” and have considerable leeway as representatives of the central government. To demonstrate the need to understand China’s external projection from a local as well as national perspective, they focus their analysis on the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which has both land and sea borders with Southeast Asia. Due to its location, Guangxi is a pivotal interface for relations between China’s western provinces and the countries of Southeast Asia. Based on a study of Guanxi’s investment in the mining sector in Southeast Asia, the authors show that this new centrality is based on the key role played by Guangxi’s authorities, ministries, and agency networks, which are now regarded as “central policy agents,” i.e., as intermediaries between local and central planning.

Chinese Projection in Southeast Asia: The Key Questions

32To conclude our introduction to this collaborative thematic issue, we will leave open a number of questions that it is likely to raise in the reader’s mind. For after examining the analyses and detailed maps and tables that have been produced, the reader may well wonder whether the diversity of relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia might not ultimately highlight the fact that Chinese companies, along with the government and local actors, are, even within a strengthened and recentralized political framework, and as part of a relatively consistent quest for greater regional influence over foreign policy, involved in a broad and very diverse set of projects in the region (with distinct drivers). Meanwhile, arguments to support the existence of a new Chinese master plan for the region, in the sense of a new plan for ASEAN, as might have been imagined on the basis of the recently adopted RCEP, are somewhat undermined by our measurement and mapping work. Another common thread can be drawn from this fragmented landscape of projects and actors and their densely woven connections: is there a specificity to Chinese aid and investment? Do the dynamics of economic and technological catch-up that are clearly involved, initiated by this latecomer to investment and aid in the region, also mean that it is imitating a coherent model from the US, Europe, or Japan? It would seem not, insofar as the methods of political and financial negotiation, the legal arrangements, the quid pro quos—notably in kind—and finally the actors, largely appear to be original, although they often operate under the same constraints.

33The articles in this issue also highlight the pragmatic nature of Chinese policy on the ground, in particular with regard to the BRI, which in practice has to continually adapt to expectations, short-term interests, and the domestic limitations of national and local policies in Southeast Asia. It is often the case, particularly in states less dependent on their Chinese partner than Cambodia and Laos, that government responses help to modify Chinese initiatives. And over time, like any other investments, many Chinese projects fail, sometimes in spectacular fashion (as with the Melaka Gateway development). This necessarily further adds to a more nuanced picture of Chinese projection, rather than presenting the latter as omnipotent. While they are sometimes recycled, revamped, and combined through new partners and new investors (as with Suzhou, Kunming-Bangkok high-speed rail, and Sihanoukville), the future of some of these investments is not always certain. Between the fear of abandonment, and rancor or bitterness following what turns out to be a financial fiasco leaving vast ghost towns in its wake (as with Forest City in Malaysia), local and even national perception of the benefits to be reaped from China can quickly turn sour when these sometimes mammoth projects stall or remain unfinished.

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Note de fin

1 The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. As of 2023, it includes all of the countries in the region—Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and the Philippines—with the roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership adopted in May 2023.

2 “Nanyang,” which literally translates as “Southern Seas,” is the Chinese term for the region immediately south of China, historically consisting of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Malaysia and Borneo, Siam, the three countries of former French Indochina, Burma, and sometimes even Ceylon and India.

3 This stands for “Aide au développement et investissements directs chinois vus d’Asie du Sud-Est. Réception, acteurs et impacts de la projection chinoise, 2000–2020” [Chinese Development Aid and Direct Investment from the Perspective of Southeast Asia: Reception, Actors, and the Impact of Chinese Projection, 2000–2020.]

4 The RCEP was first drafted in 2012, and initiated by ASEAN (Indonesia) in response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (US), which was seen in Asia as threatening to marginalize ASEAN.

5 MOFCOM, “Investment Cooperation Between China and BRI Participating Countries, January-August, 2020,” September 30, 2020.

6 MOFCOM, “China’s Investment Cooperation with BRI Participating Countries from January to March of 2022,” April 28, 2022. This report mentions Singapore (the number one destination), Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, alongside Pakistan, the UAE, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.

7 On the contribution made by Singapore and other ASEAN countries to the AIIB, see the article by Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux and Muriel Périsse in this issue.

8 AUKUS stands for Australia, United Kingdom and United States. This trilateral military cooperation agreement was signed on September 15, 2021, and is intended to strengthen the defense and security interests of the three allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. The growth in global Chinese ODI since 1999 (China and Hong Kong)
Crédits Source: UNCTAD data, 2022
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k
Titre Fig. 2. Breakdown of Chinese ODI between 2008 and 2019 (in US$ billion)
Crédits Source: MOFCOM (2021)
Fichier image/jpeg, 85k
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Nathalie Fau et Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux, « The Scale of the Dragon’s Shadow: Chinese Aid and Investment in Southeast Asia (2000–2022) »Moussons [En ligne], 41 | 2023, mis en ligne le 28 février 2024, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Fau

Nathalie Fau is an associate professor of geography at the Université Paris Cité, and a researcher at the Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains, asiatiques (CESSMA, UMR 245, IRD-UPC-INALCO). She lived in Malaysia for five years, spending three years in Kuala Lumpur, where she was based at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) as part of a French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) delegation to the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC). She specializes in maritime Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore), with a particular focus on regional integration in Southeast Asia, and on relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia.

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Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux

Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux is an associate professor of economics at the Université de Rennes, and a researcher at the Centre d’Asie du Sud-Est (CASE, UMR 8170 CNRS, EHESS, INALCO). Her research focuses on the Malaysian economy, the different types of capitalism in Southeast Asia, and the regional impact of China’s rise to power. Since 2019, she has been the coordinator of the ASEAN-China-Norms CNRS international research network.

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