Studies: China’s Regional Moves Create Concerns for Neighbors

John Bechtel
191212-SEA-SA-china-surveys-620.jpg Workers in Beijing dismantle the Belt and Road Forum logo next to the “Golden Bridge of Silk Road” structure as leaders attend a round table summit chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, April 27, 2019.

As China moves to strengthen its economic and military footprints in South and Southeast Asia, some of its neighbors are expressing concern about the regional superpower, according to two U.S. studies released this month.

Pew Research reported that many residents surveyed in Indonesia and the Philippines have expressed disappointment about China, while AidData, a think-tank, reported that Beijing’s efforts in Bangladesh are geared toward keeping Russia and India in check.

“Even while China’s rise is largely perceived as positive in emerging economies, there are pockets of discontent,” Pew said in its study, “China’s Economic Growth Mostly Welcomed in Emerging Markets, but Neighbors Wary of Its Influence.”

“[I]n the nations that welcome China’s economic growth, few feel similarly about its growing military might. Rather, most tend to view China’s growing military as something bad for their own countries.”

Among the notable findings in its survey – Pew pointed that Filipinos and Indonesians have about the same confidence in North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as they do in Chinese President Xi Jinping. It asked more than 2,200 respondents in the two countries if they had confidence in Xi and Kim to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

In the Philippines, 58 percent of the respondents had a positive view of Xi compared to 56 percent for Kim, while Indonesians were slightly more positive about Kim – 33 percent to 32 percent. Both world leaders were less popular than Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who recorded positive views of 73 percent in the Philippines and 40 percent in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all respondents in both countries – 49 percent in the Philippines and 48 percent in Indonesia – see Chinese investment as bad for their countries.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said his country was willing to cooperate with China but was not tied to Beijing to strengthen the economy.

“Our country has the capacity to negotiate on the issue of investment,” he told BenarNews, adding, “we are not a country that can be dictated to, because we have many sources of funding that are competitive.”

Teuku said Indonesia had no restrictions on doing business with other countries.

“We don’t favor one country over another. If our people accept investment from a country, it’s good and other countries should follow suit,” he said.

Pew’s report also pointed out that China’s neighbors generally took a more negative stance toward its military.

In the Philippines, which has challenged the Chinese Navy’s incursion into South China Sea territory claimed by Manila, 71 percent of respondents took a negative view of Beijing’s military. In Indonesia, on the other hand, 44 percent had negative views compared to only 28 percent positive.

China and Bangladesh

AidData, in its report “Silk Road Diplomacy: Deconstructing Beijing’s Toolkit to Influence South and Central Asia,” said Chinese officials were mindful of the need to expand diplomacy to manage negative reactions to its economic and military strength.

“Chinese leaders are keen to avoid instability in neighboring countries that could spill over into unrest at home. Moreover, Beijing wants to project strength in order to check the influence of its regional rivals, India and Russia,” the report said in its introduction.

AidData is a research lab at William & Mary University’s Global Research Institute.

China has stepped in to support development in Bangladesh to the tune of U.S. $10.2 billion for infrastructure projects in and around Dhaka as of 2017, according to AidData.

“Chinese leaders recognize the benefits of cultivating strong ties with Bangladesh to access deep-water ports in the Bay of Bengal, a cheap workforce for China’s manufacturing operations and an attractive export market for its consumer electronics sector,” AidData reported.

Chinese companies have relocated manufacturing operations to Bangladesh over the last two decades to combat rising labor costs at home, the report pointed out.

“Maintaining good relations with Bangladeshi leaders is also critical for China to protect its investments in Bangladesh and along the Maritime Silk Road,” AidData said, referring to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project.

The Maritime Silk Road is part of China’s plan to boost its global trading links by developing overland and maritime routes connecting the world’s most populous nation to markets in Europe.

Despite Beijing’s efforts, former Bangladesh Ambassador to Beijing Munshi Faiz Ahmad said he had seen anti-Chinese sentiment grow among Bangladeshis.

“The common people have become anti-Chinese because of the Rohingya crisis and Beijing’s support for Myanmar. The common people’s perception is if China has been a friend, why do they give unflinching support to Myanmar on the Rohingya issue at the international level?” Ahmad told BenarNews.

AidData’s report points out that Bangladeshi elite also are disappointed by China’s alignment with Myanmar.

“[T]his disappointment is unlikely to dissuade them from partnering with Beijing to advance the country’s economic and geopolitical interests, even as it may negatively influence perceptions of Beijing among the average Bangladeshi,” the report said.

Ahmad noted that China had an ulterior motive for working to improve relations with its regional neighbors, pointing to efforts to influence India.

“Actually, China wants to bring India closer as the One Belt, One Road project would not succeed without India’s support. China will not benefit maintaining confrontational relations with India,” Ahmad said.

Pew’s interviews

The Pew Research Center, which is not associated with the U.S. government, describes itself as “a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions.”

The Indonesian results were based on face-to-face interviews with 1,212 people between June 24 and Aug. 8. Pew said the results had a margin of error rate of 4.3 percentage points.

The Philippine results were based on face-to-face interviews with 1,035 people between May 25 and June 22, with a margin of error rate of 4.3 percentage points.

Tia Asmara in Jakarta and Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.


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