Fulbright University Vietnam recently held an online discussion titled “Beijing’s Expanding Shadow: Choices for Vietnam,” elaborating on the attitudes of Southeast Asian countries towards the rise of China.

The discussion focused on Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge – the latest book by Mr. Murray Hiebert, senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Hiebert was joined by two other panelists, Mr. Pham Quang Vinh, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, and Mr. Le Hong Hiep, Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Program and the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The panelists focused on the economic and political influence of Beijing on Southeast Asia, and the 10 ASEAN countries’ responses to China’s “carrot and stick” policy, and suggested that countries in the region moderate their policies so they can both maintain their national interests and protect their sovereignty in the face of China’s rise.

From the book cover of “Under Beijing’s Shadow: Southeast Asia’s China Challenge” by Murray Hiebert

To summarize his book, Hiebert said that countries in the region found China’s rise to be both a challenge and an opportunity: the challenge is to maintain their sovereignty, and the opportunity is to benefit from China’s economic rise.

As a reporter working in Southeast Asia for more than 40 years, Hiebert acknowledges that the region “holds a special place in Chinese foreign policy owing to geographical, historical, and economic ties, as well as the migration of millions of ethnic Chinese to the region.”

Dr. Le Hong Hiep praised Hiebert’s 600-page book for providing a detailed, in-depth overview encompassing all 10 members of ASEAN currently dealing with China’s growing influence, setting it apart from other published works on ASEAN-China relations who don’t cover all countries in the region.

The book analyzes Southeast Asian countries’ reaction to China’s rise and these reactions vary but can be summarized as ‘a cocktail of hope and anxiety,’ as Murray writes, but the level of hope and anxiety in each country varies as each country views and reacts to China’s expanding shadow in different ways,” he said.

From hidden strength to contemporary ascendance

Former Ambassador Phạm Quang Vinh

Former ambassador Pham Quang Vinh emphasized the importance of knowing the shift in China’s foreign policy: from Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time,” today’s China is much more assertive towards Southeast Asian countries.

During the online discussion, Hiebert described and discussed the economic, political and military aspects of China’s presence in the region. Generally, an increased economic cooperation on the part of ASEAN countries can provide multiple benefits, in terms of trade, tourism, market access and infrastructure investments, as highlighted by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “Since the 90s or so, there has been a surge of Chinese immigrants into northern Myanmar and northern Laos where they grow rubber, pumpkins, watermelon and send it back to China,” he noted.

According to Hiebert, China also seeks to enhance its influence through soft power. Notably, China offers scholarships for regional students, has opened 30 Confucian institutes in Southeast Asia, and frequently invites regional high-ranking officials, academics, journalists and religious leaders to visit China. China has also ramped up its military interests through arms sales and joint military exercises with countries in the region.

As Hiebert describes in his book, China has brought economic benefits but also challenges and imminent risks to ASEAN countries. Increased investments for infrastructure projects in less developed countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar has left these countries mired in debt as they suffer from environmental consequences, substandard projects, corruption, bribery and political dependence.

China’s military aggression is best demonstrated by the disputes still rocking the South China Sea. Since 2013, China has built 7 islands, among which 4 are militarized. In recent years, the Chinese Coast Guard as well as maritime militia vessels continue to harass fishermen and oil and gas facilities operated by regional powers, according to Hiebert.

Murray Hiebert

Another cause for concern, as outlined by Hiebert, is the construction, by China, of 11 dams in the upper reaches of the Mekong River, a major cause of the severe droughts that have affected the Lower Mekong in recent years, in particular in 2019 and 2018.

An NGO that takes satellite photos of various development projects found that behind just two dams, No. 7 and No.11, China has been holding back enough water this year to fill the whole Chesapeake Bay in Washington,” he said.

Hiebert and other panelists agreed that the Mekong issue is as serious and deserving of attention as the South China Sea disputes. The Mekong Delta holds incredible significance as “Vietnam’s rice bowl”, and has suffered in recent years from extreme droughts that cause severe damage to farming activities. Meanwhile, water and silt remain blocked upstream, drastically altering the water and ground levels of the Lower Mekong to the point of threatening an inflow from the South China Sea and the subsequent salination of farmlands.

All panelists agreed that Southeast Asian countries should mobilize international support, including from China, to deal with the Mekong River issue that pose a serious risk to the environment and sustainability of water resources.

ASEAN countries’ responses

According to Dr. Hiep, Hiebert believes Southeast Asian states exist along a spectrum in regards to their reactions to China’s growing shadow. But 3 groups can be broadly defined. The first group is ‘bandwagoners’, and includes Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar. For them, economic development is the top priority. The second group, ‘hard balancers’, composed of Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia, and is generally more wary of China’s influence. The remaining countries’ stances combine some aspects of both, or are in-between. The Philippines is described as ambivalent, Thailand as a ‘partial hedger’, and Malaysia as a ‘soft balancer’.

How can we explain such varied reactions to China’s rise? I think their perception of China is shaped by their own perception of the opportunities offered and risks posed by China,” he claimed.

Dr. Lê Hồng Hiệp (right)

In the Vietnam chapter, Hiebert writes that Vietnam is adopting a hard balancing strategy against China’s rise, mostly by enhancing its military capabilities to deal with the increasing pressure put by China in the South China Sea issue, which is regarded as the biggest threat to Vietnam’s national security and territorial integrity.

China is currently Vietnam’s largest trade partner, and also the largest source of Vietnam’s imports. The two countries’ bilateral trade reached $116.9 billion US dollars last year. China ranks 4th in the list of foreign investors in Vietnam, when including Hong Kong, with about $39 billion US dollars.

In Dr. Hiep’s opinion, Vietnam has good reasons to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship with China; in fact, Vietnam’ s geographical proximity and China’s importance to Vietnam in terms of economy, trade and security, leave few other options.

I think Vietnam will still continue to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship with China. To this end, Vietnam as well as China will try to isolate the South China Sea dispute from the overall relationship between the two countries,” he commented.

However, Hiep further noted that Vietnam should not fold under China’s bullying behavior in the South China Sea, which constitutes a threat to Vietnam’s sovereignty and its energy and food security. Vietnam will need to continue building economic and military capabilities to attract friends and allies to its side, and diversify bilateral relations with other major powers.

Former ambassador Vinh commented that smaller countries like Vietnam and other ASEAN countries have nowadays developed much more sublte and sophisticated ways to interact with major powers like China; it is not just as simple as a binary choice between China or the United States.

I do agree that we need to diversify our relations and political, economic and security interests. We need to engage all the players in this region bilaterally and multilaterally, not only the U.S. and China, but Australia, Japan, Korea, India, and many others, under the mechanisms of ASEAN. Diversification, multilateralization, self reliance… are essential policies. ASEAN countries also need to be honest to one another,” he noted.

Thuy Hang

Nowadays, it is not difficult to observe the flow of thoughts in our “flat world”.   Let’s examine a recommended practice called “Finding oneself”, which is often translated into Vietnamese as khám phá bản thân.

Let’s also try a Google search with that phrase: it takes only 0.58 second to yield 665,000 results. The search results show that this considered much-needed tendency has also become quite popular in Vietnam.  Finding yourself, loving yourself, and embracing yourself as it is – this advice has seemingly turned into the appropriate guidelines for contemporary life.

However, what if we finally figure out ourselves to be contradictory and full of patterned behaviors?  Based on the philosophical foundation of East Asia, Michael Puett – Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University, has come up with a very different but helpful solution for our contemporary life in a book co-authored with Christine Gross-Loh, titled The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

Ranked third among the most popular courses at Harvard University (only after the “Principles of Economics” and “Introduction to Computer Science”), Professor Puett’s “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” course attracts more than 700 students at a time, and dramatically helps to change the lives of many of them in a positive away.   Following the same path, his book The Path listed as a “best-seller” book by the New York Times has been bought by 25 countries, including China where it was published in 2016.

For Professor Puett, one of the lessons drawn from Chinese philosophers is, “Don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation.  Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself.  This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.” (The Path).

Puett’s book critically re-examines the question of “finding oneself” in the light of classical Chinese philosophy.  Since the so-called self we’ve found at a certain time is in fact only a temporary entity situated in specific contexts, it will never be the true self we’re looking for.  That true self (or our truth), if any, should be understood differently: it never stays fixed, intact, or frozen, but is forever transformable, adaptable and improvable through various challenging circumstances of live, depending on whether if we’re open to changes or not.

With all this investment in our self-definition, we risk building our future on a very narrow sense of who we are – what we see as our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. Many Chinese thinkers might say that in doing this, we are looking at such a small part of who we are potentially.

We’re taking a limited number of our emotional dispositions during a certain time and place and allowing those to define us forever. By thinking of human nature as monolithic, we instantly limit our potential. (The Path)

Holding fast to what we believe as our true self or “our truth”, we will not only restrain our potential, but also lose the flexibility of self-adaptation and self-improvement in life’s difficult times.

[W]e should always expect to be surprised and learn to work with whatever befalls us. If we can continue this work, even when tragedies come our way, we can begin to accept the world as unpredictable and impossible to determine perfectly (…)  [I]f our world is indeed constantly fragmented and unpredictable, then it is something we can constantly work on bettering. We can go into each situation resolved to be the best human being we can be, not because of what we’ll get out of it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless of the outcome. We can cultivate our better sides and face this unpredictable world, transforming it as we go. (The Path)

However, self-cultivation and self-transformation should be practiced not only in arduous times, but also in every moment of our daily life where every even small act will gradually help to perfect our personality.

We tend to believe that to change the world, we have to think big. Confucius wouldn’t dispute this, but he would likely also say. Don’t ignore the small. Don’t forget the “pleases” and “thank yous.” Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behavior, and they don’t alter their behavior unless they start with the small. (The Path)

Of course, The Path is only one way of reading classical Chinese philosophy in contemporary contexts, showing how relevant those philosophical texts written thousands of years ago are to our modern life.  If we believe that the whole journey of our life is a long process of learning to become human, Puett’s book The Path is an excellent work pointing out how we can realize that process.

During his visit to and work with the Fulbright University Vietnam in January 2019, Prof. Puett will offer a talk titled “Ethical Philosophy from a Global Perspective”.

In this talk, he will show us how classical philosophical thoughts from East Asia should be read, understood, and put into practice to help contemporary people transform themselves, and create a harmonious development among their community, society, and universe.

This will be a great chance for us to learn more about The Path and ethical philosophy as an important branch of knowledge with global insights in general and as a crucial core course in the liberal arts tradition in particular.

NGUYEN Nam

Audience members asked Mr. Hiebert about his perspectives regarding US-Vietnam relations, Chinese activity, and what certain decisions made by the US leadership will do to affect policy outcomes in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Murray Hiebert, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC, USA).

Questions and answers have been consolidated for the purpose of clarity

On U.S.-Vietnam Relations…

How will the cuts from the State Department affect commitments to Southeast Asia?

We do not know about the cuts yet. There is this unit that is trying to figure out cuts. They’re making many of the cuts without really consulting. They’ll finish their report and it will go to the Secretary [of State Rex Tillerson]. I will be stunned if East Asia will be hit harder than other areas around the world.

How will the events in the South China Sea end? How should the US respond to China’s actions?

I get this question a lot in Vietnam. If you had been an advisor, what would you recommend the US do? What China did, no single thing was worth going to war over. It’s really tough.

Also, there are other world issues. Some negative and some positive. North Korea, Afghanistan, and the Paris Agreement, which China and the US worked on together.

The US and China are economic partners, traders, and investors. It has to balance out its different interests and their benefits. There are really not terribly, easy answers.

On China…

What is ASEAN compelled to do in the sea tensions? How does Chinese foreign direct investment in other ASEAN countries affect their willingness to do anything at all?

ASEAN as a whole isn’t as buzzed up about the sea tensions as certain members are. It’s understandable that not everybody cares as much.

Everybody wants China’s investment, they are very reluctant to criticize because China does punish you. It’s not terribly easy to stand up to China.

How can Vietnam deal with China playing hardball?

Yes, Vietnam is the last man standing on the battlefield. They have been abandoned by the Philippines. Vietnamese feel some partnerships, but they are not very strong. So, there’s Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore on the South China Sea. They don’t say much publicly.

In fact, a Malaysian foreign minister was very critical of the South China Sea in private meeting. Then later he got a text from someone higher up saying don’t criticize China.

I think you have to look for allies where you can find them: The European Union, the United States, Japan, Australia, G-20. I know Japan is very strong in supporting Vietnam. They know it could happen in the east China sea.

On leadership…

I’m confused about where the US stands on issues here. Who will be having private influence on the foreign strategy for this administration?

Well, I mean, the US is confused, too. Sometimes, we wake up and read some tweets and we don’t know what has happened to us.

For the influence, I don’t know how long it will take for leadership to have an influence in this region. When people get nominated that would certainly help. Right now, Vietnam is treated quite well in the scheme of things. They have to fill some jobs, and some people have to be empowered. I think you have to be good with strategic ambiguity. If Vietnam stays engaged as it does now, as long as it works to solve some trade differences by November.

Daniel Kritenbrink has been nominated as the new US Ambassador to Vietnam. Thoughts?

I’ve watched what ambassadors build on in Vietnam. Every ambassador builds on a little more. Kritenbrink’s background is that he is a China guy. He was in Beijing before he joined the National Security Council of Asia. He was very curious and engaging. He learned a lot about Southeast Asia at that time. Like Ted, he is friendly, very easy to get along with. He likes to engage people and thinks people are important. I think the Vietnamese will like him. Dan is a warm person. He’ll get along well. I know he’ll get along well with the officials. He also knows a lot about China, maybe he’ll have some tips there.