Two review articles: the “Chinese presence” in Southeast Asia and Latin America

Two long reviews appeared recently on the “Chinese presence” in Latin America and Southeast Asia, respectively by R. Evan Ellis in issue 60 of JFQ (the journal of the National Defense University in the US and by Geoff Wade on the Australian National University’s Southeast Asia blog New Mandala. Both articles provice a sweeping overview of the reach of Chinese political and economic engagement, although Ellis rather misleadingly labels this “soft power.” The reviews are noteworthy because in the past, such comprehensive articles have tended to deal only with Africa.

Wade’s article is occasioned by the recent announcement that Chinese companies have begun, in addition to roads, constructing a system of railways that will link China and Singapore (see the previous post on this blog). Wade notes that Chinese investment in Cambodia has reached $80 bn, and that Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to open more branches in Cambodia, which it announced it will do in order to meet the needs of Chinese investors. For its part, Cambodia is establishing six new consulates in the PRC.

Ellis writes, for example, that, “Particularly in states such as Ecuador and Venezuela, Chinese corporations are becoming increasingly critical for the functioning of the extractive industries” (p. 87). The deals they are involved in sometimes take on the form of complicated barter transactions, such as when Venezuela agreed to use part of a Chinese loan to buy 229 thousand consumer appliances made by the Chinese firm Haier; “in another deal, the PRC loaned Venezuela $300 million to start a regional airline, but … required Venezuela to purchase the planes from a Chinese company.” Such deals are familiar from Africa.

Wade writes that Thailand is increasingly becoming China’s partner in aiding Burma and Indochina — similarly to the way that Western aid agencies like DFID now want to work with China in aiding Africa. At the same time, provincial Thai administrations are increasingly approching China direcly for financial assistance with infrastructural projects, presumably often via Chinese entrepreneurs as brokers if Cambodia and Laos are examples to go by. Wade’s most important conjecture is that the entry of  mainland Southeast Asia into China’s orbit makes ASEAN’s integration impossible and divides it instead into two blocs.

The articles, particularly Wade’s, are useful in that they paint a broad picture of the depth and diversity of Chinese involvement. The facts and figures they bombard the reader are dizzying and can’t fail to make the impression of a cosmic change in the order of the world, but the sources are often unmentioned. Although I know Geoff Wade as a meticulous researcher, one still wonders if all of the information is reliable, for example when he writes that “informed sources in Myanmar speak of the areas north of Mandalay as now being controlled more by China than by” Burma.

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