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Focus Asia 2018: Abstracts

Wagging the Dog: Cambodia’s Frustrating Relationship with China

Andrew Mertha, Johns Hopkins University SAIS

One of the constants of post-colonial Cambodia has been its relationship with China.  The conventional wisdom is that no country - besides perhaps the United States - has done more to shape the modern geopolitical context that sets the terms of political debate in Cambodia.  In this talk, I argue that this relationship is far less asymmetrical than many believe, and that a smaller and geographically vulnerable country like Cambodia can, in fact, leverage its weakness to its advantage, at the cost of Chinese dominance.  I draw from the case of Chinese foreign aid to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s to suggest lessons in the bilateral relationship today.

Andrew Mertha (PhD, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI) is the incoming George and Sadie Hyman Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the China Program at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Washington, D.C. (from 1 July 2018). He was a Professor at the Department of Government, Cornell University, in 2014-2018, an Associate Professor at the Department of Government, Cornell University, in 2008-2014, and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science/Program in International and Area Studies, Washington University in St. Louis, in 2001-2008. He is a Vice-President and former President of the Center for Khmer Studies (CKS).


China’s “no-strings attached”: Aiding the status quo in Cambodia

Kheang Un, Northern Illinois University

Over the past several years, China has become Cambodia’s closest ally, largest trade partner, investor and donor. The governments of China and Cambodia have repeatedly claimed that China’s assistance to, investment in, and trade with Cambodia (collectively termed China’s engagement) has “no-strings attached.” This claim appears to be neutral; however, this presentation argues that “no-strings attached” connotes mutual benefits in two ways. First, through its engagement, China has secured Cambodia’s support for its hegemonic plan over the South China Sea. Second, China’s engagement has aided the perpetuation of the ruling CPP’s domination in a number of ways. First, China’s investment and assistance has aided infrastructure building allowing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to strengthen its claim as the leader of a developmental state. Second, China’s engagement strengthens Cambodia’s security forces that serve as a foundation for the CPP’s coercive power against the opposition. Third, and more importantly, since 1992, the international community—through Official Development Assistance (ODA)—has engaged in reconstructing the Cambodian state and economy. Given Cambodia’s dependence on Western aid, Western governments were able to leverage the ruling CPP to maintain some semblance of a multi-party democracy. China’s engagement has afforded the ruling party counter-leverage to Western pressure enabling it to transform Cambodia into hegemonic electoral authoritarianism.

Kheang Un (Ph.D. Northern Illinois University) is an associate professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. In 2008-2009 he was a visiting research fellow at the University of Louisville's Center for Asian Democracy; in 2010, he was a visiting scholar at the Netherland’s Royal Institute for Southeast Asian and the Caribbean Studies at Leiden University, and in 2011-12, he was a Fulbright Scholar based at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His research interests include democracy, democratization, human rights, non-governmental organizations and political economy focusing on Cambodia and the developing world.


Expecting normative change in Southeast Asia, driven by the rise of China: A set of hypotheses exemplified and discussed with a focus on the ´New Malaysia´

Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux, Université de Rennes & Centre Asie du Sud-Est, Paris

Not only decisive for diplomatic and economic exchanges, China’s Rise is also likely to have a significant impact on the social norms and practices relating to work and to other dimension of social and political life in Southeast Asia. Economic change might not only affect the material life of the people: the region, characterized by a “democratic transition” during the 2000s, has seen more recently regression. If sustained over time, this would mark a significant normative shift from the previous period (Gomez and Ramcharan, 2014). How does the deepening integration of China’s economy into the Southeast Asia region contribute to the regional spread of new standards with regard to social norms? The Asean-China-Norms international network (2019-2023) will be decidated to the study of this change and of its channels. The collective research is dealing with the extreme diversity of Southeast Asian societies, capitalisms and modes of government: common driving hypotheses, precise topics and case studies/ fieldworks will be presented at this session.  
Among other channels of influence, the Chinese investments in South-East Asia can be considered as a vector of the regional assertion of People's Republic of China. They are bound to political agreements and promote geopolitical as well as economic strategies. My recent study of the contemporary Chinese investments in Malaysia under the Najib Rakak’s Prime Ministership (2009-2018) underlines their particular character when compared to the previous investors: very concentrated and very high amounts; located in the margins (East Coast and Borneo). They are breaching with the former logics of the traditional investors (European, US then Japanese) on both geographic and industrial characteristics. China’s investments in Malaysia could be then considered as specific in motive and way of doing. Two case studies of industrial investments, namely the development of the Kuantan Industrial Park and Port (Pahang) and the exploitation of the Sokor Gold Mine (Kelantan) are presented, setting the industrial investments back in the diplomatic and political Malaysia-China bilateral relation. The normative dimension is also explored as, very interestingly, the new government of Malaysia, (post- 9th of May 2018) seems to be intending to simultaneously break a too narrow dependence with China as the same time it works hard to reestablish democracy as well as the rule of law. This complex move and its local political context will also be exposed.

Dr Elsa Lafaye de Micheaux is Associate Professor at Rennes 2 University, France, in Development Studies and New Political Economy. She is membre of the Paris Centre of Southeast Asia Studies, CASE.
As IRASEC Research Fellow and University of Malaya Associate researcher (2014-2016), she has analysed the current transformation of the Malaysian capitalism in comparative perspective. The fast evolving Malaysia-China relation has received a special focus: a two-years comprehensive research has been conducted jointly with D. Delfolie (political sciences) and N. Fau (geography) on the Malaysia-China’s relationship. She is now co-directing the Institut Pondok Perancis with D. Delfolie (Kuala Lumpur) and leading a Asean-China-Norms research network.

Rent Capitalism and Shifting Plantations in the Mekong Borderlands: A Challenge of Chinese Economic Influence in Southeast Asia

Yos Santasombat, Chiang Mai University

This presentation examines the Mekong borderlands under the impact of China’s economic regionalism as borderlands become sites for intensified resource extraction. It argues that Chinese banana industry and the penetration of overland Chinese entrepreneurs has turned farmland along the Mekong River on Thai-Laos borders into banana production factories and export processing zones. Chinese banana industry and its practice of rent capitalism and ‘shifting plantations’ have turned the Mekong borders into spaces of agricultural frontiers that allow for specific and intensive regimes of resource extraction.
Over the past decade, increasing demands for bananas coupled with challenges facing domestic production have led many Chinese banana investors to seek out more places to promote banana industry. The Mekong Region, especially Laos, has been identified as an ideal place for land acquisitions by Chinese banana producing investors. In all banana plantations, vast quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are required to maintain monoculture production. This process poses a serious health risk to workers and the surrounding environment. After 6 to 10 years of producing fruit on cleared farmland the company usually abandon it for another plot once factors such as soil depletion and pest infestation begin to lower yields. Since 2016, the government of Laos has issued a ban on new banana plantations. The shifting plantation practices, however, have spread to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, wreaking health and environment havoc along its path. The case of Chinese banana plantations in Laos is a striking example of some of the challenges posed by Beijing’s economic influence in Southeast Asia.

Yos Santasombat is Professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, and senior research scholar, Thailand Research Fund. His publications in English include Lak Chang: A Reconstruction of Tai Identity in Daikong (Canberra: Pandanus Books, ANU, 2001), Biodiversity, Local Knowledge and Sustainable Development (Chiang Mai: RCSD, 2003, 2014), Flexible Peasants: Reconceptualizing the Third World’s Rural Types (Chiang Mai: RCSD, 2008), The River of Life: Changing Ecosystems of the Mekong Region (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2011), Impact of China’s Rise in the Mekong Region (Palgrave Macmillan 2015),  Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia: Cultures and Practices (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and The Sociology of Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2019).


The Myanmar Corridor

Bertil Lintner, Journalist and Author

China’s interest in finding an outlet for exports through Myanmar and gaining a foothold on the Indian Ocean predates President Xi Jinping’s Belt- and Road Initiative (BRI) by several decades. It was first articulated in a September 2, 1985 article in the Beijing Review titled “Opening to the Southwest.” The argument was to find an outlet for trade for the landlocked provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou using Myanmar’s railways, roads and waterways to reach Indian Ocean ports. In the early 1990s, a trade centre was opened on the border, which today has become a transit point for goods destined for Myanmar, northeastern India, and Thailand. Pipelines for the import of oil and gas have also been built from the coast, through Myanmar, and on to Yunnan. Today, Chinese maps show plans to build a maze of new highways as well as a high-speed railway from the coast to Yunnan. “The Myanmar Corridor” is a vital part of BRI as it not only connects China with markets in South and Southeast Asia but also provides China with access to the Indian Ocean for geostrategic influence. The Myanmar port at Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal is being upgraded with Chinese assistance to serve that purpose.

Bertil Lintner was a senior writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review for more than twenty years, covering Myanmar and related issues. He now writes for Asia Times, a Hong Kong-based website He is a recognized expert on Myanmar affairs as well as ethnic minorities, insurgencies and narcotics in Southeast and South Asia. In 1985, the Swedish-born Lintner and his wife headed out on an 18-month, 2,275-kilometer overland journey from northeastern India across Myanmar's northern rebel-held areas to China. Traveling by foot, jeep, bicycle, and elephant, they became the first outsiders in over four decades to cross that isolated area, when then was controlled by various ethnic insurgents. He is the author of 19 books about Asian politics, history and culture, among them "Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China," “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948”, “Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia”, “Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan", "Great Game East: India, China and the struggle for Asia's most volatile frontier," "China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World. His books in Swedish include "Burmas Historia", "Thailands Historia" och "Det Nya Kalla Kriget: Kampen om Indiska Oceanen." See his website Lintner has been living in Asia since 1975 (and in Thailand since 1980).


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