As China makes deeper inroads in Asia and elsewhere in the world, many observers have predicted that it is only a matter of time before Beijing holds hegemonic sway over its neighbors.

But this narrative of inevitable Chinese regional dominance rests on key assumptions that too often escape careful scrutiny. Is it a given, for instance, that China can translate its expanded trade volumes and infrastructure investment alone into greater power and influence? Are Washington and the regional order it has helped build and maintain truly in inexorable decline? Can other smaller actors in Southeast Asia and the broader region be expected to passively welcome China’s resurgence?

None of these assumptions is rock solid. China’s path to regional prominence could be more winding than expected, and U.S. influence in Asia draws considerable staying power from Washington’s strategic interests and wide network of allies. Moreover, other regional actors like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand have an underestimated measure of agency in shaping their strategic environments and resisting overbearing Chinese demands. The unfolding regional landscape will likely be a patchwork of multiple centers of power rather than a tug-of-war between Beijing and Washington.

China’s Charm Offensive

Just months after he consolidated power, Chinese President Xi Jinping made two important speeches that set the tone for his foreign policy vision. The first took place at a high-profile October 2013 conference that marked the first ever policy meeting about “neighboring countries” in contemporary Chinese history. The attendees included the Politburo Standing Committee and all of the country’s major foreign policy players. At the conference, Xi emphasized the importance and necessity of China deepening economic cooperation and security partnerships with nations in its backyard. In his speech, arguably the most important Chinese foreign policy pronouncement of the past decade, Xi called on Beijing to “strive to promote [a form of] regional security cooperation” with neighboring countries characterized by “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation.” He underscored the centrality of “safeguarding peace and stability in the neighbouring region” and the necessity of “accelerat[ing] infrastructure connectivity” and “build[ing] a new pattern of regional economic integration.”

Richard Javad Heydarian
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, author, and incoming fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He is the author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (2017), Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific (2015), and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Global Struggle for Mastery (forthcoming).

Xi’s strategic announcement came on the heels of a litany of signs that Beijing’s relations with its neighbors were souring. The country was plagued by brewing tensions with nations across the so-called First Island Chain, stretching from northern Japan all the way to western portions of the South China Sea. The Philippines, a U.S. ally and a key claimant state in the South China Sea, made the unprecedented decision to take China to court over their maritime territorial disputes, while Manila explored the possibility of establishing semi-permanent U.S. bases on its soil under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Meanwhile, Washington had recently unveiled its pivot to Asia policy, which many Chinese leaders perceived as a thinly veiled containment strategy. Xi recognized the urgency of reducing tensions between Beijing and neighboring countries lest the latter fall in line with a supposed U.S.-led network of anti-Chinese alliances.

In response, Xi took a range of steps designed to strengthen China’s hand. Only two months after the conference, he initiated massive reclamation activities on disputed land features in the South China Sea, transforming rocks, atolls, and low tide elevations into gigantic artificial islands that now host state-of-the-art military assets, including electronic jamming equipment, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship cruise missiles. Xi also reorganized the People’s Liberation Army and increased its funding so as to focus on projecting offensive naval and aerial power and enhancing the capacity of Chinese strategic forces to deny (or raise the cost of) the United States’ and other major powers’ access to waters adjacent to China in the event of conflict. On the diplomatic front, he appointed Wang Yi, a leading Asia expert and veteran diplomat, as his new foreign minister. Wang had previously played a key role, inter alia, during the negotiations on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The same month that Xi gave his major foreign policy speech, Premier Li Keqiang proposed a new cooperation framework at a summit between China and the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The framework envisioned a two-point political consensus on enhancing mutual trust and good neighborliness (likely through a Chinese version of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) combined with an economic cooperation package, which focused on expanded bilateral investment, trade, and infrastructure. Li’s proposal was part of the maritime leg of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a sweeping plan to invest in infrastructure and other connectivity projects across Eurasia.

A month earlier in September 2013, Xi had made another important speech, this time at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, where he inaugurated the land-based portion of the BRI. In this way, China announced its effort to lead a new phase of geopolitical competition, namely through infrastructure development. In the words of Yan Xuetong, one of China’s most prominent foreign policy scholars, “The policy now is to allow these smaller [neighboring] countries to benefit economically from their relationships with China. For China, we need good relationships more urgently than we need economic development. We let them benefit economically, and in return we get good political relationships. We should ‘purchase’ the relationships.”

In the intervening years, China has funded a host of infrastructure projects throughout the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere in the world. Some of the most prominent projects in Southeast Asia include a major railway project called the East Coast Rail Line and a major port project called the Melaka Gateway in Malaysia; a proposed railway between the Chinese city of Kunming and Singapore; and the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project in Indonesia. Yet at least some of these projects have sparked controversy in capitals around the region due to a host of problems, including burgeoning debt burdens, nontransparent terms, and a perceived indifference to ecological impact.

The Perils of Being a Ham-Handed Great Power


But despite China’s efforts to translate economic heft into diplomatic goodwill, many of its neighbors still harbor reservations about Beijing. In part, this is a matter of scale. As Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the author in an interview in early March 2019, “the world has always been afraid of China because of [its] . . . enormous size.”1 Highlighting an indisputable structural reality that shapes Beijing’s relations with its nearest neighbors, Mahathir added that “when China was poor, people were worried about China. Now that [the Chinese] have become rich they are [still] worried for other reasons.”

The Malaysian prime minister is not only a highly prominent figure in Southeast Asia but also one of the most vocal regional leaders on matters concerning Chinese economic influence. Since his historic return to power after almost two decades of (partial) retirement, the Malaysian maverick has become an unlikely cheerleader for skepticism toward China in the Indo-Pacific.

True to the promise he ran on in Malaysia’s 2018 election, Mahathir has applied greater scrutiny to the country’s economic dealings with China. In November 2018, he temporarily suspended Chinese infrastructure investments worth tens of billions of dollars, openly questioning their sustainability and transparency. Initially, the Chinese infrastructure deals up for reconsideration, if not cancellation, included the $10 billion Melaka Gateway “harbor project,” the $20 billion East Coast Rail Link project, and a major natural gas pipeline project.2 In April 2019, the Malaysian government announced that, after months of haggling and hard-nosed negotiations, China had agreed to reduce the construction costs of the East Coast Rail Link by roughly $5 billion and allow greater participation by local workers and companies. The final status of the other aforementioned projects, however, is unclear.

These renegotiations reflected how Malaysia and other like-minded countries have exhibited growing concerns about the economic and especially the fiscal risks of accepting too many Chinese loans and the country’s efforts to grapple with corruption. Fiscal stability is a central consideration. Confronted with a $250 billion debt burden, a significant part of which was due to economic deals between China and the corruption-ridden administration of former prime minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian government felt that reassessing big-ticket Chinese infrastructure investments was of paramount importance.

Mahathir’s grievances reflect lingering anxieties among states throughout Asia about the risk of stumbling into debt traps by participating in the Chinese-led BRI. “If you borrow huge sums of money you [will eventually] come under the influence and direction of the lender,” Mahathir told the author, underscoring the threat of involuntary “subservience” if smaller powers borrow beyond their “capacity to repay.” He warned recipient nations against “endangering your own freedom” due to “owing too much money to China.”3

To be fair, domestic politics centering on corruption allegations constituted a major factor in this recalibration of Malaysia’s relationship with China. Seeking to reject his predecessor’s corrupt behavior, Mahathir accused the Najib administration of selling out the nation to Beijing in exchange for kickbacks and infrastructure investment deals. Before the 2018 election and subsequent transfer of power, China’s decision to provide $2.3 billion in assistance to the previous administration at the height of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, while other countries had begun to freeze Malaysian leaders’ bank accounts, only further alienated the Mahathir-led opposition at the time. As current Finance Minister Lim Guan admitted, Malaysia seeks “to restore our finance[s] and also restore our country’s reputation in international financial circles,” a reputation that has been heavily damaged amid the 1MDB corruption scandal and the country’s weakening fiscal position.

Regional geopolitical considerations were also part of the equation. Observing China’s controversial debt-for-equity settlements elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, Malaysia’s finance minister made clear that a scenario like China’s takeover of a Sri Lankan port to repay its debt is out of the question for Malaysia. During a visit to Beijing in August 2018, Mahathir openly cautioned against “new colonialism.” He has also advocated dialogue and cooperation with other major recipients of Chinese BRI investments, including Pakistan, which has become heavily indebted due in part to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. “When we talk about new colonialism,” Mahathir observed, “what the Chinese are doing is not exactly that, but it has the effect of diminishing the freedom of action of other countries that [owe] too much money to China.”4

For neighboring countries, another major red flag is China’s inability to appreciate their worries and concerns as smaller, less influential geopolitical actors. To be fair, the Malaysian leader has taken a somewhat nuanced position on Chinese investments. Far from categorically rejecting the BRI, he has made it clear that “we don’t mind them setting up plants to produce goods.” Mahathir continued, “it is important for China to [also] take notice of other [countries’] views and perceptions.”5

Malaysia’s heightened skepticism toward Beijing under Mahathir is particularly relevant for at least two major reasons. First, Malaysia has historically been among China’s closest friends and top trade and investment partners, at least since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began seeking rapprochement with Southeast Asia in the early 1980s. Second, because Malaysia is a relatively advanced, medium-sized nation, its experience is even more instructive for understanding the views of larger, more developed nations in Southeast Asia and beyond in ways that other cases like Laos, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka never could be. After all, more advanced Asian nations with robust credit ratings generally can rely on international financial institutions or private investors to raise funds for infrastructure projects. In contrast, poorer nations with weaker credit ratings tend to have more limited options, which explains their reliance on lenders like China. Malaysia, under the Najib administration, became a cautionary tale about how even more advanced Asian nations can fall prey to Chinese debt burdens.

Singapore and the Rest of Southeast Asia

Malaysia is not the only actor in Southeast Asia that has faced the challenge of how to respond to Chinese diplomatic overtures. Kuala Lumpur’s pushback has strongly echoed China skeptics and China hawks in other neighboring states, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.

Granted, Beijing has made economic inroads in Southeast Asia, just as it has in many other parts of the world. Beijing is expanding its trade share and its investment footprint across Southeast Asia and Asia more broadly. U.S. professor David Kang has chronicled China’s exponentially expanded share of regional trade and investment flows over the last two decades.

Yet Chinese-driven economic integration is inspiring an outburst of nationalist and protectionist backlash against Beijing’s growing influence over neighboring states. This state of affairs is akin to the “great transformation” term that Karl Polanyi coined to label the rapid economic integration under capitalism and the backlash it stoked among threatened and marginalized parties. Integration, in this case between China and its neighbors, may similarly breed resentment and backlash instead of a linear march toward market-driven harmony.

Moreover, the conventional account of China’s expanding economic ties with neighboring countries misses the glaring asymmetry in trade volume and terms between Beijing and its trading partners. China is running widening trade surpluses with almost all of its major neighbors in Southeast Asia. There is regionwide resentment about the relocation of low-end manufacturing to mainland China over the past few decades, while many regional small and medium-sized enterprises struggle with the influx of cheap Chinese products. Though Chinese investment in the region is expanding, the country’s notorious reliance on Chinese workers, in addition to Chinese technology and engineering prowess, has only exacerbated discontent among locals in recipient nations.

This asymmetry has rekindled long-simmering protectionist impulses among developing countries who resented Western neocolonial economic domination in the twentieth century. It is precisely this context that Mahathir, the twenty-first century’s most prominent heir of the Non-Aligned Movement, is addressing when he speaks of “new colonialism” in Asia. What worsens China’s position, and reinforces its growing tensions with more independent-minded regional states, is the country’s sometimes ill-conceived charm offensive and Xi’s whiplash diplomatic approach.

In the case of Singapore, the problem is not wholly economic. One aspect of the city-state’s increasingly open diplomatic spats with Beijing is growing concern over Chinese interference in domestic politics. As the veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan put it, China is engaged in all-out “influence operations” that seek to rally Chinese ethnic groups across Asia under the flag of the Chinese Communist Party. The incorporation of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office into the United Front Work Department has signaled the birth of this new strategy, which stands in clear contrast to Beijing’s claims of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Singapore worries about Beijing’s seemingly deliberate blurring of the distinction between huaren (ethnic Chinese people of all nationalities) and huaqiao (Chinese citizens who reside overseas). As Kausikan stressed in a famous July 2018 speech on China’s influence operations in Southeast Asia, “[the] very point of [the ongoing] united front work is to blur the distinction between the domestic and international and promote the party’s interests wherever it may be, domestic or international.” He went on to point out that campaigns of this sort “represent a rejection or a negation of the Westphalian norm of non-interference in internal affairs, which is enshrined in Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” Bilahari posited that such Chinese behavior constitutes a form of strategic “overreach” in its relations with neighboring states.

This development is particularly worrying in the context of Xi’s claim that “the realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires the joint efforts of Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad.” That is all the more true given that there are as many as 60 million ethnic Chinese people living around the world, many of whom reside in neighboring Southeast Asian nations.

Singapore has taken at least some steps to shore up its defenses. In 2017, the city-state expelled Huang Jing, a prominent China-born professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, after accusing the scholar of “collaboration with foreign intelligence agents [from China]” and an attempt to engage in “subversion and foreign interference in Singapore’s domestic politics.” Singapore has also tightened its cybersecurity laws against fake news and propaganda, including from hostile overseas actors. And Singapore’s worries over mainland China’s sharp power were arguably also on display when the city-state decided to build a $110-million Singapore Chinese Cultural Center to assert its own unique interpretation of Chinese cultural heritage.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns and interference in U.S. and European elections likely served as a wake-up call against similar disruptions and infiltration campaigns by China to influence Singaporean politics. As one scholarly explanation notes, such manifestations of “sharp power” involve campaigns by “powerful and ambitious authoritarian regimes” that “center on distraction and manipulation” of public affairs in foreign nations.

Singapore’s spats with Beijing have at times had more pointed security implications. Bilateral tensions grew in the summer of 2016 when Singapore called on both China and the Philippines to respect the arbitrators’ ruling pertaining to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) amid a Manila-initiated arbitration case against Beijing’s sweeping maritime territorial claims. Beijing, however, interpreted this as a direct challenge to its three no’s position: nonparticipation, nonrecognition, and noncompliance with the UNCLOS arbitration proceedings. Closer defense and strategic cooperation between Singapore and Taiwan have also stoked controversy. In late 2016, China even temporarily impounded a group of Singaporean armored vehicles transiting via Hong Kong from military exercises in Taiwan. The episode triggered a diplomatic crisis and weeks-long negotiations before the Singaporean Terrex troop carriers were eventually returned. Perturbed by China’s rising maritime assertiveness, Singapore has stepped up its military cooperation with the United States, by granting permanent access to U.S. littoral combat ships as well as those of like-minded partners such as Australia, India, Japan, and Taiwan. In fact, some strategic analysts are beginning to talk about the prospect of expanding at least some elements of the Quad—a format for institutionalized strategic cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to include Singapore. Meanwhile, the city-state is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, as defense spending hit a twelve-year high in 2019 despite an economic slowdown.

In some ways, Singapore’s growing frictions with China are even more astonishing than Malaysia’s, especially given the city-state’s Chinese-majority ethnic makeup and its historically even closer diplomatic and economic ties to the mainland. After all, the late Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew played a critical role in shaping not only China’s economic policies after Mao Zedong’s tenure but also its diplomatic relations with the West.

The ongoing strategic debates in and among core Southeast Asian nations only belie the myth of Chinese diplomatic astuteness and the fallacious assumption of the inevitability of Chinese regional hegemony. The fissures between China and numerous countries in Southeast Asia suggest that China’s growing regional profile has not been as smooth as it may first appear. The more Beijing extends its influence over the region in a ham-fisted way, the more it reminds its smaller postcolonial neighbors about the horrors of not only Western colonialism but also the pre-modern China-centric tributary system. Greater integration with China also breeds in many of its neighbors a greater sense of self-protection and the need for autonomy.

Pax Pacifica

Beyond its sometimes tone-deaf entreaties of its neighbors, China’s ostensible bid for strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific has hit a snag for at least three other reasons.

A Competitive Turn in U.S.-China Relations

For one thing, China’s incipient ascent is taking place during a period of U.S. strategic resurgence in some respects, particularly under the administration of President Donald Trump, who has shown far less self-restraint than his predecessors in terms of challenging China. The conventional narrative among analysts on the Trump administration is one of U.S. strategic retreat, especially given the president’s lack of popularity in the region as well as his decision to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, a pillar of the previous administration’s rebalance to Asia.

But Washington’s role in Asia’s regional landscape is more complex than that. The United States has stepped up its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and nuclear bomber aerial patrols across the South China Sea, openly defying China’s excessive but contested maritime territorial claims. The Trump administration has given greater leeway to the Pentagon to check China’s maritime assertiveness, including on decisions concerning FONOPs.6 Washington has also doubled its foreign military financing to key regional allies, including the Philippines, openly called on China to remove advanced military assets from disputed features in the South China Sea, and even decided to treat China’s paramilitary maritime forces operating in the area as de facto extensions of the Chinese navy. The Trump administration even took the unprecedented step of openly suggesting that it would come to the Philippines’ rescue in an event of conflict with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Washington is also ramping up its economic engagement in Asia. In 2018, the U.S. Congress passed the multibillion-dollar Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which augments the country’s defense and military footprint and diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, the $60-billion Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act aims to mobilize high-quality U.S. investments in strategic markets, particularly in East Asia. For Washington and its allies, these efforts are fundamentally about upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” namely by preserving broadly liberal rules, both formal and informal, governing interstate interactions.

On the trade front, the United States has openly sought fundamental changes in China’s trade and industrial policies, questioned the viability of the BRI, and pressured allies and partners to shun Chinese high-tech investments, particularly in strategic sectors. While the relative gap between Beijing’s and Washington’s economic and military prowess has dramatically narrowed in the past decade, China still lags far behind the United States in terms of its net stock of resources—including soft power, cutting-edge technology, human capital, military hardware, precious minerals and other natural resources, and other economic assets—that can be mobilized in periods of conflict. As scholar Michael Beckley has noted, “a nation’s power stems not from its gross resources but from its net resources—the resources left over after subtracting the costs of making them.” Additionally, China faces massive internal structural challenges, including the impending demographic headwinds of an aging population, rising social unrest, growing environmental degradation, and economic imbalances in the country’s real estate and banking sectors. To be fair, the U.S. “resurgence” has been mostly in the realm of military pushback against China, and there are deep concerns among regional partners and allies over the predictability of U.S. policy under the populist in the White House. Yet the latest surveys show that most of the world still prefers the United States to China as a global leader.

Washington’s Deep Network of Partners

Beyond Washington’s own attempts to respond to China’s ascent, it is noteworthy how U.S. allies and like-minded partners are filling in the vacuum left by Trump’s protectionist policies. What augments the United States’ edge over China is its broad, durable network of regional alliances, particularly with middle powers that share common, though not identical, concerns about China’s rising assertiveness, countries like Australia, Japan, and, increasingly, India. Some of these regional powers, namely Japan and Australia, appear to be committed to Washington’s vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and support the U.S.-led pushback against China. It is within this context that one should understand Japan’s successful efforts, in tandem with Australia, to resuscitate a revised version of TPP, which Trump perfunctorily ditched.

U.S. partners are quite capable in their own right. Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, already has its own multibillion-dollar connectivity initiative, which is funding a plethora of critical infrastructure projects across Southeast Asia. Australia and ASEAN have signed an investment agreement, which aims to “develop a pipeline of high-quality infrastructure projects, to attract private and public investment.” India is separately expanding its developmental assistance to and strategic cooperation with ASEAN countries.

Rather than relying on U.S. instructions or initiatives, each of these middle powers is engaging ASEAN members either together or individually to help preserve and deepen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. This ongoing strategic battle is not being fought primarily by seeking to match Chinese initiatives dollar-for-dollar. Instead, and more crucially, it is a competition over the rules and regulations that will govern global development and strategic infrastructure investment. Admittedly, it is still too early to talk about a fully cohesive Quad alliance against China, but each of the Quad’s four powers has shown increasing interest in aiding Southeast Asian developmental and security needs and aspirations.

Unlike Washington and its robust roster of partners, China hardly has a single reliable ally to promote its vision and values for the region. Both North Korea and Pakistan, considered Beijing’s closest strategic partners, have sought to diversify their external relations in recent years. Pyongyang has sought direct negotiations with Washington, largely with the aim of removing punitive sanctions on its flailing economy. Islamabad, in turn, has pivoted to Saudi Arabia and received another bailout from the International Monetary Fund to reduce the country’s excessive dependence on and ballooning debt burden due to the BRI.

Southeast Asia’s Quest for Autonomy

Another major problem with any Chinese bid for primacy in the Indo-Pacific is that several Southeast Asian nations are striving to diversify their strategic partnerships and sources of foreign investment. Though known for their historical tensions with the West, the leaders of Malaysia (Mahathir) and the Philippines (President Rodrigo Duterte), not to mention the Communist leaders of Vietnam, have welcomed closer strategic cooperation with and investments from the United States and, importantly, Japan. Even poor Southeast Asian nations such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have proactively sought Japanese developmental and infrastructure investments to reduce their reliance on China.

This is because Southeast Asian nations, both small and large, have jealously strived to retain their postcolonial strategic autonomy, playing one great power against the other while avoiding overreliance on any single foreign power. Both low- and middle-income Southeast Asian countries also have assiduously sought, whether bilaterally or multilaterally (via ASEAN), diversified strategic relations with a host of Indo-Pacific powers, including not just China and the United States but also India, Japan, and Russia.

The countries of Southeast Asia also desire varied sources of investment and aid. Japan still serves as a leading regional partner in this respect. In the early years of the post–Cold War era, the United States functioned as the primary security guarantor in Southeast Asia, while Japan has served as the primary economic player since World War II. A first “wave” of Japanese investment in Southeast Asia occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, and a second one has been taking place over the past decade, as Japan has sought to offer third parties alternatives to Chinese financing. Admittedly, China’s emergence as a major economic player has expanded the pool of Southeast Asia’s strategic partners, as the United States and Japan have played a less decisive role in recent years.

In any event, Southeast Asian nations are not pawns on a geopolitical chessboard, but active players with considerable agency in shaping their own strategic futures. The upshot of this highly dynamic and contested strategic landscape is the emergence of a fluid, horizontal regional order as opposed to one that is primarily hierarchical, Sino-centric, or U.S.-led. There will likely be multiple centers of power and varying degrees of strategic freedom accorded to each state, and no single power will find itself able to fully shape regional security, economic, and diplomatic agendas. The advent of spoke-to-spoke cooperation among U.S. allies and strategic partners, which have acted increasingly autonomously from Trump’s dictates, is indicative of the flexible networks of cooperation emerging in the Indo-Pacific.


The biggest challenge to China’s bid for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, especially Southeast Asia, is its unsophisticated approach to regional diplomacy. Beijing has been plagued by an alienating form of hegemonic hubris, massive infrastructure projects that lack transparency and sustainability, an open disregard for smaller nations’ search for autonomy, and increased assertiveness amid the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. No wonder authoritative surveys across Southeast Asia show that 70 percent of respondents wanted their governments to be cautious about taking on too much debt through China’s BRI, while less than half expressed confidence in China’s ability to play a constructive regional leadership role. The most trusted nation in the eyes of Southeast Asian nations remains Japan. China is undoubtedly a major player in the region but far from its inevitable hegemon.

Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, author, and incoming fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He is the author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy (2017), Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific (2015), and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Global Struggle for Mastery (forthcoming).


1 This article draws on an interview that the author conducted with Prime Minister Mahathir in March 2019, which was then featured in an op-ed the author wrote for the South China Morning Post.

2 The original construction costs of the project amounted to about $16 billion, while the remaining costs accounted for “interest and land acquisition.” See Liz Lee and Joseph Sipalan, “China Offered to Nearly Halve Cost of Malaysia’s $20-Billion Rail Project: Sources,” Reuters, January 31, 2019, Partly based on the author’s off-the-record conversations with Mahathir’s senior advisers and other senior experts at the Malaysian Parliament, Kuala Lumpur, August 24, 2018.

3 Interview with the author, Manila, March 8, 2019.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Based on conversations with former senior Pentagon officials under the administration of former president Barack Obama, Washington, DC, November 2017. This was reconfirmed during subsequent conversations with senior Pentagon and State Department officials, Manila and Washington, DC, March, June, July, and August 2018.