Mainland Southeast Asia is a region characterised by a vast asymmetry,
between the state destined to become the world’s largest economy —
China — and three of the world’s Least Developed Countries. This
means the region risks being drawn into a Chinese sphere of influence.
The connective infrastructure being developed across China’s borders
and traversing mainland Southeast Asia has the potential to reshape
strategic geography, as well as the regional economic landscape.
Closely tied to state interests, China’s investment is carving out new
transport routes to the sea — in the form of road, rail, and waterways —
and establishing new nodes of control in the form of Special Economic
Zones (SEZs). This paper assesses progress on these lines and nodes
and finds a mixed picture. While the weaker governance of Laos and
Myanmar means they are attracted to SEZs and vulnerable to Chinese
investment and erosion of sovereignty, transport corridors are
progressing more slowly. By contrast, Thailand and Vietnam are
adapting to the Belt and Road Initiative in a way that serves their
interests as much as China’s. Other external actors, most notably
Japan, will continue to play important roles. China’s sphere of influence
in mainland Southeast Asia therefore remains fractured and partial, as
the strong states of Thailand and Vietnam seek to preserve the
greatest autonomy possible. This finding will be of importance to
policymakers seeking to understand how China’s geoeconomic policies
are playing out among the smaller states of the Indo-Pacific.

 

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