Sometimes the signs are scattershot. Investigative journalists imprisoned for doing their job in Thailand or the Philippines. Another forest razed to make way for an industrial-size plantation producing rubber or palm oil in Myanmar or Laos. Fishers and farmers losing their livelihoods in Vietnam after the construction of more than a dozen dams along the Mekong River. A high-speed rail system under construction in Malaysia using credit that drives the country deeper into debt. Casinos rising up to transform Sihanoukville, Cambodia, into an Asian Las Vegas.
At other times, China’s growing presence is visible for all to see. Chinese tourists crowding tropical islands, ancient temples, and shopping malls. Deal-makers from Guangzhou and Shanghai shuffling in and out of hotel lobbies and government offices. Chinese navy ships bullying neighboring countries’ fishing boats, military patrols, and oil exploration vessels to assert Beijing’s dubious claims over the South China Sea.
Chinese officials have become unabashedly open in their talk about a “Greater China” unconstrained by national boundaries, integrated into the Chinese economy, and anchored by Chinese communities across Southeast Asia. Many in the region worry that China is trying impose a new version of colonialism.