This chapter discusses Southeast Asian cases, turning to Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand. It asks why China’s BRI projects progress relatively smoothly in communist Laos but slowly and selectively in military-ruled Thailand, and substantially, albeit with volatility, in quasi-democratic Malaysia. The chapter argues that differences in political systems are only part of the answer. Focusing on these three countries’ BRI engagement, the study highlights the agency of host countries in shaping the patterns of foreign-funded infrastructure cooperation. China as a stronger partner will always ‘push the envelope’ in partnerships. Nevertheless, it is the host country (specifically the ruling elites) that engages China-backed projects, based on its need to optimize its respective pathways of legitimation, leading to varying responses.
Cheng-Chwee Kuik is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Asian Studies at the National University of Malaysia (UKM)’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS). He is co-founder of the East Asian International Relations (EAIR) Caucus, a research platform for exchange, engagement, and empowerment among foreign affairs professionals in Malaysia. He served as Head of the Writing Team for the government of Malaysia’s inaugural Defence White Paper (2020). Previously, he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program (CWP) and a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
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