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Opinion

Southeast Asian companies fear China reaching beyond its borders

Treatment of Cathay Pacific highlights risks for angering Beijing

Charoen Pokphand Group's chairman Dhanin Chearavanont, pictured in March 2013, felt he needed to show that his group was in line with China's position.   © Reuters

John Slosar learned the hard way that Asian businesses should be preparing for a new era of Chinese interference. Cathay Pacific's chairman resigned on September 4, becoming the latest casualty in a campaign by China's government to punish the airline for the role some of its staff have played in Hong Kong's protest movement.

Much less attention was paid the previous week to Thai billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, who printed adverts in Thailand's newspapers pleading for calm in Hong Kong, echoing calls from fellow tycoons like Li Ka-shing.

Yet the fact that Chearavanont felt forced to speak out in public shows how Asian business leaders far outside China are already adapting to the reality of China's rising influence in business affairs well beyond its own borders, and doing so mostly by learning to self-police their activities and avoid perceived Chinese political red lines.

Although based in Bangkok, CP Group has extensive dealings with China, including a chunky stake in Ping An, the Shenzhen-based insurance group. Its ties are deep too: the Thai company says it was China's first foreign investor, having put money into Shenzhen's Special Economic Zone shortly after it opened in 1978.

Cathay's treatment over recent weeks was designed to send a message to other Hong Kong companies that actions contrary to mainland core interests would not be tolerated. CP Group shows these warnings are being heard elsewhere too.

Unlike Cathay, neither CP Group nor its staff have done anything to upset China's authorities. Indeed, the company has become a magnet for Chinese investment into Thailand. Yet fear of offending Beijing is now so great that Chearavanont still felt he needed to show that his group was publicly in line with China's position.

Viewed from the business capitals of Southeast Asia, Beijing's behavior over recent weeks in Hong Kong gives an instructive glimpse of the tricky terrain China's growing regional heft will bring.

Global companies already make many awkward concessions to access to China's internal market. Hollywood's studios trim material that could anger Chinese censors, for instance removing Japanese and Taiwanese flags from the jacket worn by Tom Cruise in the forthcoming sequel "Top Gun: Maverick."

In the trailer of "Top Gun: Maverick," Japanese and Taiwanese flags are removed from the jacket worn by Tom Cruise. (Screen grab from Twitter)

Taiwan is a sore point more generally. In 2018, Chinese authorities demanded apologies from companies like hotel group Marriott and airline Delta for listing it as a country on their websites, rather than a Chinese province.

As China's economic and political interests grow, Beijing is more likely to deploy Cathay-style pressure tactics beyond what it has traditionally considered as "core" internal interests, such as the status of Taiwan, and into more mundane areas abroad.

Asia's tycoons are increasingly anxious about this prospect. Reports suggest an array of Hong Kong business leaders were summoned across the border to be dressed down by Communist party bosses over recent weeks.

But Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar also have plenty of big business houses with deep financial ties in China, in much the way as CP Group in Thailand. None want to risk those ties. All are likely to caution their governments to play nicely with Beijing.

One pressure point will be access to Chinese capital, not least lucrative infrastructure contracts as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. As a rival Asian financial hub, Singapore may gain business from Hong Kong's current difficulties. But its businesses learned the risks of annoying Beijing in 2017, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was pointedly not invited to a major BRI forum following disagreements over Singapore's policies on the South China Sea.

Trade is another flash point. Foreign companies have so far faced few sanctions for pulling factories out of China, as Google did in shifting production of its Pixel smartphone to Vietnam in August. That could easily change in future.

China is not alone in using pressure tactics on businesses. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. is ready to use trade rules as weapons. It happily targets individual companies too, including China's Huawei.

Still, as China's sway grows, it is Beijing's ire that Asian companies want to avoid, given their belief that China, not U.S., will end up as the region's preeminent force.

This will not change overnight, and China's leaders still face conflicting impulses. In Hong Kong they want to maintain "one country, two systems," at least for now. Facing a slowing economy they also need to attract foreign investment. Heavy-handedness makes that more difficult.

Yet in other ways China is becoming more intolerant of businesses stepping out of line. In September, the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing warned of a looming "corporate social credit" system, designed to force foreign businesses to become good corporate citizens. It is all to easy to imagine such a system being used to penalize companies outside China too.

For all the flaws of the so-called "rules-based" order built by the U.S., recent decades of globalization allowed international businesses to plan investment with a degree of certainty and freedom from political interference. That period is coming to an end.

As China's influence grows, so companies should expect it to treat businesses abroad more like it has traditionally treated businesses at home. Billionaire tycoons like Thailand's Chearavanont are simply spotting the danger signs earlier than most.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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