LUANG NAM THA, Laos - From daybreak till past nightfall, Xu Ximing is on the move, rushing between his potato farm, rubber plantation, fish ponds and orange grove.
The Chinese migrant’s enterprising ways contrast sharply with the languid lifestyle of his Laotian neighbors. He hires them to work his fields.
‘‘Rent and labor is cheaper than in China,’’ the 60-yearold farmer says before scampering off to inspect a burst irrigation dike and shout at some locals to stop trampling through his potato patch.
Xu moved to Laos with six family members, joining in a swelling stream of Chinese drifting southward into Southeast Asia in search of economic opportunities, more elbow room and fewer restrictions.
Chinese brickmakers, scrap metal dealers, ice cream vendors, road builders and farmers are sinking roots in northern Laos.
Some frontier areas of Myanmar could easily be mistaken for China, with only the yuan currency and Chinese language in use. Deeper in S outheast Asia, illegal migrants filter into northern Thailand and set up restaurants and health clinics in Cambodia.
While hardly a mass migration, the inflow is among factors awakening fears that China — now the world’s No. 3 economy and a superpower in the making — may come to dominate the region, exacting obedience and tributes from its southern neighbors much as Beijing’s emperors demanded in centuries past.
‘‘If the present trajectory is maintained we are looking to the time when China is by a long chalk going to be the most influential country in the region, and it’s going to be hard not to do what China says," argues Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
But for the midterm, he and others describe a less insidious scenario.
‘‘Fear is always there when you are sitting next to a giant. But this is somewhat being replaced by a kind of hope, a belief that China will not be as foolish to behave like a big elephant in Southeast Asia,’’ says Sheng Lijun of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
The official line issuing from the region’s capitals is that China presents more opportunities than threats. And if Beijing does assume the mantle of Big Brother, he’ll prove a benign one.
‘‘China is today a creator of prosperity of the highest order. Political and social linkages are bound to eventually follow suit. It is therefore important to use every opportunity and establish ties,’’ Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said recently.
Optimists like Abdullah note that Southeast Asia is ‘‘feeding the dragon’’ with exports ranging from shrimp to natural gas and paper pulp, ringing up an $8 billion trade surplus with China.
Businesses in Singapore reap profits by helping Chinese companies raise foreign capital and go international. In Cambodia, Beijing provides aid to the military and Chinese-language schools. Across the region, Chinese tourists are spending in everincreasing numbers.
Analysts agree that trade and economic issues are intertwined with China’s increasingly ambitious political and security aims.
Once reluctant to get involved in even innocuous regional forums, Beijing has since the late 1990s come to regard solid multilateral ties as ‘‘instruments of Chinese diplomacy,’’ White says.
While the United States, once the unchallenged power in Southeast Asia, remains preoccupied with the global war on terrorism, Beijing is at the forefront of such landmark efforts as the Free Trade Area to span China and Southeast Asia by 2010 and development of the Mekong River basin. Chinese leaders visiting the region’s capitals are accorded the pomp and deference once reserved for Washington’s top dignitaries.
Jonathan Adelman, a China expert at the University of Denver in Colorado, says Beijing’s leaders are homing in on Southeast Asia because it’s not locked into the continent’s other major power nodes — Japan, India and Russia Far East.
‘‘It’s logical for them to expand not only economically but politically and even culturally and to feel that this is their natural home,’’ Adelman says.
On the economic front, China is inflicting some losses on its southern neighbors, fueling resentment in affected sectors.
China not infrequently wins the competition for foreign investment, and multinational companies are increasingly shifting manufacturing to China. Electronics components not long ago made in Malaysia and Indonesia are being produced in Chinese industrial zones that also churn out a flood of cheap goods that are displacing homemade equivalents in Southeast Asia.
Laotian carpenters grouse that the Chinese craft better and cheaper furniture, one of this impoverished country’s few viable exports.
In Laos’ capital, Vientiane, the Thai-made motorcycles that once filled the streets have all but vanished, replaced by Chinese models selling at about one-third the price.
Vegetable farmers in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands complain they are being elbowed out of the nearby Singapore market by cheaper, nicely packaged Chinese produce from far away.
‘‘We can’t do anything about it anyway. We have to accept the inevitable and make the most of it. We can gather a good harvest before the Western countries do,’’ says Sheng at the Singapore think tank.
He and others see a ‘‘winwin’’ era lasting five to 10 years or more during which China promotes a stable security environment in Asia to allow its own spectacular economic growth to roll on. Beijing in turn will dole out economic benefits to Southeast Asians, storing up goodwill it can call upon if China faces future confrontation with the United States or others.
Peking University’s Institute of International Relations recently suggested China might hark back to the tributary system conceived under the Ming Dynasty, founded in the 14th century, to insure a circle of stability around the Middle Kingdom.
‘‘I think in their minds they want to do a more sophisticated version of that, where these states are grateful to China, creator of a powerful economic, political, cultural bloc from which they are going to benefit too,’’ says Adelman.
In northern Laos, Xu the entrepreneurial farmer is pleased that a paved road will run right past his fields in a few years, allowing him to easily truck potatoes to Thailand and China. The 152-mile corridor will cut through Laos between the Chinese border town of Boten and Huay Sai on the Thai frontier.
However, not all are happy that a border rarely crossed for centuries is being breached.
Many Lao privately express anxiety over China’s immense power, their own weaknesses and a population lineup of 5.3 million countrymen to 1.3 billion Chinese.
In an often-heard remark, they lament: ‘‘Laos is empty; China is full — and recently a couple of leaks have sprung up at the bottom end of China."