As President-elect Joe Biden and his new administration begin to develop a strategy for intense competition between the United States and China, they should pay special attention to Southeast Asia. Competition with China today has implications that can be felt around the world in all areas – diplomacy, trade, security, ideology, values, education, science, technology and many more. Competition in Southeast Asia is a harbinger of how it has developed elsewhere in the world. At the very least, the development there affects the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, which is playing an increasingly central role internationally.
In recent years, some Southeast Asian countries seem to have “jumped in the shopping cart” and become more attached to Beijing. Many experts and officials in the region and elsewhere see a shift in the balance of power – clearly in favor of China over the United States. But this trend should not be overstated. China has yet to dominate Southeast Asia and will not necessarily do so in the future. With the right measures and methods, Washington can confront Beijing, assert its interests, and contribute to regional stability, security and development.
The strategic importance of the region is, among other things, its geography: the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea are among the most widespread sea routes in the world: about 50,000 ships are transported there every year – 40 percent of global cargo and 25 percent of oil transportation. Global. This explains, among other things, the growing security concerns in the region. In particular, the increasing Chinese military bases in the South China Sea add to the sense of danger and strategic insecurity. This is also one of the reasons why all ASEAN countries except Cambodia and Laos have increased their spending on defense and military armament.
Although the strategic competition between China and the United States in Southeast Asia has intensified for some time, maneuvering between Washington and Beijing intensified dramatically after Barack Obama began his “shift to Asia” in 2011 – prompting Beijing in turn to establish its own presence. To intensify in the region. Skirmishes between the two rivals increased even more during the Trump years. For its part, China has strengthened its influence in the region, especially through the “Belt and Road” (BRI) initiative, through which China intends to expand its already extensive trade and economic ties.
During the Trump years, skirmishes between the two opponents increased even more.
In addition, Beijing expanded diplomatic ties, cultural exchanges and influence across the region. The challenge now facing all countries in the region is to deal with closer ties with Beijing in a way that does not become too dependent on its big neighbor. A senior Thai diplomat in Bangkok put it this way: “It’s too late for us Thais to escape from the embrace of China – we’re just trying not to get crushed by them.”
This trend of Chinese cart hopping is real and significant – but it should not be overemphasized. Indeed, there are several factors that could help it transform in the next few years: First, China risks over-stimulating its hand by being too demanding and exploitative. Evidence of such behavior can already be found in China’s relations with Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Even in the Chinese state of Cambodia, there is rising social discontent over the impact of Chinese investment on land, space and construction projects.
Beijing’s lack of sensitivity stems from the fact that Chinese officials and diplomats often live in their propaganda bubbles and echo chambers and fail to see how China is perceived in the region. Chinese intelligence also has a very questionable understanding of the region, as it focuses mostly on commercial and political elites and the Chinese diaspora – rather than local attitudes, dissatisfaction, political trends, ethnic politics, and the complex characteristics of Southeast Asia’s understanding of societies.
Most of the people of Southeast Asia established post-colonial identities. They react very quickly to major powers that want to establish unequal relationships and act arrogantly. They also still vividly remember China’s subversive policies and influence during the 1960s and 1970s, when Beijing actively supported communist uprisings in every country in the region. Likewise, Southeast Asian governments and the general public remain sensitive to China’s traditional support for the Chinese diaspora in the region – particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, where they are increasingly targeted by Beijing’s influence.
As China’s influence increases in the region, many observers believe that American power and influence are weak and are rapidly declining.
As China’s influence increases in the region, many observers believe that American power and influence are weak and are rapidly declining. However, this perception is wrong. The cultural, economic, and security influence of the United States in Southeast Asia remains very significant. In many ways, it is larger than the Chinese.
To be sure, shifting Washington’s diplomatic attention to the region is a weakness. But the United States is very strong in other areas: its military presence and its network of security partners go far and deep. Their cultural influence – especially on popular culture and education – remains significant and has always had a very large commercial presence: today there are more than 4,200 American companies active in Southeast Asia. With $ 350 billion in trade in 2018, ASEAN countries are collectively the fourth largest trading partner of the United States in the world.
Although this figure does not come close to the Chinese amount of $ 587.8 billion in the same year, it can hardly be described as insignificant. Most impressive and overlooked is the cumulative amount of direct investment by the United States in ASEAN, which now stands at $ 329 billion – more than China, Japan and South Korea combined. On an annual basis, US direct investment in the region is nearly twice that of Chinese investment: according to ASEAN data, it reached $ 24.9 billion in 2017, compared to $ 13.7 billion.
If the position of the United States of America in Southeast Asia is evaluated empirically and comprehensively, then Washington’s advantages and strengths become apparent. Moreover, public opinion polls in many Southeast Asian societies indicate that there is a reservoir of positive opinions about the United States (although it declined significantly there and around the world during the Trump era). However, the strength of the US position will come as a surprise to those who only consume the regional media – the prevailing view is that the dominant power in Southeast Asia is China. The truth is that the Middle Kingdom is overrated as an influencing factor and thus the United States is underestimated.
To be sure, shifting Washington’s diplomatic attention to the region is a weakness.
Of course, it would be a mistake to view potential developments in the region using only Beijing and Washington. ASEAN and its member states are able to recalibrate their external links to some extent. Union is not a negative game. She has her own agenda and has proven maneuverable in the past. This time, however, the following question arises: In light of Beijing’s increasing power and influence in the region and the changing quality of Washington’s interest, will ASEAN be able to maintain its independence and resilience – or will Beijing increasingly undermine these two?
Other mid-sized powers in Asia can help ASEAN avoid the impasse between China and the United States. Japan in particular is an important economic and cultural actor in Southeast Asia, and Tokyo has recently increased its security cooperation with several ASEAN countries. India is also rapidly expanding its position in Southeast Asia, in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy. Korean President Moon Jae-in is pursuing his country’s “southern policy” toward these countries. Given Australia’s proximity and trade ties to the region, Canberra stresses its special relationship with many ASEAN members. Even Russia is trying to increase its role in the region. These actors complicate regional chess and reduce the likelihood of Chinese dominance.
Therefore, despite Southeast Asia’s apparent inclination towards China, death has not yet been eliminated. One of the advantages of the United States in competing against China (in Southeast Asia and elsewhere) is China itself: Beijing’s arrogant elbow mentality, hypocrisy “Warrior Wolf” diplomacyThe blowing of propaganda, neglect of local sensitivities, and the inability to tolerate constructive criticism all contribute to undermining China’s power and influence. In many cases, it is best for Washington to let Beijing simply bypass and watch the country alienate its partners. If the Biden government makes the region a priority and engages there purposefully and continuously (which is exactly what Southeast Asia wants), it could act as a counterweight to China – and Southeast Asia could enjoy the best of both worlds in the future.
Translated from the English by Harald Eckhoff
© Foreign Affairs