For decades, China and the US have battled to gain strong footholds in Southeast Asia. As China makes gains and the US drops back, how can ASEAN respond?
China and the US have long courted Southeast Asian nations, trying to bring them into their respective spheres of influence and establish a foothold in the region. No one nation dominates completely, but over the last couple of decades, China has stepped up its diplomatic and economic advances as the US has retreated.
ASEAN nations face the challenging balance of welcoming assistance from more prosperous countries without giving up sovereignty or influence. Some – Cambodia and Laos, for example – are more prepared to cede influence than others.
Recent developments have left the US behind China
The US was beginning to fall behind China before President Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama. “The U.S. has been playing catch-up to China’s charm offensive since the turn of the new century,” asserted Tang Siew Mun from the Singapore-based ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS- Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS).
However, developments since 2016 have resulted in a further loss of momentum for the US. The most high-profile example is the US withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The withdrawal left ASEAN nations like Vietnam
Nevertheless, neither China nor the US meets with universal approval. In a survey the ISEAS carried out, 70% of respondents urged their governments to express caution when negotiating with China and less than 10% saw Beijing as a benevolent influence. On the other hand, one third said they had little or no confidence in the US.
A united Japan-US front could present an attractive alternative to Chinese influence
In its latest report, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) urged the US government to increase its efforts in the region or risk China making further gains.
To overcome governments’ caution towards aligning with the US, the CNAS made the case that the US government should establish closer relations with Japan to offer Southeast Asian nations an alternative to China.
The US and Japan have a shared vision for the region, which CNAS defines as “to empower countries to chart their own destinies while gradually becoming more economically open and democratic.” Joining forces with Japan may encourage countries to establish closer links with the US.
CNAS also calls for the US to combat Chinese propaganda, collaborate on technological and maritime projects, invest in higher-education collaboration and partner with ASEAN nations to promote cooperation and integration.
What about the United States’ Asia Reassurance Act?
The US knows it needs to do more in the region. Trump signed the United States’ Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law in January. It offers a long-term roadmap for how US engagement with the Indo-Pacific region and sets aside US$4 billion over the next five years.
The strategy includes countering threats from China, improving the regions’ defence capabilities, combating cyber and terror threats and promoting democracy. ARIA also formalises the US’s intentions to work alongside Japan and South Korea to further their aims in the region.
ASEAN nations must hope that the law signals a renewed US commitment to the region. The early signs are positive. The US navy was active in the South China Sea soon after the law came into effect. It conducted freedom of navigation operations in the Paracel Islands.
ASEAN nations face an ongoing battle for sovereignty
Retaining economic independence and progressing towards democracy is vitally important for ASEAN nations to maintain stability in the region.
China sees democracy as a threat. It uses disinformation and propaganda campaigns to support autocratic regimes, which it then uses as leverage to further its international interests.
Economic ties with Japan are deepening and they, along with Australia, India and the US have formed a ‘Quad’ alliance to counter China’s advances. Although the grouping has little influence as yet, it shows that there is an increasing international will to counteract Beijing.
There are other indications that China’s expansion may slow. North Korea’s increasing willingness to enter talks with the US is a blow to Beijing. The Philippines effectively told both China and the US it would ally with them but did neither. Vietnam has kept itself as independent as possible. It is openly critical of China and now buys arms from India and Russia.
Other nations can still play a role
Although China’s influence is growing, it is not the biggest economic player in the region. Japan and South Korea are on the rise and are options as alternative allies for ASEAN nations. Japan is already the biggest foreign investor in ASEAN ahead of China, South Korea and the US.
Southeast Asian nations should guard against being left with a binary choice between Chinese money and American security. Other countries can offer them diplomatic, economic and military assistance.
China is trying to marginalise the US in the region. It should not be allowed to marginalise every other interested party and damage ASEAN unity any further. That requires member nations to stand up to Beijing and explore new collaborative opportunities. But it goes both ways. The US also needs to position itself as an attractive alternative. The best way to do that may be through Japan.