Can Southeast Asia find balance within the US and China’s raging rivalry?

President Trump at the G20 opposite President Xi Jinping Photo: The White House

While competition between the US and China rages, it is unclear if Southeast Asia’s leadership can pursue policies that draw maximum benefit from both sides while ensuring their independence remains intact. The existing tensions between Washington and Beijing mean that leaders in Southeast Asia will struggle to find a position that pleases both partners.

By Umair Jamal

Southeast Asia has become the latest focus of China and the United States’ rapidly-developing economic and political competition. The region has remained closely allied with both China and the United States. Southeast Asia’s ruling elite have never truly chosen one side over the other.

Over the years, in a push to maintain neutrality and a semblance of independence, states in ASEAN have played China and the US against each other to gain better trade and arms deals.

The politics of hedging between competitors may be at an end

In the last decade, the rise of China as a trading partner has benefited Southeast Asia greatly. China now trades with every state in the region and has become ASEAN’s top external trading partner. It is striking how quickly Beijing has made ASEAN no longer dependent on trade with the United States and Europe.

In 2000, total trade between ASEAN and China stood at US$40 billion. By 2015, it had increased to $480 billion and these numbers are expected to top $1 trillion by 2020. A string of planned Chinese infrastructure projects will also connect the region to Chinese markets. Over the years, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) has grown rapidly in Southeast Asia.

However, for the Southeast Asian elite, the politics of hedging between the two powers may not be relevant anymore, as Washington under President Trump unilaterally withdraws from its regional alliance and trade pacts. 

Beijing wants to reshape the region in its image

Though ASEAN may have found a major trading partner in its neighborhood that contributes to member states’ development, there remains a serious trust deficit between the allies. Leaders in Southeast Asia remain wary of a resurgent China that has shown readiness to assert its military dominance around its borders.

China now wants neighboring states to quietly accept its dominance rather than challenging and inviting third parties into any conflict. This is making the leadership of Southeast Asian states nervous at a time when no reliable external partner is actively willing to balance China’s militaristic ambitions. 

Has the US become an unreliable partner for Southeast Asia?

Strategically, this is not to say that the United States doesn’t stand to gain by trading or offering military partnerships in Southeast Asia. The problem perhaps rests with the current American leadership’s one-sided push to scale back its global security guarantees, which it considers economically costly and militarily unnecessary.

Washington’s military capabilities still dominate Asia, but this dominance is expected to wane in the coming years, even after the Trump era has passed. Taking advantage of this calculation, Beijing is using its growing military power and economic leverage to reshape the region.

For Southeast Asia, China is not in any way an attractive alternative to American partnership. However, China is a partner that the region will have to work with, especially after Washington’s new calls for ASEAN’s leadership to unite against China—with no mention of concrete American support. Such statements only confirm existing suspicions among the region’s leaders that they are left to defend themselves. Washington’s hopes of galvanizing an anti-China bloc in Southeast Asia from the sidelines are not going to work.

Currently, President Trump’s priorities in the wider Asia region continue to be cutting support for longtime allies and reinforcing an already widespread view that Washington cannot be relied upon.

In this regard, President Trump’s recent statement concerning the India-China border dispute sent shockwaves in the region’s capitals. Amid COVID-19, China’s recent military buildup on the disputed Indian territory was welcomed by President Trump with a tweet that “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute. Thank you!”

India, a close ally of the United States and a potential bulwark against China’s rise in Asia, was clearly caught off guard by Washington’s mixed signals in the face of a looming crisis. This is a worrying development for Washington’s other allies, particularly in Southeast Asia. President Trump’s unstable foreign policy and his denunciation of trade and defense partnerships will force Southeast Asian states to rethink whether Washington is a reliable partner.

ASEAN is caught between Washington and Beijing and faces impossible choices. Can it choose between a major trading partner that forms the backbone of the region’s economy and a decades-old military ally that is now scaling back its security guarantees? A leadership crisis in the United States and deep distrust of a resurgent neighbor has made it very difficult for ASEAN leaders to balance ties between the two states.

It’s unlikely that ASEAN states will actively counter China’s military assertiveness in the region, especially when the region doesn’t have reliable external partners. Washington has made it clear that it wants ASEAN states to stand up against China’s coercion. If Washington under President Trump continues to send mixed signals about his country’s commitment to the region’s security, leaders in Southeast Asia may be left to make hard choices. The outcome may involve ASEAN reluctantly embracing China’s rise.

As China’s authoritarian regime pushes to gain influence beyond its borders, the current regime in the US should formulate a clear policy, guaranteeing Southeast Asia’s security in line with Washington’s own national security interests.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15