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Southeast Asia and US-China Rivalry: A View from Washington

Southeast Asia and US-China Rivalry: A View from Washington

Patrick M. Cronin

Southeast Asia is no mere chess piece in a new great game between major powers. Although sometimes taken for granted, the region looms large in America’s vision for a better world. But the US can and should do more to focus on its positive agenda for ASEAN member states and institutions, even as it competes with a muscular China.

For the US, Southeast Asia remains the vital centre of tomorrow’s free and open Indo-Pacific region. The US vision for the broader region largely overlaps with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Assuring the strategic autonomy of sovereign and independent states, expanding opportunities for free and fair trade, building human and physical connectivity, and bolstering the local demands for development are all essential to both the US and ASEAN states.

Yet China’s engagement with Southeast Asia is inextricably linked to a desire to dominate it. Indeed, China now appears to be an unstoppable force in the South China Sea. Over the next decade, China would like to determine the distribution of all the resources within the nine-dash line area, become the rule-maker and legally transform international waters into internal seas, and hasten a US military withdrawal from the region.

China seems poised to realise its excessive territorial claims and unilateral attempts to erect an order based on Chinese power, not the rule of law and regional norms. At the same time, China increasingly seeks to flip the script, turning criticisms of its behavior into the accusation that the US is the principal rule-breaker and leading destabilising force in the region. “We will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from our forefathers”, declares Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. Although China seems to miss the point that no one owns the oceans, General Wei casts China’s right in response to perceived threats, including “big stick diplomacy” and “long-arm jurisdiction”.

An assertive China, issuing a singular message, reinforces the notion of a China ready to gain further control of the region at whatever cost. It is thus understandable why US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson testified in May 2018 that, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

Some actions are underway to counter the perception that America is retreating to a more isolationist posture. In the South China Sea, the United States is routinising freedom of navigation operations, as well as building local domain awareness and maritime capacity. Through the Blue Dot Network and other means, the US is also joining others in making transparent China’s opaque investments under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative. Despite these and other initiatives, Beijing appears well on track to further militarise the South China Sea and expand its influence over Southeast Asia.

Seventy years before Admiral Davidson’s judgment on China winning control in all scenarios “short of war”, George Kennan, then Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, coined the term “political warfare”. For Kennan, the term refers to “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”

In a new report, Total Competition: The China Challenge in the South China Sea, I argue that China is waging total competition in the region. Beijing’s campaign, like George Kennan’s concept of “political warfare”, involves the use of all tools at the state’s disposal short of war. One of Beijing’s chief weapons is information, which helps to shape the narrative and prepare the region for Chinese dominance.

When Chinese Foreign Wang Yi calls the US the world’s leading troublemaker, he draws attention to Beijing’s relentless information warfare campaign. Wang hopes regional audiences will believe the myth that the US is dangerously bent on a new Cold War (despite a new trade deal), and that they will overlook Beijing’s internal oppression and external coercion.

The US is determined to compete with China, not to confront it or contain it. As Secretary of Defence Mark Esper recently remarked, “We’re not the ones looking for a Cold War.” But Americans can no longer ignore the exploitation of open systems and longstanding rules by revisionist powers. Nor can Americans overlook the fact that an increasingly affluent China, rather than trending toward freedom, is bending back towards autocracy.

The US is not looking for Southeast Asian countries to choose sides, but rather to stand up for their interests. Americans do not want to meddle with the internal affairs of other countries. But they do hope for a commitment to anti-corruption and better governance. When our democracy errs, as it often does, Americans shine a spotlight on problems and rely on the distributed power of our Republic to check and balance our mistakes and make corrections.

For all its attendant risks, a burgeoning US-China rivalry is the necessary means by which to help Southeast Asian states preserve an order that it is free and open. It is and will remain a bounded competition. The first prong should blunt China’s assertiveness while deterring escalation and adapting pluralistic societies to be more competitive and resilient. The second prong should expand on America’s appealing engagement with Southeast Asia and strengthening bonds of cooperation.

Pursuing a single prong is likely to fail. The US requires both a firm policy for China and an attractive – and certainly not bullying – policy for Southeast Asia. But it is the sum of constructive activities of the US and its partners that can provide the surest means of offsetting any one country’s attempts to dominate the region.

The aim of the US and ASEAN should be to bolster a free, open, and inclusive region. Towards that end, the US seeks to thicken connectivity, expand growth and sustainable development, and strengthen ASEAN member states’ resilience and independence so that they may better determine their destinies. These aspirations have everything to do with the salutary change Americans want to bring to the world and, in the case of Southeast Asia, to a dynamic and diverse region whose importance will continue to grow throughout this century.

Read in ASEAN Focus

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