How Southeast Asia can be a Key Gateway to Managing the Sino-American Rivalry
by Kenddrick Chan
At the 2018 ASEAN Summit, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sounded a rather ominous warning that Southeast Asian states would one day have to choose between the United States and China should the global political environment increasingly resemble that of the Cold War. His words reflected a situation already known to many: that the United States and China are engaged in a strategic competition for influence over the region. As China’s relative power has increased, so too has its desire to become the region's hegemon. This is much to the chagrin of the United States, which has responded strongly through its National Security Strategy by calling for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)" in which Southeast Asian states will play key roles in "promoting an order based on freedom."
Great power competition in the region is not new to Southeast Asian states. During the first half of the Cold War, the Kennedy and Nixon administrations intervened in Vietnam in order to prevent a domino effect where the region would fall to the Communists, whose influence had already led to the Malayan Emergency. This policy of containment turned Southeast Asia into what geographer Saul Cohen terms a “shatterbelt”—a region torn by internal strife whose fragmentation is further aggravated by the involvement of external major powers. Although Southeast Asia is no longer seen as a shatterbelt since the end of the Cold War, the resurgence of ethnic tensions in states such as Indonesia and Malaysia amidst a backdrop of great power competition hints at a possible return of the region to shatterbelt status.
Despite the signs, positive alternative outcomes do exist for the region. Southeast Asia could serve as a gateway region that facilitates cooperation and furthers mutual understanding between the U.S. and China. Although Cohen readily admits that such regions have yet to exist, he goes on to claim that a former shatterbelt could blossom into a gateway between major powers if a policy of cooperation and not competition is pursued in that region. In this latest round of great power competition, will Southeast Asia turn out to be a shatterbelt or a gateway? Realists point to history to reinforce their assertion that geopolitical rivalry amongst great powers is inevitable, and that Southeast Asia looks set to be a shatterbelt in the near future.
Nonetheless, the U.S. and China should avoid turning the region into a shatterbelt of geostrategic competition for several reasons. From the Chinese perspective, the presence of a large “bamboo” network of businesses run by ethnic Chinese (termed by the Financial Times as “an extension of China and Asia’s most powerful yet invisible force”) serves as a trade link between China and local markets. Moreover, as evidenced by its status as the region’s second largest investor and recent reaffirmation of its strategic partnership with Southeast Asia, China expects to reap substantial economic benefits from the region. Given the stakes, ensuring that Southeast Asia remains a gateway is in China’s interests. Should the region descend into ethnic violence, as Indonesia did in 1998, China would suffer. A good first step for Beijing would be to halt its ethno-nationalist policies towards the Chinese diaspora in the region. Given the significant pushback against such policies in Singapore and the fragile balance between ethnic Chinese and other ethnic groups elsewhere in the region, any overt ethno-nationalist push by China, will endanger the Chinese diaspora in the region and encourage Southeast Asian states to distance themselves from Beijing—the very opposite of what China seeks.
Like China, the United States would do well to prevent the region from becoming a shatterbelt. This would help reduce the chances of accidently stumbling into a rapidly escalating confrontation with China in which both parties find themselves unable to back down. In light of China’s rise, some in the U.S. view confrontation as the best way forward, while others have called for continued engagement and accommodation. Their inability to agree largely stems from a lack of understanding of China’s true intentions. Under such conditions of uncertainty, Southeast Asia can be a critical testing ground for the U.S. in seeking to understand China’s actual ambitions. President Xi has stated that China is committed to peace and “ready to jointly maintain freedom of navigation and safety of maritime rules.” Therefore, this is an opportunity to cash in and make China put its money where its mouth is by encouraging non-military joint exercises. As noted in an article in The Diplomat, a large trust deficit exists between the U.S. and China. Non-military cooperation such as maritime navigation or humanitarian exercises can lay the groundwork for increased operational efficacy and mutual trust and understanding between the great powers. The maritime states of Southeast Asia, having already faced multiple natural disasters, are likely to welcome this multilateral opportunity that signals scores of potential benefits.
Additionally, the pressing need of Southeast Asian states to resolve their own internal ethnic tensions and prevent any backsliding into a more tumultuous past means that the U.S. and China should publicly recognize Singapore’s potential to play an increased leadership role in the region. With its high success rate of racial integration and commitment to multilateralism, the Southeast Asian city-state can serve as a role model for its regional neighbors concerning issues of race and ethnicity.
In conclusion, as the U.S. and China navigate their complex relationship, history teaches us that great powers often do clash, with deadly consequences. Yet the leaders in both countries should realize the future is not cast in stone and there is a chance for them now to usher in a new age of cooperation, starting in Southeast Asia.
Courtesy of The White House / Flickr
Kenddrick Chan has been accepted into the MSc International Relations program at the London School for Economics (LSE) for postgraduate study in 2019/20. His research interests include the evolving role of identity politics, as well as the relationship between diaspora engagement and transnational governance in the cases of China and Israel. His works have been published by Oxford University and other outlets.