There’s an old Southeast Asian saying: “We are like the grass beneath two elephants. We will be crushed underfoot regardless of whether they fight or make love.” This saying is much repeated these days now that the United States and China are in open competition in the Asia-Pacific region.
In January, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new focus on the region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Let’s just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China.” All over the Pacific, she said, China is trying to “come in behind us and come in under us.”
Militarily, there have been announcements of new deployments of U.S. troops around the region, including marines rotating through Darwin, Australia, and more collaboration between American and Australian air forces, allowing the U.S. another access point in to the disputed South China Sea region.
Many neo-realists are saying that a fast-rising China, which sees a bigger role for itself in the region, isn’t comfortable with America’s moves as these restrict its room for maneuver. This isn’t a new analysis of the region. But things are different this time.
First, China and the United States are no longer confined to raw power rivalry. The U.S. is, and China is increasingly becoming, concerned with global issues that require a response from those claiming to be major powers. As a result, China and the United States will have to show that they wish to be partners in ways that benefit the region as a whole.
By taking advantage of U.S. and Chinese desires to engage in the region, Southeast Asia can become a champion of non-traditional security issues such as water resource management and countering climate change – issues that must be solved by collective action among states. These aren’t the traditional “hard” security domain of the neo-realists.
Environmental projects are already leading to U.S. and Chinese engagement in the region. In 2010, the United States launched the Lower Mekong Initiative, a cooperative gesture funded by the U.S. government for effective management and equitable use of the Mekong. China, which controls the headwaters of the river, was propelled to do something in return to show its responsibility for trans-boundary affairs.
In its initial response, China has become a bit more open to the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental body made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam that manages the great river. China isn’t yet a member, but it has been sharing some information with other riparian states about the operations of the hydro-electric dams upstream in the wet season. Certainly, more will be expected of China in the future.
Second, if either China or the United States become too overbearing, they face the risk that smaller nations will turn to the other players in the region, such as India, also a rising power with its “Look East” policy.
Finally, Southeast Asian states working together can achieve certain things that can’t be done by either China or the U.S., despite their limitless reserves. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, is proving to be an increasingly important venue for quiet, regional problem-solving and co-ordination.
The larger networks forged through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have become the primary security and foreign policy discussion forum for the region. With its preventive diplomacy measures, the ARF can provide good offices, mediation, prior notification, and early warning about potential flashpoints to member countries as well as to China and the United States.
The sinking of the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan in 2010, the U.S. joint military exercise with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, and China’s recent activities in the South China Sea have all been discussed in ARF meetings.
Times have changed in Southeast Asia. Smaller nations have a hard-earned, well-rounded and complex understanding of geopolitics in the region. They are talking to each other and, increasingly, working together. And, in many areas, they have common goals.
The elephants aren’t going to be able to blithely stampede through. It isn’t a grassland anymore, it should be regarded as a mature forest. Successfully navigating it takes consideration of local concerns, knowledge, respect, and true partnership. The era of naked power rivalry is over. It’s a time of equitable and mutually beneficial alliances, not forced allegiances. The elephant that understands this first, and best, will have the edge. In the meantime, Southeast Asia will continue to have more options than some people imagine.
Tinh Dinh Le is deputy director general of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. Cleo Paskal is an Associate Fellow, Chatham House. This article was original published in the latest edition of Chatham House’s magazine The World Today here.