If one glances at some of the media headlines, the takeaway from the recent round of ASEAN summitry which just concluded in Singapore is that Southeast Asian states are increasingly anxious about growing U.S.-China rivalry and having to potentially choose between Washington and Beijing. While that trite phrase may remain true, the overemphasis on this false U.S.-China choice that regional countries have long feared also grossly oversimplifies regional realities and in many ways underestimates the real challenge that Southeast Asian countries face.
The focus on Southeast Asia as a region and ASEAN as an institution being caught between a growing rivalry between the United States and China is not surprising given the recent tensions between Beijing and Washington. In recent visits to Southeast Asian capitals, it has been difficult to have a single conversation without interlocutors dwelling on U.S.-China tensions. Last week, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong captured things well when he said ominously that “the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other.” While Lee had also spoken to some of the other regional dynamics at play in Southeast Asia that deserved mention, that phrase has unsurprisingly stolen the show and dominated media coverage.
That is unfortunate. As important as China and the United States are, an overemphasis on this false U.S.-China choice, and viewing Southeast Asia from within that frame, can also grossly oversimplify regional realities. In particular, the frame of a U.S.-China choice being set up for ASEAN countries in the future overlooks the issue of how Southeast Asian states are making those choices now; oversimplifies how the region deals with major powers; and misunderstands Southeast Asia’s true dilemma with respect to Washington and Beijing at this present moment.
The first issue with respect to the framing of a U.S.-China choice for ASEAN countries is that it overlooks the issue of how these choices are already being made in Southeast Asian states, which has itself been a challenge, rather than just what the future may present. Convenient though it may be to attribute ASEAN’s problems to major powers, the reality is that even before U.S.-China rivalry had heated up, Southeast Asian states had been making some troubling choices regarding their alignments, with the personal interests and agendas of leaders and regimes at times diverging from the national interests of these countries.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte are often highlighted as the two leaders who have leaned far too close to China out of regime or personal interests than their national interests would otherwise dictate or that wider elites and publics would typically tolerate. But there are other cases in the region too that deserve mention, including Thailand’s military junta and the former government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The point here is not to quibble about the rationale for these individual choices, but to emphasize that this is as much about real choices that Southeast Asian leaders already made in the past and present rather than just existential ones in the future made given the constraints by outside powers. It is also to reinforce the point that independent of the United States and China, or broader global trends, ASEAN has itself faced its own string of challenges in recent years, including a lack of leadership from traditionally leading states. Lee himself had dwelled on ASEAN’s internal challenges, albeit diplomatically, in his opening remarks at the ASEAN Summit – a speech which did not refer to either the United States or China even once, and – perhaps predictably – received almost no coverage in wider international media outlets.
The second issue regarding the framing of a U.S.-China choice for ASEAN countries is that grossly oversimplifies the balancing act that Southeast Asian states face with respect to major powers, especially in today’s world. Southeast Asia as a region is itself the product of historical influences from multiple powers – notably India, China, Britain, France, Japan, and the United States – and ASEAN as a grouping, though initially founded as an anti-communist bloc in the midst of the Cold War, has expanded and grown to comprise a group of states that view their fate as being tied to engaging a range of powers in a balanced way while enmeshing them within a normative framework.
While the United States and China are undoubtedly significant powers relative to others, framing Southeast Asia’s choices as being limited to them alone understates the role of other powers in conditioning that choice. Consider the leading role Japan has taken in promoting infrastructure development in recent years, or India’s stepped up efforts – though still admittedly limited – in cultivating defense ties with ASEAN countries including in the maritime realm. These are shifting trends one misses when viewing the region from a pure U.S.-China lens.
Indeed, the real story in Southeast Asia in recent years is less about the United States or China alone but how a confluence of trends – including growing uncertainty about China’s rise and Southeast Asia’s own centrality as a market and strategic hub – has pulled in a variety of actors into the region even deeper than before. South Korea, Taiwan, and the European states are all cases in point, and the fact that these capitals have outlined and begun implementing concrete strategies focused on Southeast Asia is testament to this reality.
The third issue with the framing of a U.S.-China choice for ASEAN countries is that it assumes that Southeast Asian states have a clear selection to make between two powers that have defined themselves and increasingly appear to be forcing or coaxing regional states to choose between them. As grim as that situation may seem, it in fact underestimates the tough place that Southeast Asian states find themselves in.
The reality is in fact direr. The issue for Southeast Asian states, which is already evident in some cases, is that they are facing twin realities simultaneously, where China’s growing power has been quickly translated into an ability to apply leverage to condition the choices of some countries on the one hand, while the United States has simultaneously been either undermining its ability to or creating uncertainty about its willingness to provide greater options for these countries on the other. In other words, the issue for Southeast Asia is less that it has two clear alternatives, but that neither one appears rather appetizing at this point in time.
Indeed, the striking thing about Southeast Asian alignments in recent years is how little choice key countries have at all, rather than a neat selection they face between two powers. Consider the rocky road recently faced by two able Southeast Asian balancers – Vietnam and Singapore. Vietnam, which has moved appreciably closer to the United States in recent years, has had to endure both more Chinese coercion than usual, including in the South China Sea, and disappointment at some of the Trump administration’s initial moves, including its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Singapore, a longtime U.S. partner whose importance has often surpassed that of U.S. Southeast Asian treaty allies, has been the victim of similar dynamics, and close observers know that has affected how it has calibrated its ties with both Beijing and Washington during its ASEAN chairmanship this year.
Of course, Beijing and Washington’s position in the region could well evolve. Those familiar with China’s relations with Southeast Asia will know that Beijing can at times shoot itself in the foot just when it has a leg up in the region, which should be a cautionary note against linear projections some are fond of making. And the United States, despite some own goals by the Trump administration which has undermined U.S. competitiveness even while waging competition against China, has usefully begun to more clearly outline what its value proposition is relative to that of Beijing, rather than just criticizing or letting its own brand speak for itself (a losing proposition in Southeast Asia where Washington as it is often gets too little credit for what it already does).
In other words, as before, the kind of China and the kind of United States Southeast Asia is faced with will themselves shift over time, further exposing the limits of binary, fixed choices. And that is yet another reason why the U.S.-China choice frame, seductive as it is, can often grossly oversimplify regional realities.