Analysts are feverishly debating whether the United States and China are on the brink of a modern version of their own “Cold War.” It is of course too early to tell and there are many reasons why that may not happen. But the “soft war” for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian countries is clearly intensifying and the United States has suffered some recent setbacks.
“Soft power” is the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. The soft power struggle between China and the United States for influence in the region has become much more equal in capacity and effect than Washington would like. Indeed, some argue that the United States is losing — or will eventually lose.
China has strong soft power influence in the region, the most grandiose element of which is its Belt and Road vision. Its implementation would make China the manager, financier, driver, and core of a vast trade and economic system connecting Asia with Eurasia and Europe. As part of this grand plan, Chinese economic investment in the infrastructure of Southeast Asian countries is already benefiting some countries — and positively influencing their views of China.
The United States was initially complacent regarding China’s growing soft power. Washington was confident that its friends and allies in the region would remain loyal. But that hope began to fade with the clear political loss of Laos and Cambodia and the hedging of allies like the Philippines and Thailand and others that the United States considered solidly in its camp.
So Washington began to strike back in earnest. It named China as a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. The 2017 National Security Strategy declared that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” Then-Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris added that “without focused involvement and engagement by the United States and our allies and partners, China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”
As a counter grand vision, the United States proposed a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Within this framework, Washington is pushing for a renewal of the so-called “Quad” – a potential (but unlikely) security arrangement among the four large democracies of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States intended to counterbalance China.
This push back culminated in the October 4 “it’s us or them” speech by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. He criticized China across the board and in particular for behavior in the South China Sea. However as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd puts it, “many US allies may decide to hedge their bets, waiting until it becomes clearer whether the US shift will be permanent and whether it will succeed.”
On September 30, a U.S. warship on a freedom of navigation operation against China’s claims in the South China Sea was confronted by a Chinese warship and the two nearly collided. Meeting as previously scheduled, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus Meeting (ADMM-Plus) expressed unusually blunt concern with the incident. The ADMM-Plus participants are the 10 ASEAN members plus Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the United States.
The host, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, seemed to blame both for the incident. Ng said, “We asked pointedly: ‘What happened between the two ships, should we be worried? How are your relations?'” He added that “Some of the incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.”
Ng also asserted that the “very act of ASEAN asking” about the incident helped the United States and China “collect their thoughts, formulate strategies and place emphases.”
But Washington essentially destroyed this hope by sailing two warships through the Taiwan Strait, clearly stepping up the frequency of such transits and in the process provoking China’s nationalists. Indeed, Chinese leaders will clearly see the transit as a weakening of the U.S. “One China” policy. While clearly planned in advance of ASEAN’s expression of concern, it probably embarrassed Ng, who had declared that ASEAN has a clear role to play in stabilizing tensions: “Big powers… trust us to be in the driver’s seat.”
Meanwhile China has made political advances with Southeast Asian countries, particularly in military-to-military relations. On October 27-28, China, Malaysia and Thailand implemented their first ever trilateral military exercise in the strategic Malacca Strait. From October 22-28, China and ASEAN implemented the first China -ASEAN maritime exercises. The United States and Australia were not invited.
To some, the participation of some Southeast Asian nations implies “passive support” for China’s position in the soft power struggle. Chinese State Councilor and National Defense Minister Wei Fenghe hailed the exercise “as a milestone event that will showcase the resolve and determination of China and ASEAN to safeguard regional peace and stability.” The host commander, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, spoke of the exercise as an ongoing means to build confidence and understanding between ASEAN and China.
Ng announced that ASEAN also said that it is planning a similar maritime exercise with the U.S. Navy next year, in keeping with ASEAN’s preferred position of balancing between the two big powers. Indeed, Ng said, “ASEAN’s centrality will be further emphasized if we agree on today’s proposal for the ASEAN-U.S. maritime exercise next year.”
Meanwhile, a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN is making some progress. China has proposed a clause stating that “the Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.” This appears to be a bold affront to the United States and its extraregional supporters like Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France.
China’s President Xi Jinping is about to make a state visit to the Philippines and in deference Manila has promised that it will not participate in reportedly planned U.S.-led military exercises in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in November.
China is also making progress on an agreement for joint development of natural gas with the Philippines in disputed waters. If this is politically and economically successful, it will create a precedent for other rival claimants to follow — perhaps to the exclusion of companies from countries outside the region, as China has proposed in the draft COC.
Perhaps it does not matter so much whether these efforts are eventually successful. Just the possibility of “progress” itself, with no major backsliding, may be enough to keep ASEAN- China relations in the comfort zone — and put pressure on the United States to moderate its confrontational and provocative policies and actions.
Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.