By Eric Vandenbroeck
How to Survive A Great-Power Competition
between China and the United States grow more antagonistic, the rest of the world
watches with unease. Washington has repeatedly accused Beijing of spying on
Americans and trying to steal its secrets, most recently by sending a balloon
over the United States. Beijing has alleged that Washington is working on
cutting it off from international markets. The two sides are engaged in an
ongoing trade war and continue increasing their military expenditures. A
violent showdown over Taiwan looks increasingly possible.
competition has created headaches for many countries but is arguably the most
challenging for developing ones. Washington is pressing partners and allies to
support its efforts to penalize its adversary, as is Beijing—even though good
relations with China and the United States have helped lift hundreds
of millions of people from poverty. A confrontation between Beijing and
Washington, even a nonviolent one, would weaken the trading system that
has allowed the global South to flourish. And if the two powers did
go to war, smaller and weaker states could get dragged into the conflict.
Few places have come
under more intense pressure from the U.S.-Chinese rivalry or have more to lose
than Southeast Asia. The region, home to nearly 700 million people, is
often seen as a testing ground for China’s attempts to expand its power.
Beijing often refers to the area as its “periphery,” It is building a strong
military presence in the region’s waters while rolling out various Southeast
Asian infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road
Initiative. Washington, for its part, has campaigned hard to stop Southeast
Asian countries from agreeing to Chinese-led programs. It wants partners and
allies to support its ban on various Chinese technologies, even though
Beijing’s systems help foster economic growth on the cheap.
For Southeast Asia,
these demands feel all too familiar. During the Cold War, the region
was an epicenter of great-power rivalry as the Soviet Union and the United
States (and later China) vied for supremacy. The contest led to violence that
killed millions—in conventional wars, civil wars, and systematic repression.
The region’s people do not remember this period fondly and do not want to
But for Southeast
Asia, this new era of great-power conflict is unlikely to resemble the last
one. Despite China’s economic power, the region’s countries have been able to
resist its attempts at domination, and they have done so without consistently
relying on Washington’s containment initiatives. Instead, Southeast Asia has
strengthened and established multilateral institutions, anchored in the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that have made the region an independent force.
When the area’s countries have fostered ties with China and the United States,
they have done so on their terms. They have learned how to use U.S.-Chinese
competition to their advantage, playing the two powers against each other for
their economic benefit. Southeast Asia has even become a diplomatic behemoth,
one able to bring great powers together.
Whether the region
can maintain its position is an open question. If tensions between Beijing and
Washington lead to a military conflict, the area’s countries could be
pressured to pick sides. Southeast Asia is far from a monolith: its countries
have different foreign policies and aims, some of which are at odds with one
another. But the region’s rapid growth and expanding economy suggest that its
countries will become more powerful over time and, with it, possibly more able
to prevent external interference. Southeast Asia may have once been defined by
great-power conflict, but today, it can become a model for managing great-power
Then And Now
Throughout the Cold
War, Southeast Asia was internally divided. Many countries in the region, such as
Indonesia, were led by anti-Soviet regimes that violently
suppressed communist movements. Others, such as Cambodia, were ruled
by Marxist-Leninists. As a result, the area was fraught with tension. In 1967,
for instance, noncommunist states founded ASEAN to check the
expansion of Marxism-Leninism. Communists in Laos and Vietnam fought and won
bloody civil wars.
But as the Cold War
ended, Southeast Asia worked hard to move beyond this acrimonious past.
Vietnam, for example, overcame diplomatic isolation and became one of the
region’s most proactive and outgoing countries. ASEAN extended membership
to its former adversaries, transforming itself from an anticommunist group into
one with a broad political and economic agenda. It also became a security forum
that frequently brings the region’s diplomatic and defense leaders together to
work on trust-building and conflict prevention.
Southeast Asians have
significantly benefited from this peace dividend. The relatively stable
international system fostered global integration, allowing the region’s states
to become manufacturing hubs and the recipients of substantial investment. They
signed various free-trade agreements, bolstering connectivity and economic
growth. In 1990, only two of the world’s 40 largest economies were in Southeast
Asia. By 2020, that number had increased to six.
between China and the United States threatens these gains—in ways that feel
disconcertingly familiar. Washington, for example, has justified its
match against China by arguing that it is promoting democracy, the
same explanation it gave for the war in Vietnam decades ago. It is an excuse to
win the United States few friends in Southeast Asia. The region has many
political systems, and its states proudly work across ideological lines to
advance their interests. Even Vietnam has moved past its ideologically driven
foreign policy, instead striking up friendships with any government that can
offer support. Today that includes Washington.
The United States’
emphasis on ideology under the Indo-Pacific Strategy is not the only way it
antagonizes Southeast Asians. Washington’s push to get countries to decouple
from China has also proved intensely irritating, even to longtime friends such
as Singapore. The push also means that the United States is adopting a trait of
its adversary: typically, it has been China that demands that governments make
binary choices. (In 2017, for example, Beijing disinvited Singaporean Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong from a Belt and Road forum after he defended
an international court’s ruling about maritime claims that went against China
and in favor of the Philippines.) But ever since U.S. President Donald Trump
announced his “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy alongside a volley of trade
actions against China, Washington has come across as the great power demanding
that countries pick a side.
Beijing, of course,
has also undermined its aims in Southeast Asia. China’s economic weight is
attractive to the region, but its economic deals come with strings attached.
The country’s loans, for example, often foist unsustainable debt on
recipients that Beijing can wield against them. Laos now owes China
some $12 billion, nearly 65 percent of Laos’s GDP. Indonesia’s external debt to
China at the end of June 2021 stood at $21 billion, almost five times what it
was at the end of 2011. (Nongovernment studies suggest the figure may be even
higher.) Cambodia now owes China a different kind of tribute: Beijing’s
investments in the country appear to have won it access to the Ream Naval Base.
This military facility will give the Chinese military easier access to the
South China Sea.
“zero COVID” policy now casts doubt on the country’s actual economic strength.
And its extensive claims to Southeast Asia’s waters and construction on the
region’s reefs are a constant reminder of Beijing’s belligerence. This
assertiveness, combined with the United States' hawkish behavior, has led many
Southeast Asian states to worry that the two great powers could soon come to
blows. Such a conflict would be dangerous for the entire world but could be
especially catastrophic for this region. For example, a U.S.-Chinese war over
Taiwan would almost certainly result in a heavily militarized South China
Sea, making it difficult for ships to travel freely to and from Southeast Asia.
It would also significantly impede regional communications as the warring
parties moved to cut or take control of the area’s undersea Internet cables. In
a worst-case scenario, a conflict might even lead to attacks on the fleets of
various Southeast Asian militaries. Either way, regional trade and supply
chains could be harmed, stranding the area’s economy.
Choosing Not To Choose
country in Southeast Asia recognizes that an open conflict between China and
the United States is undesirable. They also know it would be bad for politics
and business if either state dominated the region. Neutrality may be one of the
few positions this heterogeneous group of states can agree on. The question is
how they can best achieve it.
So far, different
countries have taken different approaches. Some had maintained their policies
from the past three decades when China and the United States got along well
enough that the region was rarely pushed or pulled into one particular camp.
Malaysia and Thailand, by contrast, have moved away from their past, proactive
approach to diplomacy as domestic instability has absorbed each government’s
Stasis and inaction
might seem like a safe bet: why change course or speak out if it risks
antagonizing either Beijing or Washington? But doing nothing is a losing
strategy. If ASEAN states don’t act, they could become
bystanders in their region as major powers conduct military exercises and
possibly even fight across the surrounding seas. Passivity could cost this
group of smaller and medium-sized countries the agency they fought hard to
obtain. If the region wants to stay neutral and succeed, it must do so in a way
that is careful and considered.
Overall, however, the
region has carefully navigated the rising tensions. In 2019, as a collective
response to the United States’ aggressive Indo-Pacific
strategy, ASEAN issued a white paper, “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,”
that explicitly rejected zero-sum regional competition and dominance by any
single power. Instead, it positioned ASEAN at the heart of the area’s
dynamics. ASEAN then made good on this self-elevation. Over the last
several decades, the group has gotten outside states to invest in and trade
with the region. It has brought other countries to its diplomatic conclaves,
becoming the host—rather than just the subject—of discussions about regional
politics. The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meetings–Plus, for example,
gathers defense ministers from the ten ASEAN states and a
variety of other countries, including China, Russia, and the United States, to
discuss matters of regional and global concern. The group’s inclusive
multilateralism may not sit well with many Americans, who mentally divide the
world between friends and competitors (particularly after the outbreak of the
war in Ukraine). But cooperating with everyone is a great way to avoid making
enemies with anyone.
A Chinese-funded railway project in Bentong, Malaysia
Southeast Asia has
worked hard to maintain and expand this diplomatic and security outreach. Along
with the ASEAN-led multilateral security architecture, the region has
established many plurilateral and bilateral arrangements with external states.
They include ad hoc groups, such as the joint patrols in the Mekong River by
China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. They also have institutionalized
agreements, such as Singapore and Malaysia’s 50-year-old Five-Power Defense
Arrangement with Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. As the
geopolitical environment becomes tense, the already high number of these
partnerships will likely increase. The complex and often overlapping
arrangements are critical to Southeast Asia’s efforts to engage with all but
make exclusive commitments to none.
states are also becoming more active in groups that include participants
outside their neighborhoods. Last year, for example, Cambodia hosted the
high-profile East Asia Summit, Thailand held the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation forum, and Indonesia chaired the G-20. Indonesia’s chairmanship
proved particularly successful. In November 2022, at the sidelines of the G-20
meeting in Bali, Indonesia hosted a summit that helped break the ice between
China and the United States by bringing U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping face to face for
the first time since Biden assumed office. Australian Prime Minister Anthony
Albanese also spoke with Xi at the proceedings, ending years of silence between
Australia’s and China’s heads of state. Both meetings would have been
impossible were it not for Indonesia’s neutral stance, and they helped
reinforce Southeast Asia’s belief that multilateralism remains invaluable even
in a disorderly world.
Southeast Asian governments have learned that there are benefits to
U.S.-Chinese competition. Beijing and Washington’s clash may frighten the
region’s politicians, but it has led both governments to try to win the hearts
and minds of nonaligned countries. This has helped Southeast Asian
countries—home to young populations and cheap labor—extract economic benefits.
Vietnam, for example, has profited tremendously from the United States'
decoupling from China as U.S. companies have moved production to Vietnamese
factories. Indonesia has also received a boost in investment from U.S.
companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, and Tesla. The region is becoming
increasingly critical to global supply chains.
There is no guarantee
that Southeast Asia’s balancing act will work forever. As U.S.-Chinese
competition heats up, many analysts expect that the region’s states will, one
day, have to take sides. Even Lee, the Singaporean leader, who is no fan of
Beijing and Washington’s rivalry, said at the 2018 ASEAN Summit
that ASEAN might eventually have to choose.
But unlike in the
Cold War, when Southeast Asia was mostly poor, newly independent, and weak,
today’s ASEAN states are predominantly middle-income. They can be
influential—as the region’s diplomacy illustrates. In the years to come, these
countries’ economies will continue to grow, as should their populations. Both
increases will give the region dividends that Beijing and Washington lack:
China’s population is contracting, and the United States is struggling with
domestic political polarization that could hamper its growth and leadership
capacities. Therefore, the two competitors may find that their relative power
will decline in the decades ahead—a trend that will narrow the power disparity
between these states and the ASEAN countries.
The coming decades
could give Southeast Asia distinct global advantages. The International
Monetary Fund has projected that the region will have some of the highest
levels of economic expansion in the world over the next several years. If there
is a global recession, Southeast Asia could become the growth engine for the
broader Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia and Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s most
significant and third-biggest states by population, respectively, will become
high-income countries in the next two decades. Southeast Asia, then, could soon
have substantial international influence.
ASEAN members, the additional sway may only be welcome sometimes.
International governance requires time and resources that many Southeast Asians
would prefer to spend on their development. But the region’s flexibility and
adaptiveness will help its countries thrive and exert influence, even in
turbulent times. It will help them handle a more fragmented world and make
deals with parties that do not get along. Their proactive approach to
neutrality is certainly a better model than the passive nonalignment that
defined the Cold War’s Non-Aligned Movement. Southeast Asia’s extensive
network of diplomatic connections advances its political agency, bargaining
power, and economic growth. Aligning with many states is more fruitful than
aligning with none.
Indeed, it may be
better to think of Southeast Asia’s approach not as nonalignment but as
multi-alignment. The region wants as many ties and choices as it can muster. In
addition to China and the United States, it has welcomed Australia, India,
Japan, and European states to actively engage with the region—to trade, invest,
and participate in its international dialogues. Creating all these ties may
take time and effort. But as Southeast Asia has illustrated, it is an effective
and affordable way for developing countries to avoid great-power conflict and