As the US-China contest for regional dominance intensifies, officials and analysts alike have warned that Southeast Asian countries might eventually have to choose between the two. For some, that day is dawning. For years, many have tried to hedge their bets, producing awkward inconsistencies in foreign policy. Some still do so.
Of course, it is not “all or nothing” – at least for now. But, eventually, the choices in critical spheres like economics and defence will become so clear and politically severe that countries will reach a tipping point.
Given that China has the economic advantage over the US in the region, Washington seems to hope that its liberal political, social and economic values will be more attractive to these countries. But this is not proving to be the case and the US is increasingly falling back on its military power advantage. But, even here, China is gaining ground.
The contestants have made the choice increasingly stark. In October 2018, US Vice-President Mike Pence gave an “it’s us or them” speech, criticising China across the board and contrasting its behaviour and values with those of the US.
Implementation of the new US Indo-Pacific Strategy will press its friends and allies even harder to join it. According to the new strategy, “The [Defence] Department is reinforcing its commitment to established Alliances and Partnerships, while also expanding and deepening relationships with new partners who share our respect for sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.”
Obviously, the US intends to continue to mix politics with defence strategy and pressure relevant countries to choose between the US and China in defence.
Patrick Shanahan, who was acting US secretary of defence until recently, was quoted as saying: “The Indo-Pacific is our priority theatre. We are where we belong. We are investing in the region. We are investing in you, and with you. And we need you to invest further in yourselves.”
But he made clear that US partners should not purchase military equipment from China or Russia, saying “you are buying a long-term relationship, not just a platform”.
The US decision to gift drones to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam makes this choice even clearer. The drones will be used to gather intelligence on Chinese activities in the South China Sea. This will benefit the recipients, but also the US in its effort to enhance maritime domain awareness of China’s activities.
To encourage “like-minded nations” to ensure their networks are secure, the US is essentially threatening to punish those countries that allow Huawei into their telecommunications network. The US is targeting Huawei – and those countries – supposedly to prevent espionage. But others say the motive is also to deny China global leadership in hi-tech industries.
In response, China is adopting sanctions against countries such as Australia that exclude Huawei. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has publicly backed Huawei and defied the US. Such “choices” are a harbinger of more to come.
Freedom of navigation is another area subject to increasing pressure. Most Southeast Asian states do not support US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Indeed, countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have restrictions similar to China on foreign warships operating without their consent in waters under their jurisdiction including, for some, even in their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.
Given that all except Brunei and Singapore have been targets of such operations, they probably do not support America’s legal interpretation of freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft or the US use of threat of force to demonstrate its interpretation.
Countries are already straddling an ever-widening chasm and will soon have to choose or fall into the gap of foreign policy chaos and possibly domestic political splits.
Others have de facto demarcated themselves as being militarily pro-US. For Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, any pretence to military neutrality is undermined by their facilitation of China-focused US intelligence-gathering flights and hosting of the rotational deployment of US warships and – in Australia – troops. This makes them potential targets in the event of China-US hostilities.
Despite US pressure, few regional states, including US allies and China’s rival claimants in the area, have openly rallied behind Washington. Indeed, the US has long pressed allies and friends in Asia to join its freedom of navigation operations targeting China but the only one that has responded is the UK, and for domestic reasons that is likely to be a one-off.
At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that a US-China clash would be disastrous for Southeast Asia. He challenged both nations to do better – calling on the US to preserve the multilateral order and make the “difficult” but necessary adjustments to China’s rise, while exhorting China to “convince other countries through its actions that it does not take a transactional and mercantilist approach”.
US help in enhancing the military capabilities of allies and partners – and an increased regional presence and promotion of stronger regional security relationships will not ease tensions between Beijing and Washington. Instead, a more aggressive US posture and presence could force more regional nations to choose. And the US may not like the outcome.
This piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3015134/us-or-china-why-washington-might-not-southeast-asian-nations