Eluding The Crossfire While Giants Fight: East And Southeast Asian Geopolitics And The South China Sea Dispute – Analysis


The new geopolitics of East Asia is dominated by the emerging regional rivalry between China and the United States. This new strategic reality has been driven by China’s economic rise against the backdrop of the US’ “rebalancing” foreign policy in Asia and its relative economic decline. The rivalry extends well beyond maritime issues. East and Southeast Asian states have been drawn into this contest, whether or not they have disputes with China in the South China Sea (SCS). The geopolitical transformation in East Asia has been shaped by political and economic developments in the world in the last two decades.

The first is focused on the changing balance between East and West. (1) At the end of the Cold War, the center of gravity of the world was shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But as Asia integrates with itself amidst the rise of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), the geopolitical emphasis has shifted from “Asia-Pacific” to Asia. While the concept of Asia-Pacific includes the US and other countries from the Americas, the latter has come to represent greater economic integration within East Asia. 

China’s economic rise and success not only won the admiration of Southeast Asian countries, but also helped Beijing establish strong trade and financial ties with them. The “pivot” is taking place in the context of deepening Chinese regional relationship. As a result, seven (7) Asian economies have been identified as the future engines of global growth, with the growth in the emerging middle class being a key driver (see Table 1).

Table 1.

Over the last decade, the PRC has become the main trading partner for most Asian nations replacing the historic primacy of Asian linkages with the US and the West. (2) As with its economy, companies and technologies, the United States as a global political power no longer exercises sole dominion in Southeast Asia.

According to the World Bank, China’s $18 trillion economy accounts for just under 18 percent of global GDP, making it the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, which accounts for about 25 percent. The PRC had overtook Japan as the second-largest economy in 2011. China is in its way to rapidly closing the gap with the US on aggregate GDP. The size of the Chinese economy is expected to surpass that of the US by 2030. 

While the profound economic interdependence between the PRC and the US remains a major driver of the global economy, the prospect of Asia developing on an independent path has gained some adherents. That Asia enjoyed relatively high economic growth rates whilst the West experienced a major economic contraction in recent years has given rise to speculation about Asia’s decoupling from the US and the West. 

Whether such a decoupling occurs or not, the notion of Asia’s uniqueness and the exceptionalism of its political values has gained some ground. This in turn is reinforced by a growing sense of threat, economic and political, from Asia to the West. If there was triumphalism in the East about the rise of Asia, there has been rising pessimism about the future of the West. (3)

As PRC economic power translates into military power, amidst a purposeful modernization of Chinese armed forces, there is no doubt that the PRC will emerge as the foremost military power in Asia. Some analysts argue that the phenomenal expansion of Beijing’s power will return the region to a historic Sino-centric regional order. Others, however, insist that the rise of the PRC will lead to regional instability. Apart from the region, the PRC’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) is the world’s largest military force (not including paramilitary or reserve forces) and has the second-largest defense budget in the world. China’s military expenditure was US$292 billion in 2022, accounting for 13 percent of the world’s defense expenditures. (4)

While some Asian nations might choose to “band-wagon” with the PRC, others are likely to “balance” the rise of the PRC with tighter alliances and security cooperation with other powers, especially the US. (5)

Pivot in Asia

The US is not waiting to be reduced to sub-primacy in the region as a result of what some have dubbed Chinese ‘domination by stealth’. The US and its Asian allies (foremost the Philippines) perceive China as a threat more than a partner in global development. The United States has recognised China’s growing geopolitical importance and has made decisive actions to strengthen its position, via balancing and engaging with China. 

This is what has been called “the pivot to Asia”, first announced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in July 2010, a shift in the focus of foreign policy from the Middle East to the Far East to try to balance the growing influence of China—and the threats of North Korea. 

While the pivot is essentially diplomatic in nature, the catalyst for the pivot was a situation not only of reduced American regional influence but also of a more assertive Chinese approach and actions, especially in the South China Sea disputes, which may appear to have reignited US involvement in the region. There is a broader ‘rebalancing’ strategy to register American power and influence. Clinton proclaimed in the said ARF that: 

“The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” (6)

At the turn of 2012 it became clear that the much talked about US pivot to Asia was no longer about renewed American diplomatic and political interest in Asia. It would have a distinctive military dimension. Then President Obama announced a new defense guidance in that called for a rebalancing of US military forces to the Asia Pacific theater. 

US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. In his trip to the Asia-Pacific region, Obama made clear that “The United States will always be a Pacific nation.” This means it will do whatever it takes to deepen its weight in the area. 

The PRC-US Conflict in the SCS and ASEAN Security

The South China Sea’s geographical and geostrategic position creates a security dilemma for virtually all powers in East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. The existing dilemma was further exaggerated by the scaling down of the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s, at a time when China was emerging as the most likely dominant power in the region. 

While the US is keen on safeguarding its commercial and military interests by keeping routes passing through these areas open, China believes it to be interference in the sense that America is not a party to these longstanding territorial disputes. China has insisted that the South China Sea issue is a regional problem and that outside powers should not be involved.

On the other hand, The US has repeatedly stated that it has a national interest in freedom of navigation, in open access to Asia’s maritime commons and in respect for international law in the SCS. Hence, the real concern the US has with China’s maritime policy is that it believes that China is challenging the generally accepted rules governing freedoms of the seas and unimpeded access to the seas. It is a dispute on the interpretation of the UN Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

The US position is that the EEZ is special zone in which the coastal State has sovereign rights to explore and exploit the natural resources, and in which other States have the right to exercise traditional freedoms of the seas, including the conduct of military activities. The US argues that it has rights to conduct military activities in China’s EEZ, including reconnaissance activities, so long as it gives due regard to China’s rights and obligations with respect to natural resources as provided for in the Law of the Sea Convention. In short, the US argues that the EEZ is a resource zone, not a security zone. China takes a different view and argues that foreign military activities jeopardize its security interests.

ASEAN-China and the ASEAN-way

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played an important role for many years in attempting to manage potential conflicts in the South China Sea. The capstone of its efforts is the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In 2003 China acceded to the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and China and ASEAN established a strategic partnership. This diffused the disputes to a considerable extent. 

In July 2011, ASEAN and China reached agreement on Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC. Like the DOC itself, the guidelines call for peaceful settlement of the dialogues and consultations and confidence-building measures. Likewise, the Guidelines provide that the decision to implement concrete measures or activities under the DOC should be based on consensus among the parties concerned, and lead to the eventual realization of a Code of Conduct (COC).

The decision seems to be to reach a consensus within ASEAN on the contents of the COC before involving China in the discussions. China has indicated that it is ready to participate in discussions from the outset on the COC. In May 17, 2023, China and ASEAN countries held the 20th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Ha Long city of Vietnam and adopted a work plan for the implementation of the DOC in 2023.

Since it is in the mutual interests of China and the ASEAN claimants to reach agreement on a COC, they may be able to do so, provided that the discussions do not get embroiled in the big power struggle between China and the United States. If the discussions remain at the regional level between China and ASEAN, it is far more likely that a consensus can be reached as China objects to the disputes being “internationalized.” 

In the SCS, and the broader East Asian region, a shared understanding has been institutionalised in the “ASEAN-way,” which is manifest in principles of non-interferences, conflict avoidance, face saving, and an incremental approach to conflict resolution through consensus and dialogue. This shared understanding is the result of the combined forces of economic integration and the regionalisation process in the 1997 ASEAN Plus Three (APT) (ASEAN members plus China, Japan, and South Korea).


Until a rising PRC grabbed the attention of the region, there had been little fear of great power rivalry in the region. Yet we have seen military tensions build up between the PRC and the US in the waters of the Western Pacific in recent years. The contradiction between the PRC’s efforts to limit and constrain the presence of other powers in its maritime periphery and the US commitment to maintain a presence in the Western Pacific is real and can only deepen over time. Whengreat powers decide to become directly involved in a conflict the stakes are often very high.

The burden of securing Asia, then, falls squarely on the region itself.Security regionalism in Asia, led by the ASEAN, is being severely tested by the growing intensity of the PRC’s territorial disputes with its maritime neighbors in the East and South China Seas. The Obama administration’s decision to involve itself in these disputes and the deepening naval tensions between the PRC and the US are adding additional layers of complexity to the regional dynamic. ASEAN has found itself largely paralyzed in dealing with the gathering territorial conflict in the South China Sea between the PRC, on the one hand, and two of its important members, Viet Nam and the Philippines on the other hand. 

Maintaining ASEAN unity in the face of these conflicts, let alone rallying behind member states and against the PRC has become very difficult for the organization.Many analysts have attributed this outcome to Beijing’s new ability to influence the internal dynamic in the ASEAN. Beijing, on the other hand, has accused the US of trying to provoke ASEAN members against it. (7)

The ASEAN has also found it increasingly difficult to cope with the new contours of Sino-American contestation in Asia. While many would like to see a strong US presence in Asia to provide an effective balance in the region, few would want to be caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing. (8)


  1.  For a provocative framing of the issue, see Mahbubani, K. 2008. The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. New York, NY: Public Affairs. See also Lundestad, G. 2012. The Rise and Decline of the American ‘Empire’: Power and its Limits in Comparative Perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 
  2.  Beeson, M. (2009). East Asian Regionalism and the End of the Asia-Pacific: After American Hegemony. Available at: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Mark-Beeson/3008.
  3.  Peerenboom, R. (2007). China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest? New York, NY: Oxford University Press. See also Jacques, M. 2009. When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. London: Allen Lane. For a critique of the view on the irresistible rise of Asia, see Pei, M. 2009. Think Again: Asia’s Rise. Foreign Policy 174(July/August). Available at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/06/22/think_again_asias_rise For a balanced view of the power shift, see Zakaria, F. 2008. The Post-American World. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
  4.  International Institute for Strategic Studies (2020). The Military Balance. London: Routledge p. 259.
  5.  Ross, R.(2006). Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China: Accommodation and Balancing in East Asia. Security Studies 15(3): 355–95.
  6.  “Comments by Secretary Clinton in Hanoi, Vietnam,” 23 July 2010, available at www.america.gov
  7.  Storey, I. (2012). China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses. China Brief 12(15): 8–11. See also Xinhua. 2012. US needs to behave itself in South China Sea. Global Times. 4 August. Available at: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/725124.shtml
  8.  Thayer, A. (2011). The United States, China and Southeast Asia. In: Southeast Asian Affairs, edited by D. Singh. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Rizal G. Buendia

Rizal G. Buendia, PhD, is an independent consultant and researcher in Southeast Asian Politics. Former Teaching Fellow in Security and Southeast Asian Politics and Governance at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and former Chair and Associate Professor, Political Science Department, De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines.

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