Southeast Asia has seen this movie before and it does not end well for it. During the colonial era, great powers like the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands vied to dominate them. Times have changed. But to Southeast Asia the new struggle for regional domination between China and the US feels familiar. In both eras they were – and are – viewed as pawns in a great power contest – in the colonial era primarily for their resources, and now in the modern era for their strategic locations and ideological support.
The Netherlands, one of the former colonial powers in the region, warns that that the region may become “a plaything between the great powers.” https://thediplomat.com/2020/11/following-france-and-germany-the-netherlands-pivots-to-the-indo-pacific/ Indeed, this modern great power struggle, like that in the colonial era, is likely to ignore their interests and be painful for these nations and their peoples.
This new great game is starting to crystallize out of the swirling mist of geopolitics. It is driven by a clash of civilizations and ideologies. Faced with China’s burgeoning military capabilities and rising ambitions, the U.S. believes that it and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf
It has even framed their conflict in existential terms saying “the world cannot be safe until China changes.” https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/07/29/commentary/world-commentary/u-s-china-reconciliation-drifting-away/
The U.S. has launched a whole of government full-court press on China including an effective public information campaign to demonize it. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1200010.shtml It is also trying to bring its allies and partners together in an anti-China ‘coalition of the willing.’ Many Southeast Asian states are ‘in play’.
Understandably, China believes that the U.S. wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise so that it can continue its hegemony in the region. To advance its power and influence, it has proposed and is implementing a grand vision of an economic network — the Belt and Road Initiative with China as its source and destination of economic goods.
China has its economic-oriented Belt and Road Initiative. With US President Donald Trump’s dramatic withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the creation of the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the U.S. is falling farther behind in economic influence in the region. It is not surprising that the U.S. sees China’s Belt and Road Initiative as part of a diabolic plan for regional if not world domination. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the initiative is an attempt to create “vassal states [and] a tyrannical regime all around the world for global hegemony .” https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/entire-world-beginning-to-unite-against-china-says-mike-pompeo/articleshow/77886285.cms
The U.S. has countered with its security-oriented Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) – a vision of an international order for the region led by democratic countries adhering to the existing system that it helped build, now leads and asymmetrically benefits from.
Its strategy is to tighten a geo-strategic noose around China. It already has a lattice work of allies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan (de facto), the Philippines, and Thailand — and others like Malaysia and Singapore that facilitate its military strategy. Now it is moving to militarily dominate the Indian Ocean – with India and Australia’s co-operation — before China can do so. This will enable the U.S. to control China’s vital sea lanes like the Malacca Strait and thus its oil and economic lifeline.
According to Derek Grossman of RAND, “the US likely seeks to leverage the Indian Ocean Region as part of a strategy to compete with and counter China, and, importantly, India is increasingly favorable towards such an approach.” https://globalnation.inquirer.net/192213/us-navy-plans-to-raise-new-fleet-in-indo-pacific-says-top-us-official
To enhance the U.S. ability to do so, the US Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite has proposed creating a “First Fleet” perhaps based in Singapore. He said “Nations around the Pacific …. need to assist in pushing back Beijing militarily and economically for deterrence to work”. https://www.straitstimes.com/world/united-states/us-navy-plans-to-raise-new-fleet-in-indo-pacific-says-top-us-official#:~:text=WASHINGTON%20%2D%20The%20Secretary%20of%20the,the%20Indian%20and%20Pacific%20Oceans.&text=The%20plan%20also%20comes%20as,over%20a%2030%2Dyear%20horizon.
This unilateral proposal is an example of how Southeast Asian nations are being caught up in this contest. Singapore has already agreed to host up to four US Littoral Combat Ships, and it facilitates US intelligence collection aircraft targeting China. But it quickly denied any discussions on “additional deployments”. Basing of a whole fleet is unlikely to be accepted by Singapore — or its fellow ASEAN members — for fear of angering China. But the proposal does indicate the geostrategic thinking at the highest levels of the US military and their disregard for the sensitivities of countries caught in between the US-China contest. https://www.rsis.edu.sg/media-highlight/idss/a-us-navy-first-fleet-in-the-indian-ocean-based-out-of-singapore-not-likely-analysts-say/
As part of this strategic encirclement, members of what is being called the Quad — the U.S., Japan, Australia and India — are forming an incipient anti-China alliance. https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/world/focus-indo-pacific-will-continue-biden-experts They just completed their first joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. also plans to assist its allies and partners to build their maritime defense capabilities. Bilaterally, the U.S. and India and the U.S. and Taiwan are strengthening their defense relationships. Australia and Japan have agreed to allow military operations on each other’s territory. For now this will be restricted to training and joint operations – but who knows what tomorrow may bring. While this may seem trivial, given the bitter World War II Australian experience of Japanese attacks on its territory and horrible treatment of its prisoners of war, it is a remarkable step towards another nail in the military fence that is being built around China’s perimeter.
As part of this geo-strategy, both the U.S. and Japan have been courting Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam to help in their anti-China network. New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga chose Vietnam as his first official overseas destination saying Vietnam was “crucial to achieving [Japan’s] vision of a “Free and Open Pacific”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/in-vietnams-capital-japanese-pm-pushes-indo-pacific-vision/
It is clear that this strategic contest for Asia is pressuring Southeast Asian nations to take sides. The possibility of a kinetic clash forcing them to choose is becoming greater. Henry Kissinger recently warned that “America and China are now drifting increasingly toward confrontation, and they’re conducting their diplomacy in a confrontational way …. The danger is that some crisis will occur that will go beyond rhetoric into actual military conflict.” https://www.caixinglobal.com/2020-11-17/kissinger-warns-biden-of-potential-for-us-china-catastrophe-101629240.html
This great power contest could be a disaster for Southeast Asia. They are struggling to maintain their strategic autonomy and would like to follow great power wishes only when their interests align. But they cannot resist such pressures alone. They need to do so in unison. But ASEAN’s cohesion is in jeopardy. As outspoken Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warns “The South China Sea issue is ASEAN’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community.” https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/11/12/Duterte-South-China-Sea-ASEAN-Summit-act-with-haste.html Unfortunately for Southeast Asia, the South China sea contest is only the tip of the iceberg of the new great power game. While the US style may ameliorate under President Joe Biden’s administration, the great game will go on.