Southeast Asian narratives about US–China competition (part 1): choice and necessity
13 Nov 2019|

Language and rhetoric are important in a time of consequential power shifts and may even form a key front in Asia’s great-power rivalry—especially now, looking at US strategy in the region. Washington’s declared strategy of a free and open Indo-Pacific—despite what the name suggests—still struggles to convince that it has transitioned from mere rhetoric into genuine action.

The pulse of the regional debate suggests that there are now four dominant—albeit misleading—narratives in Southeast Asia about great-power competition and the differing roles of China and the US.

The first is the push-back against a paradigm of great-power competition in which smaller states are compelled to choose between Washington and Beijing. The narrative of choice isn’t a new one, but it has gained currency particularly among the ASEAN leaders over the past year. At the 2018 ASEAN summit, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong declared that making such a choice might be unavoidable. ‘Circumstances may come where ASEAN could have to choose one over the other,’ he said.

Some six months later, as the debate intensified, Singapore’s PM steadfastly resisted the notion that the region should have to choose. In a keynote speech at the 2019 Shangri La Dialogue, Lee stressed that Singapore wants to be friends with both, rather than choose one over another. This view is not exclusive to Singapore; as a recent report from the Brookings Institution, Don’t make us choose, makes clear, it’s now widespread across ASEAN.

While this narrative narrowly—and falsely—frames the choice as either/or, it does reflect a level of anxiety about the impact of growing great-power competition and resistance to the return of bipolarity. While Beijing has a track record in pushing binary choices, the debate has shifted the focus onto the US. Now it appears that Washington is the great power that’s asking states in the region to choose.

US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have appeared to convey the following message at previous regional summits and in public speeches: ‘Don’t go for the debt-trap diplomacy of the Belt and Road Initiative. The free and open Indo-Pacific is a much better alternative to the Sino-centric regional order.’ The Huawei ban declared by the US and some of its closest allies also involves regional fears about a new technology iron curtain. Rather than seeing viable and attractive alternatives, more often than not Southeast Asia sees having to choose as an imposition.

Indeed, the Trump administration’s language fuels this interpretation. The narrative also misleadingly suggests that all other actors are destined to fall victim to the great-power contest and that they have no, or little, power to influence events. In fact, the US–China choice serves different purposes for some of the Southeast Asian states in manoeuvring in a tenser strategic environment—a development that deserves a separate analysis. But that doesn’t change the fact that this narrative is being popularised.

When it comes to ASEAN’s relations with China, another dominant refrain is the narrative of destiny.

The tyranny of cartographic reality, aggravated by the sheer power asymmetry, translates to a kind of strategic fatalism—an assumption, however unwillingly, that there’s no option other than working with Beijing. The alternative—confronting it—is simply undesirable, if not unacceptable to some.

This applies even to the giant of Southeast Asia, Indonesia. The country’s newly re-elected president, Joko Widodo, was quoted as saying, ‘There is no choice but cooperate and co-exist.’

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—whose country won an unprecedented international legal action over a maritime dispute with China—has on many occasions expressed the logic behind his government’s failure to pursue maritime territorial claims. ‘What can we do? Go to war with China? Educate me please’, he has said.

At the ASEAN summit last week, Malaysia’s veteran prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, said: ‘We pointed out that we are a small country. [We] can’t confront China. If they want to claim [the] South China Sea as theirs, that’s their concern.’

This narrative bears a striking resemblance to the words uttered by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi in 2010, when he reminded his counterparts in the region that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’

It flows from a recognition that China will continue to play by far the most significant economic role in Southeast Asia—something that concerns each and every country, regardless of their political relations with China.

A regional survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute reflects this reality, with over 73% of respondents seeing China as having the most economic influence in Southeast Asia compared with only 7.9% who thought the same about the US. This is despite the fact that US direct foreign investment in the region remains higher than that of China.

China’s geostrategic shadow looms large over Southeast Asia and promises an intertwined economic future. The notion of a common destiny with Beijing, accompanied by a certain sense of strategic fatalism, is increasingly being touted in the region.

To support that contention, there are two other narratives that suggest that China is cooperating with ASEAN and that US engagement with the region—under President Donald Trump at least—is in decline. I will discuss these in part 2.