Great power rivalry between the United States and China is frequently described in bilateral terms, with regions of the world — including Southeast Asia — merely serving as arenas of competition. But this framing ignores the agency of third countries in managing the risks and opportunities presented by this competition. To explore these countries’ agency and the corresponding policy options, this USIP essays series includes contributions from 10 Southeast Asia-based experts. Each essay provides a perspective on how each member country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) perceives and responds to strategic competition between the United States and China.

The flags of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members in ASEAN headquarter at Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia. From left the flags of: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. (Wikimedia Commons)
The flags of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members in ASEAN headquarter at Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia. From left the flags of: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thail

USIP, the East Asian International Relations Caucus (EAIR), the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR), and the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS UKM) brought together scholars from Southeast Asia and the United States for a two-day workshop that examined questions such as: How has U.S.-China competition manifested in Southeast Asia? What kinds of benefits and challenges are presented by this competition? How can the agency of smaller states be understood and assessed in the context of great power competition? What options do states in Southeast Asia have? And what is the role of ASEAN? 

The track 1.5 workshop in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in June 2023 provided government officials and regional scholars with the opportunity to discuss what U.S.-China rivalry looks like in Southeast Asia and how they interpreted the rivalry’s significance for individual states and the region collectively. The attendees offered their assessments in the form of an essay series that offers the vantage points of all 10 ASEAN member-states. The inclusion of all 10 helps correct a still-too-common focus on a select few states — specifically those that tend to align with Washington — as though they represent the complete Southeast Asian view.

Program Description

This ongoing USIP essay series seeks to explore the agency of Southeast Asian states and their policy options in the context of U.S.-China competition. The essays will examine whether there are domains (e.g., economic or security) where ASEAN states experience more or less pressure stemming from strategic rivalry.

A key theme that spans these essays is the risks and opportunities presented by strategic competition and how Southeast Asian states approach managing that competition to serve their interests. In other words, what does Southeast Asian agency look like amid strategic rivalry and what are the implications for these countries' much-coveted strategic autonomy?

The opinions expressed in these essays are solely those of the authors and do not represent USIP, or any organization or government.

Essay Series

A usually busy road remains empty during a “silent strike” against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. March 24, 2021. (The New York Times)

How A Fractured Myanmar is Navigating U.S.-China Rivalry

Phyu Hnin explores how Myanmar’s civil conflict has made the country vulnerable to powerful foreign interests at the expense of Myanmar’s people — but that pro-democratic actors could use the U.S.-China rivalry to their advantage.

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