As the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies — with some speculating a new Cold War is in the offing — many Asian countries are looking on with concern. If Washington seeks to maintain its role as a global leader, it should be judicious in how it contests Chinese influence in Asia, which seems likely to be the key battleground of the new Sino-American rivalry. The United States must understand that Asian countries do not want to be forced to constantly manage competing pressures from superpowers. Cold War-era Sino-American competition demonstrates that forcing Asian countries to choose sides can ultimately be counterproductive and undermines one of the United States’ chief attributes in this global competition.

President Joe Biden poses with leaders from ASEAN at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden poses with leaders from ASEAN at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

As the White House hosts its second Summit for Democracy this week, it should recall a vital lesson from the Cold War that ultimately helped Washington prevail: one of the United States’ key advantages over China — then and now — is the allure of the democratic model it shares with its allies in the free world.

Lessons from the Cold War

While the Soviet Union was America’s most significant great power rival during this era, in Cambodia, Laos and other countries in the region, the United States often devoted more resources and energy to hindering Chinese efforts to gain recognition and influence. But these policies had few successes and often ended up alienating the very people whose loyalties the United States was ostensibly vying to win.

For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, Washington constantly pressured the neutralist and fiercely nationalist Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk not to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet China’s influence loomed large in Cambodia’s neighboring states and the small Asian country found it impossible to make Beijing its enemy. The more pressure the United States put on Sihanouk the more resentful he became and the more he flouted American advice. He visited China in 1956 and normalized relations with the PRC two years later. “China’s a great country nearby and a reality,” he told American officials after he returned from his visit and ignored Washington’s warning about the dangers posed by Beijing. 

Sihanouk was further enraged by America’s approach to Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which displayed little regard for his country’s sovereignty or neutrality and prioritized defeating Hanoi. By 1964, Sihanouk had unilaterally terminated all American aid programs and closed the Cambodian embassy in Washington. Relations between the United States and Cambodia were so bad that some American intelligence documents saw the once friendly country as part of a “Beijing-Hanoi-Pyongyang-Phnom Penh-Jakarta” axis.

While not every American effort to deter Asian nations from maintaining relations with China was quite so catastrophic, it was almost never successful at dissuading neutral nations from pursuing their interests. Although India and China would clash in 1962, during the 1950s they built a cooperative relationship under the rubric of the “Pancha Sila” or Five principles of Peaceful Coexistence. American officials repeatedly cautioned Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru about India’s warming relations with the PRC and launched a propaganda campaign designed to make Indians more aware of China’s bad intentions. But Nehru disliked being pressured and even praised Chinese premier Zhou Enlai as a “great Communist leader” in a press conference with American journalists. Sino-Indian entente did not last but this was mainly because of Beijing’s sensitivity to Indian criticisms of its policies in Tibet and Nehru’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet in March 1959. Even after the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, India never recognized Taipei or took the kind of strong anti-China position American officials encouraged it to.

Asia Amid the Rising Sino-American Rivalry

Today, Asia has once again emerged as a major venue of Sino-American rivalry. Its close geographic proximity to the Chinese mainland has made it a natural target for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to expand Chinese influence and power. Moreover, most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries have already become economically interdependent with the PRC to greater or lesser degrees while some, such as Cambodia and Laos, have moved almost entirely into China’s economic orbit.

The United States does not want to see China dominate the region and Washington remains a valued partner to some of its governments. Since 2017, both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to use Washington’s leverage in the region to encourage its governments to downgrade their ties with the PRC and demonstrate unity against China. Biden in particular has stepped up American diplomacy in the region and made new promises of economic and security cooperation.

Much as it did during the Cold War, Washington has sought to promote its vision of a world divided between democratic countries that play by the rules and authoritarians ones that threaten international peace and stability. While it does not bluntly demand that nations cut ties with China as it did during the Cold War, American initiatives are not so subtly designed to compete with China and win Asian countries to its side. For instance, the Biden administration launched the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN in November 2022, roughly one year after China established a similar partnership with the association. Washington no doubt hopes to use its upgraded presence in the region to encourage more military and security ties with the United States while discouraging participation in China-led economic initiatives.   

But pressuring Asian countries to choose between the United States and China can have disastrous consequences for Washington today — much as it did six decades ago. While approaches to managing great power rivalry vary across the Asian region, the majority of its leaders have made it clear that they view the competition in general as dangerous. When tensions between Beijing and Washington flare — as was the case when Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last year — ASEAN leaders have expressed concern about volatility and encouraged dialogue.

Leaders in the region have been even more blunt about not wanting to be forced to choose between Beijing and Washington. In a widely cited 2019 speech, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, warned both China and the United States not to try to divide Southeast Asia or pressure its leaders. He explained that Southeast Asian states all understood that they would benefit more from multilateralism than bilateral arrangements with one of the two great powers. He insisted on “regional cooperation initiatives” that could “strengthen existing cooperation arrangements centered on ASEAN.” These initiatives must not “create rival blocks, deepen fault lines or force countries to take sides.” Lee’s words should be sobering to American officials who seek to rally all of Asia against the PRC.

American efforts to pressure Asian nations to side with it against China are unlikely to persuade leaders like Lee, who above all want to maintain independence and strategic flexibility. At the worst, the United States may once again end up alienating some countries in the region or even driving them into China’s embrace. In other instances, insisting on greater alignment with the United States will lead to a loss of American credibility. Ultimately, there is little that Washington can do that would significantly reduce China’s already deeply entrenched economic and political presence in the region. Indeed, it can be destabilizing and even dangerous given the high level of interdependence that already exists. Insisting that Asian leaders follow guidance that they are likely to reject will only highlight the limitations of American power and influence.

The Formula for Success

Yet Washington must also recognize that this does not mean that China will dominate Asia. During the Cold War, the United States often believed that neutralist countries were too soft on communism. It must avoid seeing ASEAN’s “centrality” or the determination of other countries to avoid taking sides as the equivalent of surrender to the PRC. Much to America’s surprise, during the Cold War, some leaders in the Non-Aligned Movement such as Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who insisted that their neutrality be respected, were actually just as independent minded as they claimed to be and rebuffed pressures from both the free world and the Communist bloc. If Beijing seeks to force leaders in the region to take its side, it will also lose influence and credibility. And thus far, Beijing’s efforts to pressure and punish other countries in the region have been every bit as unsuccessful as Washington’s.

If the United States wants to enhance its influence and prestige in Asia, a more patient and less insistent approach will serve its interests best. First, the United States needs to give China the space to fail. Regardless of how much China invests in Asia, its authoritarian political culture will make it likely to stumble in its relations with the region in the long-term. During the Cold War, friendships within the Communist bloc were more fraught and less durable than those in the free world. Today, China’s soft power is weak and its cultural diplomacy often inept so it has few resources to draw upon when economic agreements don’t work out. While it will be tempting for Washington to use China’s failures to score political points, it will be better off respecting the capacity of Asians to understand China’s shortcomings for themselves.

Second, the United States needs to remain engaged in Asia without seeking to counter every Chinese initiative. Countries throughout Asia want the United States to maintain a presence there even if they fear the consequences of great power rivalry. Washington must find ways to cooperate with Asian countries — whether in the military, economic or cultural realm — that are innovative, distinctive and meet the needs of their people in ways that China cannot. This might mean leveraging its advantages in areas like higher education and technology to offer programs that have a more unique appeal.   

Finally, the United States must assure the continued success of Asian democracies such as South Korea. It must remember that the Cold War ultimately turned in its favor not because it pressured neutral countries, but because the free world offered more attractive models than Communist China. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cultural Revolution had thrown the PRC into poverty and turmoil. But Taiwan, Japan and South Korea had experienced almost miraculous economic take-offs. With a few exceptions, Asian leaders no longer saw Communist China as a country that could help them to overcome their most pressing challenges. In this context, the CCP had little choice but to change course and seek rapprochement with the United States.  

Chinese influence in Asia will remain inevitable during the 21st century but its triumph is not. Patient and consistent American engagement rather than reactive and misguided efforts to pressure Asian leaders offers the best hope of assuring that the Indo-Pacific will remain free and open.  

Gregg A. Brazinsky is a professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University. He currently serves as the director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and the Asian Studies Program.

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