Editor’s Note: The following article is part of a new USIP essay series, “Southeast Asia in a World of Strategic Competition.” The opinions expressed in these essays are solely those of the authors and do not represent USIP, or any organization or government.

Great power rivalry between the United States and China is frequently couched in bilateral terms with regions of the world merely serving as arenas of competition. Rarely considered is the reality that while third countries may be significantly weaker than either the United States or China, they are neither totally helpless nor completely without leverage or absent agency. As Southeast Asia is “where great powers meet,” the region’s states have a challenging balancing act to play, but also have options in how they manage the risks and opportunities presented by this competition.

A historical map of China and Southeast Asia, in Danang, Vietnam, Nov. 1, 2017. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly/The New York Times)
A historical map of China and Southeast Asia, in Danang, Vietnam, Nov. 1, 2017. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly/The New York Times)

Indeed, the two powers’ competing agendas in Southeast Asia have become a recurrent theme of recent headlines. In July, Southeast Asia’s significance to both the United States and China was at center stage at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings attended by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. Both diplomats followed their respective well-rehearsed scripts on Southeast Asia, with each attempting to convince Southeast Asian states to distance themselves from the other. 

We see this over and over again. U.S. analysts and policymakers reiterate the “upward trend of unhelpful and coercive and irresponsible Chinese actions in the South China Sea” and their threat to Southeast Asia’s maritime interests. And Chinese analysts and policymakers underscore to Southeast Asian counterparts the dangers associated with the so-called U.S. “Cold War” provocations and destabilizing economic policies. This suggests that U.S.-China tensions are leading to growing pressure on Southeast Asian states to make a choice between two critical relationships.    

Southeast Asia’s Agency

But how, in fact, are Southeast Asian states responding to the expanding U.S.-China rivalry?  How do they understand their options and constraints? And to what extent are states really finding their choices constrained or in need of reassessment? Too often, analyses highlight what is being done to Southeast Asian states, rather than considering whether and how Southeast Asian states are navigating the rivalry, positioning themselves and shaping dynamics to their own benefit and priorities.    

As U.S.-China tensions intensify, how Southeast Asian states can and should respond is increasingly a question for both those outside and inside Southeast Asia. More than just front-line states, Southeast Asian countries can both complicate and facilitate the United States’ and China’s ability to achieve specific strategic goals. Similarly, Southeast Asian narratives can detract from, as much as add to, the relative standing and legitimacy of U.S. and Chinese agendas.

U.S. and Chinese attention to Southeast Asia, as well as efforts to engage and court Southeast Asian states by Japan, South Korea and European states, underscores a point that USIP China expert Andrew Scobell made at a workshop in Malaysia earlier this June — namely, that what is taking place in Asia is far “more than a two-player game.”

Nevertheless, the expansion of U.S.-China tensions into additional economic realms, especially the politicization of supply chains, broadens the impact on Southeast Asia. For all Southeast Asian states, economics is regarded as the foundation for legitimacy and regime stability and thus, unlike the South China Sea, U.S. and Chinese economic policies are felt more widely across the region. While ASEAN has been notoriously divided on responses to South China Sea challenges, there is much broader alignment on the need to preserve the conditions for economic growth.

The U.S.-China rivalry has destabilized integration trends of the last four decades and the foundations on which Southeast Asian states have achieved highly prized degrees of regional stability, economic prosperity, diplomatic standing and regime legitimacy. How will Southeast Asian states respond to this destabilization? Will they adopt new policies to address this surging rivalry?

The View from Southeast Asia

The track 1.5 workshop in Kuala Lumpur this past June provided the opportunity to discuss what the U.S.-China rivalry looked like in Southeast Asia and how government officials and regional scholars interpreted the rivalry’s significance for individual states and the collective region. They offered their assessments from the vantage points of all 10 ASEAN member states. The inclusion of all 10 offered an important effort to correct for a still too common tendency to focus selectively on a few states — that tend to align with Washington — as though they represent the Southeast Asian view.

This fall, USIP will be releasing 10 essays that explore topics from this workshop and highlight both areas of important convergence, but also a range of different views and priorities among ASEAN states. As two examples, the Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally and its views and approaches to the United States and China differ with both Thailand (the only other U.S. treaty ally in Southeast Asia) and Malaysia (a fellow South China Sea claimant). And while some states like Vietnam and Malaysia feel greater pressure from U.S.-China competition and have intensified their pursuit of “active” and “dynamic” neutrality, others see major power competition as an opportunity to diversify relations and choice.

The essays will examine whether there are particular domains (e.g., economic or security) where ASEAN states experience more or less pressure stemming from strategic rivalry. A key theme that will span these essays is the risks and opportunities presented by strategic competition and how Southeast Asian states can manage 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?

For those concerned about the United States in Southeast Asia, these essays will offer some common takeaways that should be of interest and are worth paying attention to. They all emphasize developmental security and strategic diversification as priorities. Further, developmental security is also viewed as a foundation for regime security; however, none of the papers featured especially prominently the importance of the United States as an economic partner. There was also little discussion on the Biden administration’s signature Indo-Pacific Economic Framework , except to say that it existed. In contrast, China’s economic initiatives and expanded economic relations with individual states loomed large.

There is also the sense that the United States has not taken sufficient advantage of Southeast Asian interest in greater economic and diplomatic engagement — a perception that for some states is also reinforced by Washington’s normative democracy agenda. And while some in the United States may see such assessments as inaccurate or unfair given, for example, the amount of U.S. private investment in Southeast Asia, perception matters. 

Alice Ba is Emma Smith Morris professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.

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