People pass by flags of ASEAN countries along the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane

People pass by flags of ASEAN countries along the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane on September 5, 2016. ASEAN should move beyond the multitude of summits and meetings by incorporating concrete actions into its agenda. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, AFP)

Agency Requires Action: Southeast Asia and Great Power Rivalry


The US-China rivalry means that Southeast Asia needs more integration and a more outcome-oriented ASEAN.

Southeast Asian states’ strong desire not to be forced to choose between the US and China is the common feature in the analysis of Southeast Asia and Sino-US rivalry. ASEAN is presented as the key regional forum to help these weaker states work together to avoid this lose-lose outcome. This “no choice” preference is understandable given the limited capacity of each Southeast Asian country vis-à-vis great powers and the region’s Cold War history on the front line of the Soviet-US confrontation.

Economic and security realities also confirm this instinct. The U.S. is regarded as the preferred regional security provider. Southeast Asian elites generally favour a continued American presence to offset the risks from China’s rise even though (or because) China has become their most important economic partner.

This conventional wisdom presents Southeast Asian states as mostly helpless or having no agency to shape the effects of the outcome of US-China rivalry on the region in their favour. Southeast Asian states supposedly only have only two choices: Either hitch themselves to one or the other superpower or suffer the consequences.

However, as Donald K. Emmerson wrote, agency is not the exclusive property of the powerful. Far from passively accepting their fate, regional states have actively shaped their relations with great powers. Hedging, the preferred strategy of all Southeast Asian states to maintain a balance between China and the US, is a manifestation of Southeast Asia’s agency in relation to the two great powers, allowing regional states to maintain deep ties with both China and the US.

The broadening and deepening Sino-US competition has started to expose this strategy’s limits. The Covid-19 pandemic elevated simmering tensions into a full-blown rivalry across multiple domains. Facing pressures from both sides, Southeast Asian states are painfully aware of China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia, and the obstacles this throws against a coherent, region-wide approach to China.

The pandemic and consequent economic downturn has weakened growth, aggravated inequalities, and undone years of progress in poverty reduction in the region. Given that economic performance underpins political legitimacy in many Southeast Asian states, regional governments are desperate for a return to growth. China is prepared to deliver this through deeper integration with its economy, further strengthening its regional clout.

The only way forward for Southeast Asia is greater efforts at region-building.

In contrast, even with a new administration that promises the return of an orthodox American foreign policy, American attention will be divided between domestic challenges and priorities in other regions. When U.S. President-elect Joe Biden talks about cooperation and multilateralism, what he implies is the American expectation that allies and partners should share more of the burden of maintaining the current rules-based order.

In this fluid security environment, agency becomes even more critical. The only way forward for Southeast Asia is greater efforts at region-building. Southeast Asian states should demonstrate that they are willing to be more active in dealing with shared regional challenges and not allow the region’s trajectory to be determined by great powers’ calculations. A recent ASEAN report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the region offers fresh opportunities for further region-building. While the region faces daunting post-Covid recovery challenges from job loss (especially in tourism and export sectors), shifts from formal to informal employment and greater levels of poverty, these issues also present opportunities for Southeast Asian countries to collaborate and confront challenges that will directly impact regional development and political stability.

ASEAN should play a central role in these efforts. It should move beyond the multitude of summits and meetings by incorporating concrete actions into its agenda. In labour cooperation, ASEAN and its sectoral ministerial bodies have issued several declarations on keeping markets open and assisting affected businesses and workers. ASEAN now should develop plans to operationalise these commitments. In combating poverty, ASEAN can support members with the least developed social assistance systems through exchanges of expertise and good practices, so they can quickly scale up their systems to assist vulnerable groups during crises. It can help members expand their social insurance systems to cover informal workers, which account for a large share of the workforce.

This is meant to demonstrate that ASEAN is using its agency to resolve regional challenges and strengthen itself as a premier regional organisation that takes real actions, not a mere “talk shop.” Greater cooperation on “low politics” issues can reduce mistrust and deepen shared interests among member states. The strong reactions to Bilahari Kausikan’s recent comments, in which he subtly reminded Laos and Cambodia to take into account regional interests when making decisions related to China, demonstrate these implicit strains in intra-ASEAN relations.

To achieve this, ASEAN requires greater support and activism from its member states, especially those with the capacity and capability to lead. These include Indonesia, the presumed leader of the region; Singapore, the state with the most significant capabilities and diplomatic clout; and Vietnam, the rising star thanks to its skilful leadership of ASEAN during the Covid-19 crisis.

2020 proved to be a consequential year for Southeast Asia. However, enormous challenges await in the next few years, as the region struggles to deal with its own internal issues and avoiding the fallout from great power rivalry. These daunting tasks require regional states to demonstrate their shared agency by moving beyond rhetoric on integration and taking concrete actions to secure Southeast Asia’s future.


Hanh Nguyen is a former non-resident WSD-Handa research fellow at Pacific Forum.