Southeast Asian countries prefer a healthy balance of power between major powers in the region. This is often overlooked by China and the United States, which want them to take a stand on issues of concern.
As Sino-US competition intensifies and is likely to persist beyond the US presidential elections, the pressing question for Southeast Asia – a region which is growing increasingly important – centres on how to respond to such dynamics. The answer from the Southeast Asian countries seems straightforward – they are generally reluctant and careful not to take sides, as doing so would reduce their manoeuvring space between the two major powers. They would prefer to be friends to both China and the United States, or for that matter, to any of their key partners.
However, the answers from the perspectives of the United States and China do not appear to be straightforward. In fact, both of them have tried to influence Southeast Asian countries to take a stand – even though the said countries have said ad nauseam that they will do no such thing. On its part, the United States has called on Southeast Asia to side with America in its competition against China. This was most apparent during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s October visit to Asia that included Indonesia and Vietnam.
In Indonesia, Pompeo said that “law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims made by the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea”. He commended Indonesia for its “decisive action” to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands. In Vietnam, in a more measured tone, Pompeo expressed America’s support for the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations, international law and a free and open Indo-Pacific. Before his Vietnam visit, the US State Department issued a stronger statement opposing Beijing’s “unlawful maritime claims” and “campaign of bullying” in the South China Sea.
It is reasonable to argue that Southeast Asian countries can identify with the values and norms of rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as articulated by Pompeo. They may also quietly welcome a robust US response to China’s assertiveness in this area. A case could even be made that Southeast Asian countries ought to call out China for its actions that contravene international rules and norms. Furthermore, Southeast Asia would welcome the US military and private sector’s continued presence in promoting the growth, prosperity and security of the region.
These countries are in the best position to decide their own national interests – as a result, over-zealous attempts by China and the United States to sway them may prove counter-productive.
However, there are elements in Pompeo’s remarks that Southeast Asian countries may be more circumspect about. Foremost among them is the singling out of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for criticism. The effort to distinguish between the CCP and the rest of the population in China is unlikely to gain traction in Southeast Asia, as this is tantamount to inciting domestic unrest against the ruling party of the day. At one level, this constitutes interference in the domestic affairs of another country, a principle which Southeast Asian countries do not subscribe to. At another level, a number of governments in Southeast Asia are not democratically elected. Understandably, they would abhor the idea of their local population rising up against them.
On China’s part, Beijing has adjusted its position on how Southeast Asian countries ought to respond to the Sino-US rivalry and China’s rise. Before the advent of the Trump administration, there was a perception in some quarters in China that Beijing was on a trajectory of inexorable rise and that the rest of the world, Southeast Asia included, ought to be cognisant of this trend and avoid being caught on the wrong side of history. In other words, Southeast Asia should recognise China’s growth trajectory and identify more with the country or, at the very least, not take a position that would be detrimental to Beijing’s interests. While Beijing has largely not evinced such a view in public, it is a view that is often privately expressed.
Most recently, however, Beijing has become more explicit in signalling to Southeast Asia not to take the side of the United States. A Global Times article noted a gap between Pompeo’s public remarks and those made by the host countries during Pompeo’s Asia trip. The article accuses Pompeo of trying to make Indonesia a “frontline” state against China on the South China Sea issue and said that Jakarta would not fall for this. The same article warned Vietnam that Pompeo’s attack on the CCP poses “long term threats” to Vietnam, as a similar attack could be directed at the Vietnam Communist Party in the future. Earlier visits to Southeast Asia by China’s top leaders – Politburo member Yang Jiechi in August 2020, Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in September 2020 and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in October 2020 – were intended to reinforce to these countries the benefits of working with China, and by extension not to side with America.
That said, Beijing’s efforts to try to influence Southeast Asia into taking a certain position may backfire as this could also be construed as interfering in the domestic affairs of Southeast Asia. It could even rekindle unpleasant memories of how Beijing had supported communist elements that threatened the newly-independent governments in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s.
Both China and the United States can be more confident in the fact that Southeast Asian countries generally seek a healthy balance of power of the major powers in the region. These countries are in the best position to decide their own national interests – as a result, over-zealous attempts by China and the United States to sway them may prove counter-productive. The two Asia-Pacific powers should be mindful of the words of Lord Palmerston, the prime minister who served at the zenith of British imperial power: a country has no eternal allies or perpetual enemies; it only has “eternal and perpetual” interests that it is duty-bound to follow.
Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow and Assistant Director at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore.