In less than two weeks, US Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Singapore and Vietnam in her first trip outside the Americas. The trip comes not long after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in late July. While the United States’ renewed focus on Southeast Asia is a refreshing shift from the Trump Administration’s inward-looking foreign policy, it is notable that these visits come amidst rising US-China tensions.
Southeast Asia has long been a playground for the two superpowers as a region strategically positioned for trade routes. The South China Sea—which is currently disputed territory, with numerous countries asserting their sovereignty over the region—accounts for nearly a third of all global maritime trade. Additionally, the Strait of Malacca—which passes through Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia—is a key gateway from the South China sea to the Indian ocean: or, more simply, the East to the West. More than a quarter of the world’s traded goods pass through this strait.
Besides its geographical importance, the Association of Southeast Asia (an economic bloc of 10 Southeast Asian nations) is increasingly becoming a key player on the global stage. Its economy is currently the fifth largest in the world by GDP, and only expected to grow in the coming years. More importantly, ASEAN is China’s largest trading partner and the United States’ fourth largest trading partner.
Given China’s economic ties with and proximity to the region, it has long sought to establish itself as a key player within the region. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative led by President Xi Jinping is only the latest example of this.
Launched in 2013, the OBOR initiative aims to create land and sea corridors between China and the rest of the world. In less than a decade, China has already invested over a trillion dollars in infrastructure development within these proposed economic corridors, including building oil and gas pipelines, ports, railways systems, roads, and power grids in over 78 countries, with a key focus on Asia.
Meanwhile, the United States, in an effort to obstruct China’s attempts at expanding its sphere of influence, has been shoring up allies and forging ties with ASEAN. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade agreement between the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and Southeast Asia signed in early 2016 — would have represented some 40 percent of the world’s GDP and was a clear attempt to reduce the signatories’ trade dependence on China and bring them closer to the US.
While President Trump pulled out of this historic agreement in January 2017 — one of his first moves after he took office — it seems the Biden administration is once again renewing the United States’ focus on Southeast Asia.
On a macro level (to prevent a unipolar world), it is crucial that the United States positions itself as a reliable counterbalance to China, especially given the latter’s recent appetite for expansionism. However, it leaves Southeast Asia in the middle of a dangerous tug of war between the two superpowers.
So far, states have avoided choosing sides, instead opting to reap the benefits of a good relationship with both countries. The first reason for this is historic. ASEAN was founded in the midst of the cold war to prevent the region’s involvement in the power struggle between the US and Russia. More than 50 years later, these founding principles of non-intervention and strict commitment to maintaining their countries’ sovereignty have determined the region’s neutrality in yet another power struggle between the East and the West.
The second is that overdependence on either China or the United States is problematic. Countries that ally themselves with superpowers in the hope of economic or military support are often left behind once they no longer serve strategic purposes. Southeast Asia only has to look as far as neighbouring Taiwan for an example.
While the two countries have maintained a close relationship since the early 20th century, the US no longer recognises Taiwan as a sovereign state.Taiwan’s location, economy, and security are essential to American interests. If Taiwan were to become part of China, the latter would instantly become a Pacific power.
Even still, the United States’ has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to Taiwan, which has left the country wondering if Washington will come to its aid if, or when, a Chinese invasion occurs.
Given both these contexts, Southeast Asian countries have been pandering equally to the two superpowers.
Although the Philippines, under the Duterte administration, had been growing closer to China in recent years, it reaffirmed its commitment to the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States this July.
Similarly, while Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor since 2013, it renewed a key defense pact with the United States in 2019, allowing American forces to use Singapore’s air and naval bases for at least another 15 years.
Maintaining this careful balance is a game Southeast Asia has been playing for years. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once commented that the region lives “at the intersection of the interests of various powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”
With the ferocity that both the United States and China are courting the region with, it seems that Southeast Asian support holds the key to tipping the balance of power in favour of either side. It now remains to be seen if the region can continue to remain neutral in the coming years.