Southeast Asia Analysis: August 26-30, 2021

There continues a raging debate about the US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia and particularly about what America wants and what it is offering, but what is most interesting about this discussion is what is not being talked about. More on that below.

Most of the strategic thinking in the popular English-speaking press seems to occur in Singapore’s The Straits Times. One often gets the impression that, however disparate the ASEAN member states’ interests are, on such questions, deference is often paid to Singapore’s point of view. Singapore is more than just a city-state that punches above its weight; it’s almost a Vatican of Southeast Asian trade and diplomacy. 

Perhaps the most pointed attack on US designs on Southeast Asia in The Straits Times in recent days was in “US-China Contest: Questions About the Quad” by Hugh White. He says it is “plainly false” when Washington claims “’our engagement in South-east Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country, nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries’”. 

[T]here is no question that America’s overriding priority in South-east Asia today is to counter China’s growing influence, and it undoubtedly wants to recruit the countries of the region to align with Washington against Beijing.

And, if the US wants ASEAN aboard its purported anti-China coalition, it should shift its focus away from the Quad (Japan, India, and Australia), where there is naught but sound and fury, to Southeast Asia.

The vision of Asia’s future which the Quad is meant to promote is so vague as to be meaningless. Slogans such as ‘A free and open Indo-Pacific’ and ‘A rules-based order’ convey nothing more than a shared wish that China doesn’t grow too powerful and influential at their expense.

This “shared wish” among the Quad is met by “ a lot of overt enthusiasm to support the US in its contest with China” and yet, “America’s humiliation in Kabul” deepens what was already a lack of real commitment: Would India or Australia go to war with China to help Japan?

Few in Asia outside China would doubt that America has a valuable role to play in balancing and moderating Beijing’s influence, but even fewer in South-east Asia believe that a return to US primacy can work. To win this region around, Washington needs to offer it something the South-east countries can believe in.

The Quad is composed of powers without any real strategic vision or purpose, but if one of them offered such a vision or purpose (one that does not include “a return to US primacy”) to ASEAN (or Southeast Asia?), they could “win this region”.

Thus, by process of elimination, we are left with a Southeast Asia without either US/Quad or Chinese “primacy”. So, what are we talking about? A region — stretching from Myanmar to the Philippines — left for ASEAN to manage on its own? Or an ASEAN-brokered deal involving China, itself, and the Quad? Or a region playing a greater role in its own security with the Quad in support? We will come back to this point.

Lost in the more dramatic elements of Kamala Harris’s visit to Southeast Asia was the work on the plumbing in US-ASEAN relations, as recounted in “Strengthening US-Asean Supply Chains”. The newspaper describes the US interest in modifying American trade links with Asia as “China-plus”; that is, although China can not be excised from global trade because of how important it inevitably is to the global economy, it would also be imprudent to continue to be as reliant on the country as the world now is, but…

[F]or this “China-plus” strategy to work, it would require large-scale investments in the region in infrastructure as well as technology – much of which would need to come from US companies. It would also need more business-friendly regulations, the upskilling of workers and more robust protection of intellectual property rights. Leveraging the support they will get from the Biden administration, US business leaders will need to work with their counterparts in South-east Asia, as well as governments in the region, to make this happen. If they do, it would deepen the economic linkages between the US and South-east Asia, to the benefit of both.

Singapore and Southeast Asia, it seems, is moving towards Quad+ for security and China+ for trade.

The fall of Afghanistan and America’s abandonment of the project has–as we have seen over the last few weeks–mostly led America’s Asian allies to the conclusion that they need to be both more self-reliant and more reliable. America, as one piece puts it, can no longer be seen as simply a global superhero that shows up to right wrongs:

As the world order continues its shifts and America wakes up to new priorities, and as Singapore resets itself post-pandemic, it is important for citizens to keep their eye on the big geopolitical players around us. We have to remain clear-eyed and realistic about our interests and who we are as a society, and strip our minds of the myths and nice stories we have been told, about ourselves and others.

Pax Americana—the international community’s version of the American Dream—is coming to an end in the South China Sea. How that squares with Quad+ for security and China+ for trade remains to be seen.

As we mentioned above, because of Singapore’s role in Southeast Asian order, it has a unique capacity for looking out over the strategic horizon. And, one place that caught its eye this week is South Korea, which is due for an election in March 2022 and pits the leftist peace-niks of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), currently led by President Moon, against the conservative hawks of the People Power Party (PPP). In “South Korea, the ‘Shrimp’ Swept Up in Fight of American and Chinese ‘Whales’”, Chang May Choon describes a South Korea that should be familiar to Southeast Asian readers: “Stuck between two titans, Seoul has for a long time hewed to a policy of strategic ambiguity, relying on the US for its defence while trying to stay on good terms with China, its largest trade partner.”

But there is a difference, it would seem, i.e. South Korean public opinion:

A China-bashing trend seems to have emerged, as the country’s main opposition – the conservative People Power Party (PPP) – attempts to win over the nation’s youth in its quest to return to power in the presidential elections next year. They are frustrated over how their country’s ruling elite has kowtowed to China, its largest trade partner, in the wake of a dispute over the 2017 deployment of an American anti-missile system on South Korean soil. PPP chief Lee Jun-seok, the party’s youngest leader at age 36, took aim at Chinese “cruelty” in places like Hong Kong. “We’re definitely going to have to fight against the enemies of democracy,” he told Bloomberg last month, adding that the public is “not happy” with how the progressive administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is leaning more towards China. An online survey of people aged 18 and above by polling firm Hankook Research and weekly magazine SisaIN showed that over 58 per cent of 1,000 respondents considered China “close to evil”, while another survey by Maeil Business newspaper found that 66 per cent of 300 people polled disliked China.

But, perhaps the difference between South Korea and ASEAN is not all that great. Look at Vietnam — which outfits like The Global Times assures us neatly brackets its territorial disputes with China — describe Kamala Harris’s visit:

The US will continue to have high-level security cooperation in support of a strong, prosperous and independent Việt Nam, she said, adding that the country will continue to work with Việt Nam to ‘push back against threats to freedom of navigation and the rule-based international order.’  She said both the US and Vietnamese leaders placed high priority on freedom of navigation not only as a security but also as a commerce issue. ‘The US intends to strengthen our participation and partnership with partners and allies, in a way that is collaborative to meet the challenges of the moment and of the future together,’ she said, whether it’s Việt Nam, Singapore, Southeast Asia or the Indo Pacific.

The question is not whether the elements of Sino-Vietnamese relations are in any way bracketed. The question is how they are bracketed. The US has bracketed relations with the Taliban, at the moment. For relations between two states that are otherwise familiar with each other to not be bracketed would be to have a state of unrestrained war.

But, the larger point we are making here is that just as critical sections of South Korean society are turning against China and this is moving the country as a whole, such is the case in ASEAN. Vietnam, like young South Korean voters, like much of the world, is having to first de-link security and trade and then prioritize security concerns over trade: “US and Vietnamese leaders placed high priority on freedom of navigation not only as a security but also as a commerce issue”.

South Korea’s ruling DPK can no more ignore this tectonic shift in priorities among its people than Singapore/ASEAN can ignore this shift in Vietnamese priorities. Ideally, a negotiated solution would be best, but this is simply not available. Chinese conditions for negotiating a South China Sea Code of Conduct appear to be as serious as Taliban negotiations with the erstwhile Afghan government.

But, much of this begs the question. What is going on here? Is this really a physics problem? That is, is this simply a question of where B grows in mass relative to A that C, D, and F will inevitably be pulled towards B unless A, C, D, or F either reduce B or grow in mass themselves? Is this just about China becoming “bigger” in some abstract sense? Every time someone says that Southeast Asia is not interested in getting caught up in “the US-China” rivalry or Cold War or competition or whatever, that seems to be the implication.

Yet, if one reads Goh Sui Noi’s “Aggrieved nationalism – China’s double-edged weapon”, one might wonder if this is actually more than an exercise in abstraction.

The US, Japan and South Korea have all felt the sharp end of Chinese nationalist fury. But once unleashed, jingoism can be hard to control…China’s nationalism has been on full display in the past few months, doing little to improve the great power’s image internationally. The specific issues and targets may vary but the overall tone is one of a bristling belligerence. The United States – a favourite target given the great power rivalry – was the subject of a torrent of taunts on Chinese social media over its botched withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan…The recent Tokyo Olympics also brought out the Chinese ultra-nationalists, who derided China’s own athletes for not showing, in their eyes, enough patriotism.

If the US has an interest in Southeast Asia, does that mean that Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea is the product of “America’s Cold War with China” as Hugh White describes it? Doesn’t this sort of language tend to sideline Southeast Asian interests in its own backyard? The Chinese have an axe to grind with the US, and with Japan, and with South Korea…and with their teen gymnasts. China has a beef with History itself. Not just the history of the Opium Wars and the Century of Humiliation, but the meaning of suppression of the democratic demands at Tiananmen Square in 1989:

The roots of this more negative nationalism can be found in large part in the patriotic education campaign begun by the CPC in the 1990s to bolster its legitimacy after the 1989 Tiananmen incident in which hundreds – perhaps thousands – of pro-democratic protesters were killed by the PLA….’Thirty years later, the party has successfully utilised its educational, media and cultural systems to socialise mainland Chinese into an aggrieved nationalism primed to view the world as hostile,’ said Professor Gries of the Manchester China Institute, in an e-mail interview. Many adherents of this xenophobic and chauvinistic form of nationalism are young Chinese born after 1990.

Taiwan.

“Taiwan”.

This is a word that is studiously avoided in nearly every geopolitically relevant Op-Ed from Southeast Asia over the weekend, even from the far-sighted Singaporeans. I can only find one off-handed reference to the country.

What is presented to readers is a (Cold) War without consequences.

Does China want to take Taiwan because of “America’s Cold War with China”? If China were to invade Taiwan, would the Quad react? Is China serious about the Nine Dash Line? Does China have an interest in taking Okinawa? Does China have territorial ambitions beyond those it has already spelled out?

Inch by inch, Taiwan is being brought under the Quad umbrella. The most recent example of this is the party-to-party dialogue on Coast Guard cooperation between Japan and Taiwan. Lithuania, it appears, has kindly offered itself, with American encouragement, as a trial balloon to test Chinese will and capabilities on the Taiwan Question.

Considering that American primacy in Southeast Asia is already a thing of the past, since no matter what happens — a hot war, a cold war, a surrender by either side — the Indo-Pacific is bound to look different than it has over the last thirty years, it is not clear that the US/Quad can simply offer Southeast Asia a ready-to-wear alternative order. The Quad can only start to build such an order and invite the other countries of the Indo-Pacific to participate. If things are not quite that serious, then the question is simply that of an Indo-Pacific absent “threats to freedom of navigation”.

There are real questions about US commitment, competence, and stamina. China’s neighbors have to take that into account. They also have to carefully measure China’s commitment to its own belligerence.

In other opinion pieces about China from Southeast Asia…

Afghanistan, Myanmar Crises Test India’s ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy (The Irrawaddy, Myanmar)
India’s lack of engagement with the interim regimes in both Kabul and Naypyitaw could allow China to increase its influence over them… [C]ommunist China could wield far greater influence over the military rulers in Naypyitaw in the long run than a democratic India can.

‘Alamak’, It Is Kamala (Malay Mail, Malaysia)
Singapore remains the lynchpin of the US naval presence in South-east Asia.  While the US military does not directly maintain bases in Singapore, it co-operates very closely with Singapore’s military. The US Navy uses Singapore extensively for logistics and resupply… China is our biggest trading partner and the US-China conflict is becoming more likely. Do we [Singaporeans] really want to be near the epicentre of it?

Bilateral Talks on South China Sea Dispute (Manila Standard, Philippines)
How should we deal with China on the territorial and maritime dispute in the South China Sea? The prudent thing to do is to let diplomacy and negotiations settle contentious issues that arise from time to time…The hardline stand of the Chinese government, however, has not prevented the two sides from facing each other across the negotiating table.

Chinese Investors Propose Laos-China-Vietnam Triangle Development (Laotian Times, Laos)
According to a report by Socio-Economic News, the Phongsaly provincial administration and Yujia Investment Co., Ltd of China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on a feasibility study for the development and construction of a new “Triangle” Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at the Laos-China-Vietnam triangle site on Tuesday.

US and China Spar on Asean Stage (The Bangkok Post, Thailand)
It will be intriguing to watch how the US-China rivalry will play out in Southeast Asia, as long as we are not forced to chose [sic] sides. For Washington, it is essential to engage Southeast Asia as a regional collective with Asean having a key role, rather than appearing to write off some states as beholden to China. More engagement, particularly with the presence of President Joe Biden himself in regional summits that Washington skipped in recent years, are vital to intensify the US-Asean reconnection for the sake of both sides’ mutual interest.

 

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