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China or the U.S.: An open debate for Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is the region that, arguably, has become the most promising around the world, due to the number of people living there, its prospected economic growth and its strategic importance. Although the region has become increasingly important, one question remains to be answered regarding the place it has in the world, and that is if the region is going to align with either of the two superpowers of the world, China or the United States.
In the 20th century, Southeast Asia became one of the many battlegrounds between the United States and the Soviet Union, but China was never entirely out of the background, and its prominence increased at the end of the century. Nowadays, both of these countries have a strong influence over the states of the region, and it is becoming more and more clear that whoever has the most control and ties to this part of the world, may become as well the biggest superpower of the world.
However, regardless of the outside influence on the region, Southeast Asia by itself must decide which are their most important alliances for the mid and long term, while the region continues to grow. It is not an easy task, as there is a complicated history with either of these countries, as well as new variables thrown into the mix in more recent years, and even months, that will define the standing of Southeast Asia, today and in the near future.
It is impossible to talk about the history of the region without discussing the influence the Cold War had on these countries. Although the influence of the Soviet Union and the United States could be seen in all of them, it was most evident in the wars fought in Cambodia and Vietnam, where both of these superpowers supported one faction and pitted them against each other. It is important to understand the history of the region and the close ties they developed among themselves later on, because they served as the killing ground for the Cold War. The status of the countries of Southeast Asia as poor and geographically far from the US and the USSR, made them apt for the war to develop, instead of other parts of the world, like Europe or the Americas. (Kissinger 1994; Lewis Gaddis 1998).
One of the most important landmarks when talking about the region, is the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that started with five countries but that now encompasses all nations of Southeast Asia, with the exception of East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Once again, ASEAN also exemplified the Cold War dynamic, as it was created “to encourage economic and cultural cooperation among these non-Communist states”(Ricklefs 2012: 339). Even so, this organization also helped to lower the influence of both the Soviet Union and the United States in the region: “The ASEAN nations were seeking regional cooperation and stability in part as a way to counted great-power influence in the region.” (Ricklefs 2012: 339)
Regarding China, one of the points of contention for the historical relationship between China and the region, is their shared waters, mainly the South China Sea, precisely because “Southeast Asia lies at the intersection of two of the world’s most heavily traveled sea-lanes. The east-west route connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, while the north-south one links Australia and New Zealand to Northeast Asia.” (Sokolsky 2001: 10) The great importance of this trade route has caused tension among the country and the region, and it still is one of the main reasons the relationship is not as good as it could be.
Another sore point in the history between China and the region, was the war with Vietnam, that supposedly started as a punishment from China to the ASEAN country. But, this view has been challenged by the analysis of some historians, that now claim that “China’s decision to launch a punitive war against Vietnam was intended to display Beijing’s usefulness in countering Soviet expansionism”(Zhang 2010: 28-29). This would mean that once again Cold War politics dominated the modern history of the region, and even its relationship with China, that due to internal turmoil mostly stayed in the sidelines during this period, and did not engage with other countries as closely as it would later on.
These lines are not supposed to be an extensive history of the region, but just a small sample of what has happened between the ASEAN nations, China and the United States, which has certainly shaped current relations. The history of the region helps as well to understand the current sentiment among the countries, that are striving for a closer cooperation between them, before looking into starting deeper ties with other countries, a product of the series of events in the 20th century that affected this part of the world, in a different way than others, but arguably in more harmful ways.
Now, it is important to look at the current trends of the region in relation to both of the countries being looked at. Although it would seem that the current political climate should not matter in the grand context of things, the uncertainty of current relations between the region and these nations have to be taken into account, particularly because of the new and impossible to decipher power that has been thrown into the mix, Donald Trump.
The upset by the former Republican candidate and now sitting president of the United States, was a major surprise home and abroad, and changed the course of the relationship between Southeast Asia and his country. One of the biggest selling points for Trump when he was campaigning in his home country was his supposed opposition to globalism, that is the global influence of the world in domestic policy, and he swore he was going to put his country above everything else, with a series of policies aptly named America First.
Indeed, president Trump has already shown what his foreign policy might be, by withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that has rendered it mostly useless now. To understand the magnitude of Trump’s move, and its significance for the relationship between the US and Southeast Asia, first it is important to define what was the TPP. The TPP was a trade deal between 12 countries that have a border with the Pacific Ocean, that together represent around 40% of the world’s economies. More importantly, the pact “aimed to deepen economic ties between these nations, slashing tariffs and fostering trade to boost growth. Members had also hoped to foster a closer relationship on economic policies and regulation.” (BBC 2017)
On top of that, Trump is still a mystery regarding his policies, because he does not seem to have a clear position on anything, which has caused some troubles and has cast a shadow in the future of the relationship between his country and the region. In fact, today is a reality that the region as whole is now going to prioritize the creation of a trade pact that is focused in Asia, along with other big countries in the continent, like Japan, India and of course China.
This trade deal has been named the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in place of the now dead TPP, and that could strengthen the position of China in the region over the US. Even so, this does not mean that the region would not like to have a strong relationship with the country, but that is not a big priority, according to Philippine Trade Minister Ramon Lopez: “Everybody would of course like to have a greater economic relationship with the US, they are a big country, one of the biggest consumers as well, but it may not rank high in the ASEAN agenda.” (Reuters 2017)
In contrast to Trump’s rhetoric and apparent protectionism, China has taken the opposite route and is seeking to expand its influence over Southeast Asia, both in economic terms but also in cultural ones. This is very important, because other than the RCEP, which does feature China and would boost trade with the ASEAN countries, there is also a push for more direct investment both by the government and the private sector, that are eyeing the region as a prime candidate for more involvement.
Certainly, China has already become the top trading partner for a large number of the ASEAN countries, and the number of these nations that want to deepen their bilateral ties with China is also growing, like Malaysia and the Philippines, that signaled that want to align themselves more closely with China, for example on a recent visit to Beijing, where “President Rodrigo Duterte said he wants to cut the cord with the U.S., a key military ally, and pivot to China. During a trip to Beijing in November, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak signed about $30 billion worth of deals from energy to rail infrastructure.” (Roman 2016)
Another avenue that shows the tightening of the relationship between ASEAN nations and China is tourism, because every day more and more Chinese tourists are going to those countries. Along with the growth of Chinese tourism in general, the region is receiving more visitors and the impact it has on the local economies is becoming very large as well, as the estimate shows that a “30 percent increase in spending by Chinese tourists would boost Thailand’s GDP by about 1.6 percentage points, and Vietnam’s by almost 1 point.” (Roman 2016)
However, not everything is easy and straightforward in the bilateral relationship between ASEAN countries and China, because as it has been mentioned before, the tensions regarding the South China Sea are far from over. The importance of this commercial route makes it a vital asset for any country that wants to trade on this part of the world, and even more so for the countries that have competing claims on this sea, that are: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
As recently as 2012 and 2013, both the Philippines and Vietnam have engaged negatively with China regarding the South China Sea, that have led to further tensions among these countries. Manila even got to the point of “taking China to a UN tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims.” (BBC 2016) In this case, China has boycotted any proceedings of a tribunal that backed the Philippines claims, and has stated they will not be bound by the resolution.
After having looked at the history and the more recent developments of the relationships that ASEAN countries have with both China and the United States, a conclusion must be made, who would benefit these countries more as a close ally? It is hard to say in the long term, because it is a very complex matter, but at the moment China is a better option for the region. This is not a conclusion that has been reached lightly, as it involves rethinking everything about the region and its history, but at the moment it would seem like the wisest choice.
The main reason that China is now a better option for Southeast Asia is not only for its geographical proximity to the region, but because it is showing interest in investing in these countries, both the government and the Chinese private sector. Direct investment is one of the best ways to get involved with a foreign country, as it also boosts the economy and makes it an even more attractive place for future investments. Tourism from Chinese nationals is also another important reason to have closer ties with that country, despite the tensions in the South China Sea that can dampen relations, but if solved, could mean a strategical step towards closer and stronger ties.
To reach this conclusion, Donald Trump also played a big part in why the United States might not be a great option. When the world seemed to be moving towards more open borders and increased trade, the victory of Trump in the presidential election changed the outlook of almost every part of the link between his country and ASEAN nations. Even if his protectionist rhetoric is ignored, the instability and uncertainty Trump brings to the table, is reason enough for not choosing closer ties to the US, because the terms of said ties could change at any time at the whim of the president, something no nation can afford, even less the ones in Southeast Asia that are still consolidating themselves.
The analysis presented here it is not meant to be definitory, as the complexities of the subject are so large, that it could change at any time. Nonetheless, an effort has been made into trying to clarify the issue at hand for Southeast Asia, that is at a crossroads and has to decide which way to go, with the familiar but now unpredictable United States, or with the new superpower China, that historically has been more an enemy than an ally. The outcome of that decision will affect millions of lives, one can only hope it will be taken with caution.
- BBC (2016) Why is the South China Sea contentious?, BBC. 12 July 2016, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349 accessed 22 May 2017.
- (2017) TPP: What is it and why does it matter?, BBC. 23 Jan. 2017, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32498715 accessed 22 May 2017.
- Kissinger, H. (1994) Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
- Lewis Gaddis, J. (1998) We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Reuters (2017) Southeast Asia prioritises trade pact including China as US rethinks policy, Channel NewsAsia. 26 Apr. 2017, available at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/southeast-asia-prioritises-trade-pact-including-china-as-us-8793988 accessed 22 May 2017.
- Ricklefs, M. C. (2012) ‘The Cold War in Hindsight: Local Realities and the Limits of Global Power’ In Cold War Southeast Asia, in Murfett, M. H. (ed.), Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.
- Roman, D. (2016) China Finds New Fans in Southeast Asia as U.S. Turns Inward, Bloomberg. 11 Dec. 2016, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-11/china-finds-new-fans-in-southeast-asia-as-u-s-turns-inward accessed 22 May 2017.
- Sokolsky, R. R., Angel; Neu, Richard C (2001) The Role of Southeast Asia in U.S. Strategy Toward China. California: RAND Corporation.
- Zhang, X. (2010) ‘Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietna’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 12 (3): 3-29.
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