U.S. foreign policy experts have long feared that as China becomes more powerful, its influence will threaten the United States’ longstanding hegemony. Currently, the Sino-American competition manifests itself in Southeast Asia, a region that holds valuable natural resources, outsourced labor, and the world’s fastest growing economies. If left unchecked, China may successfully consolidate its power in the region by continuing to fuel political corruption, provide support for infrastructure development, and threaten its neighbors with its military might in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. The dilemma Southeast Asia faces is how to balance China’s investment and aid to the region with safeguarding public health through effective vaccines, continued economic development, and infrastructure without sacrificing sovereignty. By understanding what China can and cannot offer to each country, the Biden Administration can craft its approach to the region in a way that makes remaining impartial to China (as opposed to in its favor) an attractive option. If the United States’ diplomacy in Southeast Asia lives up to its potential, U.S.-Southeast Asia foreign policy will have implications for the future of democracy, global norms, and self-determination in a multipolar world.
No matter what foreign policy the United States implements in Southeast Asia, there is no foreseeable future in which Southeast Asian countries can make a foe out of their powerful neighbor. China not only accounts for a sizable portion of ASEAN countries’ imports and exports, but it also has a strong military presence in the South China Sea and has shown an impressive commitment to face-to-face diplomacy throughout the ongoing pandemic. It has invested heavily in Belt and Road infrastructure and provided Southeast Asia with COVID-19 vaccines early on; meanwhile, the United States was eerily silent. China is counting on a continued mutually-beneficial trading relationship, access to natural resources, and the accumulation of allies amid a Sino-American competition—all of which are steps towards establishing greater sway in the reconfiguration of the new world order.
This is not to say that ASEAN leaders do not have reservations about China’s interference in the region’s affairs, but that the United States needs to acknowledge that Southeast Asian countries are in a position where an endorsement of the U.S. could lead to loss in trade, a decrease in funds for development, and less secured borders. The Biden administration should focus on keeping Southeast Asia as independent and impartial to China as possible. Though China has developed a stronger hold on Southeast Asia in the absence of engaged American leadership, the U.S. is still capable of an effective foreign policy that does not provoke China while still promoting a rules-based world order.
Under President Trump, China policy became increasingly adversarial both in rhetoric and implementation. Despite an all-out trade war and strong allegations that “Beijing’s actions pose the greatest threat to freedom of the seas anywhere on the planet,” Chinese officials have not lost momentum. And while China’s offenses cannot be excused or forgiven, threats of military action, economic sanctions, or political pressure have been met with equal opposition. President Biden has the opportunity to tackle Chinese aggression differently. Through strengthening the United States’ relationships with Southeast Asia in addition to direct confrontation where necessary, President Biden can inhibit the extent to which China’s interference is needed or desired. Specifically, in post-pandemic recovery, the Biden administration should lead a delicate approach in Southeast Asia by re-establishing alliances with the region in a way that abides by national sovereignty, aids economic development, and alleviates current vaccine shortages.
The United States needs to act on China’s shortcomings in Southeast Asia to keep Chinese power and influence at bay. The U.S. should take it upon itself to provide Southeast Asia with the flexibility to enforce its sovereignty without compromising the state of its economy or public health. Under the Obama Administration, the United States strengthened and deepened diplomatic ties with Southeast Asia through an unprecedented number of foreign state visits, signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and establishing the Lower Mekong Initiative that fostered joint sustainability efforts. Trump’s foreign policy demonstrated a pivot away from Southeast Asia by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and missing two ASEAN summits. Many Southeast Asian leaders had high hopes that the Biden administration would return to Obama-era policies. But the implementation of such policies have yet to be seen. Once the U.S. proves itself a reliable ally, as opposed to one that frequently alternates between isolationism and intervention, ASEAN member states can act according to their own interests rather than bending to the will of China.
Southeast Asia is a region in which trade, foreign investment, and infrastructure development are desperately needed to ensure continued economic growth and domestic well-being. On the one hand, China’s generous involvement in Southeast Asia has an array of tangible benefits which will serve both parties well. But on the other, these trade deals and infrastructure projects are also opening the door to issues of economic dependence, political corruption, and rising debt levels among Southeast Asian nations. This will leave the region vulnerable to Chinese influence, economic coercion, and invasions of sovereignty.
China’s display of maritime power in the South China Sea has already threatened the sovereignty of several Southeast Asian countries throughout the region. China has claimed exclusive control of over 90% of the South China Sea, militarized its artificial islands, and insisted sovereignty over Taiwan in the face of fierce disapproval by concerned states and the U.S. Continued disregard for existing international maritime law and the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague threatens Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s access to sea trade routes, natural resources, and free-moving transport. The U.S. maintained a military presence in the South China Sea under President Trump, but this in itself was and will not be enough to effectively resolve disputes. Southeast Asia needs to develop an infrastructure, economy, and maritime presence that functions independently of China’s involvement.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is China’s commitment to large-scale investment and development projects from East Asia and Europe, offers several areas for discontent. The project, which was launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, expands Chinese influence by building physical and technological infrastructure, maritime networks, and economic frameworks outside its borders. If the U.S. can provide an attractive alternative, countries in Southeast Asia and beyond will be allowed more flexibility in their relations with China while gaining valuable infrastructure.
Firstly, BRI has been a vessel for corruption. For example, China’s inflated contract pricing for BRI projects in Malaysia served as political cover for Malaysian leaders’ embezzlement crimes in 2018. Two BRI projects were subsequently cancelled, and one was renegotiated in order to avoid the criticism of public opinion and the accumulation of further debt to China. Such maneuvers by the Chinese government threaten the integrity of government institutions and keep dishonest, corrupt politicians in office who will allow it to assert influence in the region to the detriment of the people of each nation.
Secondly, the wavering strength of local law enforcement in the face of Chinese construction companies has led to breaches of sovereignty, paving the way for deforestation of the land and displacement of the people (as was the dilemma for the Kachin people of Myanmar in 2019 during the proposed construction of the Myitsone hydroelectric dam). Although the Myitsone dam was slated to generate more electricity on its own than the whole country of Myanmar produces now, 90% of the electricity generated would be used by China with only the remaining 10% being used by Myanmar. Aside from the asymmetry of the deal between China and Myanmar, the construction of the dam would more than likely kill the river and cause devastating downstream effects by displacing thousands of people who rely on the waterway for the plentiful supply of fish it holds and the agriculture it supports. The dam also stands to flood some of the remaining forests in the area which hold rich biodiversity. For many Southeast Asian communities who rely on the bodies of water where China plans to build its dams, constructing infrastructure comes at the cost of their livelihoods.
Lastly, the cost of BRI is indebting Southeast Asia, namely countries like Malaysia, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Laos, to Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) at a rate that will only serve to give China leverage in future affairs.
There is a general consensus on what a U.S.-backed alternative to BRI looks like. A successful China policy is one that sustainably builds much-needed infrastructure while being affordable and feasible enough to attract investment without racking up debt, and functions free and clear from corruption and infringements of sovereignty. It is a tall order indeed, but it has the potential to revolutionize developing economies and the living standards of tens of millions.
Despite China’s early donations of Sinovac vaccines, Southeast Asia is in the midst of a resurgence in COVID-19 transmissions due to the Delta variant and in dire need of an increased vaccine supply. Now that most Western countries have secured vaccines for their own populations, U.S. pledges for donations to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan in recent weeks will provide overdue and much-needed assistance. This has also served as an opportunity for the United States to re-establish goodwill initially lost in the scramble for COVID-19 vaccines during the early days of the pandemic. However, an effective and efficient vaccine delivery system is also essential to taking control of the current public health crisis. Donations of Western vaccines such as Moderna and Pfizer will also be used as booster shots for health workers who initially received Sinovac vaccines in Indonesia and Thailand, which suggests a deeper trust in Western technology to safeguard public health than that of China’s. The U.S. should capitalize on this confidence by continuing to improve its access to modern technology and innovation in health, policy, and beyond.
Since President Biden took office, his administration has failed to restore the amicable, enthusiastic diplomatic environment from the pre-Trump era of Southeast Asian relations. ASEAN has been left in the cold despite its pressing public health crises and vital importance to the future of Sino-American relations. Meanwhile, Biden has paid considerably more attention to major Indo-Pacific powers, including Japan and South Korea, as well as the G7. In addition to vaccine distribution and foreign aid, the United States should revive its relationship with ASEAN. When the time comes, it should give Southeast Asia the support and freedom it needs to chart its own course, whether that be in the South China Sea or infrastructure development.