Foreign Affairs
China’s Growing Influence in Southeast Asia: Implications for U.S. Strategy

The conflict between China and Southeast Asia is a contentious issue in international relations, with some advocating for a balance of power and protecting smaller nations’ interests, while others believe in diplomacy and cooperation, with concerns about potential coercion and aggression.

They advocate for a strong U.S. And international presence to deter aggressive behaviour from China, while engagement advocates believe that a hostile relationship with China may lead to confrontation. They argue that working with China on common challenges like economic development, climate change, and global health can lead to mutual benefits and regional stability.

Policy approaches to China’s engagement vary across Southeast Asian countries, influenced by economic ties, security concerns, and historical relationships. The strategy adopted by these countries and the international community will evolve as the region’s dynamics shift. Balancing economic and diplomatic engagement with China while safeguarding regional security interests is a complex challenge faced by policymakers regularly.

China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia has raised questions about power balance and stability in the region. The complex dynamics between China and Southeast Asian nations will continue to shape the geopolitical landscape, making it a critical area for policymakers, scholars, and global observers to monitor in the coming years.

Southeast Asia’s economic strength, strategic location, cultural diversity, and environmental importance make it a global region that demands global attention and cooperation. As the world faces challenges, Southeast Asia is crucial for global prosperity and stability.

China’s influence in Southeast Asia is a complex and evolving phenomenon, involving economic, political, and strategic aspects. The extent of this influence varies across countries, and its implications are complex. Southeast Asian nations must navigate these complexities to protect their interests and foster cooperative relationships with China and other global players. As China’s role evolves, Southeast Asia faces geopolitics and economic development challenges, making China’s influence management a critical issue.

President Joe Biden’s statement that the US was not seeking to contain China during his visit to Hanoi was a joke. However, Beijing has since realized that the US’s efforts were merely a cover-up. China has restricted access to chips and their manufacturing components, spent billions on subsidies for semiconductor manufacturing and rare earth mineral refineries, and has high-ranking members of the Beltway wanting containment.

Outside the Western bloc, many have been anxious over an increasingly factionalized world. The invasion of Ukraine saw over 140 countries condemn it, with only five backing it. Over the past year, the ambivalence towards the invasion has been starker, with only the Western bloc countries consistently maintaining their opposition to the Kremlin. The Global South has to balance between China and the West, hoping to maximize foreign investments without getting caught in a geopolitical campaign between China and the West or incurring Western sanctions and potential political machinations.

The ASEAN bloc’s neutrality in Southeast Asia has become a contentious issue, with countries like Indonesia, Laos, and Cambodia maintaining unrestricted relations with China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Brunei maintaining neutrality, and Vietnam and the Philippines appearing confrontational. Biden’s decision to skip the ASEAN summit has further fragmented the bloc, with each country pursuing its own national interests.

The State Department believes that the popular sentiment in the Philippines and Vietnam is pro-American and anti-China, with their geographical location and young population providing excellent partners for establishing secure supply chains and effective containment of China. However, Washington’s assumption that Washington should do something other than get out of the way has always been wrong.

While Beijing has a large footprint in the Philippines and Vietnam due to political and economic reasons, China’s image in both countries is not well-perceived, so it should be natural that Washington should do something. Good solutions lie in removing military and economic assistance to the Indo-Pacific and not trying to contain China. Many countries prefer the USA to limit China’s offence but not enforce containment to the extent where the USA needs to go on the offensive.

Japan is one such country that will step in to counter China’s influence as Tokyo and the broader Japanese public fear or see a Chinese expansion as an existential threat. The US must remove all security guarantees for Japan, including the closure of all US bases in Japan and the revocation of the Japan-US Security Treaty of 1960. The Japanese military’s capability and the challenges China faces from its foundational and systemic issues make a military confrontation undesirable.

The idea also applies to Taiwan, as the extreme difficulty of an actual invasion, the size of an amphibious landing, and possible Japanese intervention despite incompetent military leadership in Taipei would keep China at bay despite increased aggression. It would be a mistake to assume that other ASEAN countries won’t do anything, as China is on the offensive and any disruption in trade through the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait would be disastrous for ASEAN nations’ economies.

The Vietnamese Communist Party, despite being anti-China, prefers greater cooperation with China on economic projects. In 1958, Hanoi sent a diplomatic note to Beijing for a security guarantee from China, which was later scrapped. However, removing American military help in patrolling the South China Sea will force the Vietnamese Communist Party to reconsider this decision.

The Beltway should disengage from Kyiv and normalize relations with Moscow, as Japan and Moscow were close before Ukraine’s invasion. Moscow’s economy is reliant on oil and gas revenue, and its demographic crisis and brain drain problem have persisted since the war, a result of attempts to force regime change.

Washington is acting with the same folly as Beijing, adopting realpolitik to convince the third world to contain China. The third world could pit China and the USA against one another while extracting taxpayer money in a never-ending competition for influence with China. China already has enough beef with its neighbours and is wasting much of its people’s livelihood for a failed “Chinese century.” The statement suggests that taxpayer money should not be wasted on establishing a secure supply chain for semiconductors by attempting to undo global trade, including trade with China, as others’ security matters are their own.

China’s Influence in Southeast Asia Raises Geopolitical

China’s growing presence and influence in Southeast Asia has become a significant topic in international geopolitics. The region, characterized by its diverse cultures, economies, and political landscapes, is of strategic importance to both China and the global community. China shares a border with several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the southern provinces of China. This proximity has historically led to cultural exchanges, trade interactions, and diplomatic relations between China and its neighbours. However, China’s role in the region has expanded beyond mere proximity.

China’s economic influence is significant, as it is Southeast Asia’s largest trading partner, with a growing trade volume. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has developed a close economic relationship with China, leading to numerous trade agreements, infrastructure projects, and investment opportunities. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has further solidified its economic presence in the region, financing and constructing roads, ports, railways, and other key infrastructure.

China’s political influence in Southeast Asia has also grown, manifested in its support for authoritarian regimes, assertiveness in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and active involvement in regional organizations. China’s expansive territorial claims have strained relations with neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and prompted concerns about China’s intentions in the region.

Southeast Asian nations have adopted varying approaches to China’s growing presence in the region. Some countries, like Cambodia and Laos, have developed close political and economic ties with China, while others, like Vietnam and the Philippines, have sought to balance their relations with other regional and global powers. The rise of China in Southeast Asia has generated concerns among Western countries, particularly the United States, which has sought to strengthen its presence through diplomatic engagement, military partnerships, and economic initiatives.

The Crucial Significance of Southeast Asia on the Global Stage

Southeast Asia, comprising 11 diverse nations with a combined GDP of over $3 trillion, is a region of unparalleled importance in shaping the destiny of the global community. The region’s economic dynamism and strategic locations make it a natural trade gateway between the East and West, with its ports and waterways being some of the busiest in the world. The South China Sea disputes, which have drawn the attention of major global players, underscore the region’s geopolitical significance.

Southeast Asia is home to over 650 million people belonging to various ethnic groups, speaking more than 1,000 languages, fostering a unique atmosphere of tolerance and multiculturalism. As globalization continues to connect people and ideas, Southeast Asia’s cultural influence is on the rise, shaping global perceptions of diversity and inclusivity.

The region’s lush rainforests and biodiversity are critical to the planet’s environmental health, as it is home to approximately 20% of the world’s known plant and animal species. However, ongoing deforestation and habitat destruction in countries like Indonesia pose a significant threat to global biodiversity and contribute to climate change. Protecting the region’s natural treasures is essential for its people and the world’s ecological balance.

Southeast Asia is experiencing rapid digitization, with e-commerce, fintech, and technology startups thriving, driven by a young and tech-savvy population. Companies like Grab, Gojek, and Lazada are revolutionizing the way people live, work, and shop in the region, not only boosting its economic standing but also connecting it more deeply with the global digital landscape.

China’s Expanding Influence in Southeast Asia

China’s growing presence in Southeast Asia has raised questions about its economic, political, and strategic implications. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013, has provided an avenue for China to invest in infrastructure projects across the region, fostering connectivity between Southeast Asian countries and the wider world. This has provided a much-needed boost to their economies and facilitated trade with China.

China has also become a major trading partner for Southeast Asian nations, making it easier for them to export goods to the vast Chinese market. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) has facilitated the growth of trade between China and ASEAN member states, making it easier for them to export goods to the vast Chinese market.

China’s political influence in Southeast Asia has been on the rise, with Beijing engaging in diplomatic efforts to strengthen its relationships with ASEAN member states. The South China Sea dispute has been a focal point of China’s regional politics, raising concerns among neighbouring countries.

China’s influence extends to regional organizations, with several Southeast Asian countries becoming members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), aligning themselves more closely with China’s economic and geopolitical goals. From a strategic standpoint, China’s military modernization and the presence of a robust navy have raised concerns about the security landscape in the region. The South China Sea dispute continues to be a source of tension, with countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia seeking to defend their territorial claims while avoiding open conflict with China.

ASEAN member states face a delicate balancing act between their economic interests and concerns about China’s dominance, aiming to maintain cordial relations with China while also seeking support from other powers to ensure regional stability.

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