America, China and Southeast Asia: Where “Win Win” Can Become a Reality

If China and the United States play their cards right, the two powers can avoid a hot or cold war. This will be good news for the world, in particular Southeast Asia.

US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Then US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping display shirts with a message given to them by students at the International Studies Learning School in Southgate, outside of Los Angeles, on 17 February, 2012. (Photo: Frederic J. BROWN/ AFP)

Liew Chin Tong

27 January 2021

With United States president Joseph Biden ensconced at the White House, Chinese officials are distancing themselves from the era of troubled bilateral relations under the Trump Administration and are appealing to “kind angels” to take the world’s most important bilateral relationship forward. How should the potential of the Biden presidency be explained to a Chinese audience? Perhaps one can draw a parallel between Biden and Deng Xiaoping.

Deng had more than 50 years of experience in politics and experienced “three rises and three falls”, to the extent that many of his compatriots had written him off. Against the odds, Deng rose to the peak of political power after a disastrous decade of the Cultural Revolution and the misrule of Mao Zedong’s final years. The catastrophes cleared the way for Deng to become a transformative leader in 1978.

Like Deng, Biden is seeking to put his country on the right path after the Trump presidency, which is arguably the worst ever. He contested the presidency twice and is the most experienced Washington insider since Lyndon Johnson. At a deeper level, the pendulum has swung from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal grand coalition of 1933, to its slow collapse in the 1970s, to Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal revolution. Reagan’s “the government is the problem” era has finally come to an end with the Covid-19 crisis. Biden has the potential of becoming a transformative leader, as the federal government takes a central role in steering the nation through the Covid-19-induced economic crisis and its eventual recovery.

The world is likely to enter a Group of 2 or “G2” structure of sorts, whereby China and the US share power at the regional and global levels. But the two major powers do not have to repeat the pitfalls of great power competition during the Cold War. The US will have to accept that China is on the rise and will supersede the US in some areas, but not all. Likewise, China will have to accept that the US will still be the strongest nation on earth for a long time, except that it is no longer the sole global hegemon it once was during the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Today, there are many “middle powers”, some hostile to the US, such as Russia and Iran, while many others do not intend to choose between the US and China. Both the US and China should stop assuming that smaller powers would choose one side over the other as they did during the Cold War. The dynamics of the strategic landscape have changed, and nation-state interests today are multifaceted, and relations omnidirectional. For instance, Japan and South Korea are US allies in the region, but commercial interests in their respective economies require some compromises with China. The European Union’s recent Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China is another case in point.

There is no doubt that the US and China will have to simultaneously compete and cooperate in the years to come. If the competition ends in a cold or hot war, the world, especially Southeast Asia, will suffer.

There are ways for competition to be beneficial. If the US and China responsibly compete to provide public goods needed by the world, there will be benefits all round. For instance, the development of green technology would benefit everyone, and the climate. The Covid-19 vaccine is another example. The world requires more vaccines than each of the superpowers can produce alone at the current rate. Together, the US and China can provide this important global public good.

There are ways for competition to be beneficial. If the US and China responsibly compete to provide public goods needed by the world, there will be benefits all round.

As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, both the US and China need to avoid misjudgements of each other and of Southeast Asian states. First, there are no falling dominos in Southeast Asia – as what Dwight Eisenhower had described in the 1950s.

China, likewise, must invest heavily in understanding the diversities and complexities of Southeast Asian states. Most of them have to face regular elections, and electoral outcomes are not pre-determined. Each state also has its own set of nationalistic impulses to deal with. Failure to appreciate these would constrain China’s ability to engage the region. China has mis-read elections in the region multiple times, such as Myanmar’s in 2015 and Malaysia’s in 2018. China also needs to be more tactful when handling Southeast Asian states, especially those from the maritime region.

Further, it is crucial that China does not define the South China Sea just in the realm of US-China competition. It needs to appreciate the anxieties of the maritime states towards China. The latest “Maritime Police Law of the People’s Republic of China” – which provides legal cover for China’s Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels deemed to have encroached into China’s “jurisdictional waters” – has certainly ruffled feathers among regional leaders. China needs to put in more effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the region.

That said, maritime Southeast Asian states are wary of both the US and China escalating tensions in the South China Sea. In Northeast Asia, there are limits to escalation as US allies such as the governments of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, know that lives of their citizens are at stake if wars are to happen. But the South China Sea is a “no man’s sea”. Accidents could happen and the region would “sleepwalk” into an unintended crisis, just as Europe “sleepwalked” into World War I, as described by Christopher Clark. 

The US and China have to exercise extraordinary restraint and build communication mechanisms to at least avoid accidents and misjudgements, even if intentional confrontations cannot be avoided. Military to military channels and civilian ones between the US and China, and with Southeast Asian states, are hugely inadequate and should be greatly expanded in the years to come.

In short, China has to accept that the US is a resident power in Southeast Asia and there is no point in declaring a US-style Monroe Doctrine that seeks to exclude Washington’s expansion in the region. The US under Biden will have to accept that China is rising and is unstoppable. There is no point in stopping China since it will not work. At any rate, Southeast Asian states deem that the rise of China and its growing presence in the region is a geopolitical reality that will not go away. Even under the Biden administration, US-China relations in Southeast Asia are not going to get any easier in the years to come. But if the US and China can somehow recognise each other’s limitations and realities, there is enough room for cooperation and constructive outcomes that can alter the circumstances for the region and relations of both powers as a whole. To borrow Beijing’s oft-used trope, “win-win” outcomes can become a reality if Washington and Beijing set their collective minds to it.

Liew Chin Tong, a senator in Malaysia’s Dewan Negara, served as the country’s deputy defence minister from July 2018 to February 2020. Since 1999, he has served in the Democratic Action Party in various capacities. He is now a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee and is its National Political Education Director. He was formerly a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (now the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute).

ISEAS Commentary — 2021/21

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