Seminar on “The United States and China in Southeast Asia: Power Shift or Competitive Coexistence?”

Professor David Shambaugh spoke at a Regional Strategic and Political Studies (RSPS) Programme seminar on the competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia.

Thursday, 12 July 2018 – Professor David Shambaugh spoke at a Regional Strategic and Political Studies (RSPS) Programme seminar on the competition between the United States and China in Southeast Asia.

As professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC, and an internationally acclaimed scholar on China, Prof Shambaugh had spent the past five weeks at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute as a visiting fellow, doing research for his upcoming book on US-China competition in Southeast Asia.

Professor David Shambaugh during his presentation (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Shambaugh offered an “outside in” perspective of how the US and China interact with the region, and what tools each has in its toolbox. He pointed out that Southeast Asia is at the nexus of the Indo-Pacific region, and the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait chokepoint, which makes it the object of great-power competition. Although the US and China are now locked in a “”perpetual rivalry” which is now global and intensifying, the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia will be the central contested spheres.

Prof Shambaugh opined that the competition between the US and China in Southeast Asia is still a “soft competition”, which is distinctly different from the “hard competition” of the Cold War era, with its action-reaction dynamics. He noted that the US and China are each devising their own policies and strategies in Southeast Asia, and while they may be looking over their shoulder at the other party, they are not tailoring their actions to the other. However, he warned that the “soft competition” may intensify and evolve over time.

Surrounding the issue are three pervasive regional narratives: firstly, Southeast Asia’s hedging policies are becoming more difficult and the pressure to choose between the US and China is increasing; secondly, the US is undependable and distracted everywhere, and has no real strategy in the region; lastly, China has become a regional power and all countries in Southeast Asia are gravitating into China’s orbit.

From left to right: Mr Daljit Singh, Coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Professor David Shambaugh (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Shambaugh argued that these three narratives are only partially correct. He agreed that China is on the offensive in Southeast Asia, and it has an expanding yet still limited toolbox of instruments of power. However, Southeast Asian countries have a longstanding ambivalence towards China, and Beijing may well overstep and overplay its hand, therefore he believed that the China narrative has been overblown. He also noticed that not all ASEAN countries are equally close to China, and on the spectrum of closeness to China (pre-Malaysian election), Cambodia is the closest, while Indonesia, which is “internally consumed”, does not seem to have a China policy.

Prof Shambaugh pointed out that the US has deeper commercial ties, cultural influence, diplomatic as well as military and security engagement with Southeast Asia than China. However, these are not receiving enough publicity and the US needs to do a much better public diplomacy job. The US weaknesses include geographical distance, emphasis on human rights, impatience with the ASEAN way of consensus-building, the lack of funds to match China’s infrastructure endeavours, and its episodic diplomatic attention to the region.

China, on the other hand, enjoys closer proximity to Southeast Asia, but this could also be its weakness. Other “weaknesses” include its claims on the South China Sea, occasional diplomatic manipulation of ASEAN, the inability to provide substantial security and strategic partnership, as well as a historical suspicion in Southeast Asian countries of overseas Chinese being used as China’s “fifth column”.

In conclusion, Prof Shambaugh believed that the strategic competition between the US and China in Southeast Asia is not yet acute, and can be described as “competitive coexistence”. How it develops will largely depend on how ASEAN and its member states deal with the situation. He stressed that it is not a zero-sum competition, but with China overreaching and overstepping, it may prove tricky for Southeast Asian countries to navigate,. What the US could do is to be steady and predictable, play its strengths, correct its weaknesses, be sensitive to the native needs, and “just be there”.

Around 110 people attended the seminar (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

The seminar was attended by about 110 people from scholarly and diplomatic circles, media and the general public. During the question & answer session, Professor Shambaugh fielded questions ranging from ASEAN’s role in the Indo-Pacific region, Trump administration’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as the ongoing tension over the South China Sea.