Webinar on “Is the US Competing Effectively with China in Asia?”

In this webinar, Dr Evan Feigenbaum unpacked the U.S.’s challenges when competing against China’s favourable strategic and economic position in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia.


2 November 2023, Thursday – In a webinar held by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Feigenbaum shed light on the challenges faced by the U.S. in its competition with China in Asia, the shortcomings of the U.S. securitisation approach, and the agency of third countries in response to the prevailing U.S.-China competition.

Speaker Dr Evan Feigenbaum (left) with moderator Ms Hoang Thi Ha, Senior Fellow at ISEAS. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Feigenbaum began by assessing the U.S.-China relationship as the most adversarial and intense he has witnessed through the span of his career. He stated that the U.S.-China relationship has become infected by what he termed as “the securitisation of everything.” While he emphasised that US-China security competition is not a recent development, dating back to their proxy war in Vietnam, such security competition was more in the background and did not hinder their economic ties. However, in recent years, securitisation has extended beyond traditional security concerns and encompassed various non-security aspects. Economics and security, instead of progressing on “parallel paths”, have significantly converged. This phenomenon is increasingly observed in both Washington and Beijing, with a particular emphasis on the former, where economic activities are “refracted through the lens of national security.” Commercial ties or delivery of public goods, which were hitherto perceived as mutually beneficial, are now viewed through a more “competitive and zero-sum prism”.

Dr Feigenbaum noted that the zero-sum logic of national security competition is increasingly applied to areas that were traditionally “segmented and compartmented”, namely technology and data flow. Looking ahead to the coming decades, he said that regulators in the U.S. would adopt a precautionary approach, seeking ways to exert control over emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence-enabled applications, quantum computing, new synthetic and composite materials, nanotechnology, and life sciences. He highlighted that the Trump administration played a significant role in advancing this approach by recognising the availability of various “administrative and regulatory instruments” to attenuate the flow of technologies to China, including the Commerce Department Entity List, the Defense Department Military Companies List and new guidelines. When the Biden administration took office, these regulatory mechanisms were employed with greater effectiveness, resulting in further reductions in the flow of technology that was once considered central to U.S.-China technology cooperation.

Dr Feigenbaum caveated that such developments have introduced a series of contradictions the U.S. has yet to fully grapple with. First, questions arise regarding potential areas of scientific and technological collaboration in the life sciences that may genuinely serve the U.S. public interest. Recent data indicates that life science and biotech companies in China are engaging with therapeutics and the development of first-generation cancer drugs. But discussions on collaboration with China in these domains have been eclipsed by the U.S. securitisation approach towards China, inhibiting a comprehensive exploration of these possibilities. Additionally, the U.S. faces tensions between the options of unilateral assertiveness and multilateral cooperation. While the U.S. has successfully obtained “voluntary compliance” from some of its international partners in matters related to technology export controls, achieving alignment has required significant effort, with some allies resisting compliance. This introduces a conundrum for the U.S.: Does it need to embrace a more unilateral stance to maximise its confrontational approach, or must it temper its confrontational posture to foster greater multilateral cooperation? It remains unclear whether the U.S. is able to “both have its cake and eat it”.

Dr Feigenbaum emphasised that the U.S. would be able to better navigate the challenges it faces from China if it fosters a “collective approach” and aligns its interests more closely with its allies and partners. He referred to former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s words, namely “getting China right by getting Asia right”. However, he noted a concerning trend where the U.S. initiatives and policies in the region have been increasingly “derivative of the U.S. focus” on strategic competition with China, overlooking opportunities for a more regionally cooperative strategy. Both the previous and current U.S. administration, despite their public rhetoric, have been pressuring countries to make strategic choices. As an illustration, while China holds a notable role as a scientific partner for Australian universities, the U.S. is poised to pressure Australia to curtail its cooperation with China in light of their comprehensive technology-sharing partnership under the purview of AUKUS. This, however, bears significant consequences for the scientific establishment in Australia. In another example, Huawei has established a considerable presence within Indonesia’s cyber infrastructure, with China adapting to local customs and practices rather than imposing their solutions on regional countries. However, U.S. policymakers display substantial reservations to what they perceive as China’s infiltration of the cyber backbone of Indonesian computers, including government computers. As a result, the U.S. will pose “intrinsic limits” on its partnership with Indonesia.

Dr Feigenbaum observed that the U.S. is fighting against the “map” and economic gravity in its strategic competition with China in Asia. The U.S. needs to acknowledge the geographic realities of China’s contiguous positioning with every sub-region of Asia. In terms of economic competition, to remain competitive and relevant in the region, the U.S. should capitalise on its distinctive strengths, rather than emulating Chinese policies. This involves leveraging “uniquely American strengths” such as access to capital markets, proficiency in financial services and engineering, voting weight in international financial institutions and quality STEM education. Most importantly, the U.S. has to assume the role of a rule-maker and norm-setter in the region, and aspire to be a standard-setting nation, rather than merely engaging in commercial and investment activities through the private sector. Dr Feigenbaum argued that the U.S. has “forgotten how to be a standard setter” and is increasingly fading in many emerging domains that matter such as the digital space.

Dr Feigenbaum noted that either a U.S.-centric region or a China-centric region, reflecting a Cold War-like dynamic of bipolarity, does not reflect the current realities of Asia. Instead, he highlighted that countries in the region are taking a proactive approach to forge their own paths beyond the U.S.-China competition, as demonstrated in the conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This trend of “multiplication rather than subtraction” highlights the agency of other Asian powers as their national priorities may vary from the ones that the U.S. and China would like to see prevail.

Dr Feigenbaum concluded his presentation by emphasising the intensification of competition between the U.S. and China going forward. Despite facing the most serious public health crisis in over a century, with economic ramifications akin to the Great Depression, the U.S. and China found themselves unable to collaborate effectively on any front during the Covid-19 pandemic. This contrasted sharply with their cooperation during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013, where American and Chinese scientists worked closely together in a biotechnology laboratory in Sierra Leone to address shortages of anti-malarial supplies.

The webinar was attended by an online audience of around 100 people and concluded with a Q&A session. Among the inquiries addressed were the potential for the Chinese and U.S. presidents to mend differences during the upcoming APEC Leaders Meeting, the role of the Global South, the impact of the current Middle East conflict on the U.S.’ power projection in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S.’ capacity to engage in international rule-setting, and the execution and prospects of the Biden administration’s Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.