Webinar on “Southeast Asia, the United States and China: Stumbling into the New World Order”

In this webinar, Dr Shaun Narine examines the impact of political, social and economic instability in the US on Washington’s ability to manage and fulfill its various security obligations in the Asia Pacific region.


Tuesday, 18 June 2021 — Southeast Asia has become increasingly caught in the geopolitical contest between the United States and China. In a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute entitled “Southeast Asia, the United States and China: Stumbling into the New World Order”, Dr Shaun Narine discussed how domestic politics in the United States affects its ability to function as a security actor in the Asia-Pacific. A Professor of International Relations at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada, Dr Shaun Narine has written extensively on the geopolitics of Southeast Asia, ASEAN and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

Dr Shaun Narine
Dr Shaun Narine mentioned that the United States may not be able to function as a reliable security guarantor because it “runs a serious risk of collapsing from within”. Dr Ian Storey moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Narine’s primary contention was that Southeast Asia’s continued reliance on the United States is a “bad bet”, not only because the United States might not be able to honour its various security commitments, but also due to the risk that it may adopt an aggressive and disruptive posture that could intensify regional conflicts. He argued that the Biden Administration’s policies — such as the continuation of the trade war — are suggestive of a “containment strategy” against China and a revival of Cold War paradigms.

According to Dr Narine, the United States may not be able to function as a reliable security guarantor because it “runs a serious risk of collapsing from within”. In particular, he described how the contemporary Republican Party is “incredibly dangerous to the survival of American democracy” and warned about the possibility that a “powerful, irrational and politically dangerous force” in the United States may regain power in the future. Such dysfunctional domestic politics could distract American leaders from the rest of the world. The prospect that the Republican Party may gain power also means that American foreign policy can wildly shift from administration to administration. Moreover, the Republican Party’s efforts to disenfranchise voters could leave the United States as a flawed democracy and lacking in legitimacy to pursue its global agenda of democracy promotion.

Dr Narine also discussed how the United States may become a dangerous ally given its tendency to “exaggerate threats, construct external enemies to focus national anger and paint a black and white world view”. He predicted that US-China tensions would be intensified, compelling Southeast Asia to take sides. Dr Narine however argued that Southeast Asia has to neither rely on the United States nor “roll over and simply do whatever China wants”. He also mentioned the need for Southeast Asia to take concrete collective action through their regional organisations.

In his concluding remarks, Dr Narine explored Stephen Walt’s proposition that the United States and China represent different visions of the international order — the former stands for the liberal democracy, while the latter the Westphalian order. He noted that ASEAN member states have historically defended the sovereignty-centric principles of the Westphalian order. Furthermore, he argued that, by virtue of geography, China has nowhere else to go while the United States can retreat to the other side of the Pacific.

During the Q&A session with the audience of 129 participants, Dr Narine addressed a number of questions, including what is the basis for his argument that the US is likely to be pushed out of Southeast Asia given that there is little indication of such a prospect, what are the situations where the United States has forced Southeast Asian countries to take sides, and why he viewed the United States’ current approach towards China as a containment strategy. For Dr Narine, the attempts by the United States to “stop or undermine” China’s growth and development (especially in the technology sector) and to “decouple” from China is indicative of a containment paradigm. There were also questions about ASEAN’s role in the China-US rivalry, the strategic options available to Southeast Asia as they navigate the great power rivalry and the likelihood that regional countries can maintain their neutrality. He was also asked to reconcile his point about China’s vision of a Westphalian international order with Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea that infringes on the sovereign rights of other maritime states.

Dr Narine also assessed how globalisation and inequality have contributed to the development of the United States’ industrial policy and whether the United States will be able to catch up with China’s current advantage in clean energy and infrastructure. During the discussion, he also entertained the “not entirely impossible” scenario of secession by the US Pacific Northwest states (including California), given the increasing political polarisation and cultural division in the United States.