Webinar on “Why Acute US-China Rivalry Will Endure and Cause Decline in US Influence in Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Prof Robert Sutter explained the origins and evolution of US domestic politics underlying the remarkable hardening in US policy toward China, which began with the Trump administration and persists with the Biden administration.


Friday, 24 September 2021 — As the strategic rivalry between the United States and China shows no sign of abating, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar by Professor Robert Sutter to discuss “Why Acute US-China Rivalry Will Endure and Cause Decline in US Influence in Southeast Asia”. A former Senior Visiting Fellow at ISEAS, Professor Sutter is a recognised expert on US policy towards China and Asia, with 30 years in US government service. He is currently Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Prof Robert Sutter
Prof Robert Sutter argued that US influence in Southeast Asia has declined relative to China. Dr Ian Storey moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

According to Professor Sutter, there is a growing momentum in US domestic politics, especially in Congress, for a hard-line policy against China. He traced the origin of this domestic anti-Beijing consensus to the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy published in December 2017. The policy document identified China as a strategic danger in “tough” and “unprecedented language” — though this was generally ignored by the American media and public as well as Beijing at that time. The strategy was tentatively implemented in 2018, albeit in an erratic manner initially since there were disagreements within the Trump administration about how to conduct economic relations with China. A critical moment emerged in August 2018 when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act which called for “a whole of government effort” to counter the Chinese challenge, specifically identifying China’s growing strategic dominance in the Indo-Pacific and in high-tech industries. Some of these concerns overlapped with those of President Trump, who imposed punitive tariffs and restrictions on technology-related sales to and acquisitions by China as part of his “trade war”. In 2019, the US media began to understand the urgency of the Chinese threat, though the public and Democratic presidential candidates (including Joe Biden) remained unconvinced. It was in 2020, with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, that coalesced domestic public opposition towards Beijing. The strident attacks on China by the Trump administration over the pandemic and other issues received widespread public approval, with 9 out of 10 Americans agreeing that China posed a threat. Moreover, President Trump was no longer interested in pursuing a trade deal with China, as both Trump and candidate Biden sought to depict the other as being soft on Beijing.

Professor Sutter explained that while President Biden initially sought nuanced approach to China after assuming power in January 2021, he started to echo mainstream congressional views about the urgency of the China threat by March. Moreover, the success of the Biden administration’s signature domestic policies rests on the slim Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, thus binding the administration’s foreign policy to the priorities of congressional Democrats. This includes the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who are often particularly concerned about human rights issues and oppose trade deals. 

Professor Sutter also argued that US influence in Southeast Asia has declined relative to China, which has succeeded in entrenching its presence in the region over the past decade or so. Significantly, Southeast Asian countries “react negatively” to the United States’ hawkish attitude towards China. Regional governments especially “resent and warn against US actions” that would compel them to choose, preferring instead to “straddle the fence” between the two powers. Furthermore, the region has grown economically dependent on China, which provides Beijing with some leverage to cajole Southeast Asian capitals to its side. Regional governments are also acutely aware of China’s habit of punishing governments that will not defer to Chinese interests. The combination of these hard and soft tactics have seen Southeast Asia leaders increasingly accede to the Chinese position on the South China Sea — they either remain silent or criticise any effort, including those by the United States and other countries, to oppose China’s behaviour in the maritime domain. There is also not much public pushback against China in the region, despite reports about widespread angst among the Southeast Asian elites about China’s growing dominance .

Professor Sutter moreover opined that President Biden’s outreach to improve relations with the region may not yield much fruit since the administration’s current initiatives are generally limited to issues that would “avoid offence to Beijing”. Furthermore, he described how, as a result of domestic constraints, the Biden administration’s policy options “do not fit well” with Southeast Asia’s policy preferences. For instance, while the region wants the United States to join the  Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), this is a “non-starter” for President Biden, who rely on the support of progressive Democrats (who are opposed to such international trade deals) to advance his domestic agenda. For Professor Sutter, the United States is similarly circumscribed on the issue of Myanmar, since its only option is to condemn the junta over their human rights and democratic deficit (a position that many Southeast Asian governments are not especially comfortable with). Additionally, Washington is not able to accede to ASEAN’s requests to become more involved in negotiations with the regime since that may alienate congressional support for Biden.

Professor Sutter concluded that while Biden is more likely to be attentive compared to Trump and may be able “hold the line” against China in the region, it will be difficult to reverse the relative decline of American influence. Furthermore, it is unclear whether Southeast Asia can properly advance its relations with the United States amid the growing US-China rivalry. During the Q&A session with the audience of 108, Prof Sutter addressed topics such as the strategic value of Southeast Asia to the United States, the recent formation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance, the possibility of US participation in the CPTPP and the impact of a Republican takeover of Congress in the 2022 mid-term elections on US-China relations, among others.

Over 100 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)