Sebastian Strangio Explains the Relationships Between China and Southeast Asia

Sebastian Strangio

Sebastian Strangio joins the podcast to discuss relationship between Southeast and China. Sebastian is the Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat and the author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. This is the 50th episode of the podcast.

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The experience of Western colonization has imprinted all of these nations in profound ways and it’s tended to inculcate a sort of skepticism about Western invocations of democracy and the rule of law. China, of course, shares a similar skepticism. China was also not formerly colonized, or not fully colonized by Western powers, but it experienced what the Chinese communist party likes to term a century of humiliation.  And so, both regions share an abiding ambivalence about the current international order.

Sebastian Strangio

Key Highlights Include

  • Sebastian explains the economic, political, and cultural ties between China and Southeast Asia
  • An overview of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
  • An explanation of the South China Sea dispute
  • Distinguishes between maritime and mainland nations in Southeast Asia
  • China’s approach to Southeast Asia under Xi Jinping

Podcast Transcript

Have you ever known somebody who makes every conversation about themselves? They’re probably American. So, it’s no surprise Americans use the topic of international relations to simply talk about themselves. Today, I want to talk about the relationship between Southeast Asia and China. And yes, the United States does come up in passing, but Sebastian and I really do focus on the nations of Southeast Asia. 

I should mention our guest, Sebastian Strangio, is the Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat and the author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. His book goes in depth to discuss the relationship between Southeast Asia and China on a holistic level as well as an examination of individual countries. 

Our conversation covers some of the bigger themes of his book. We discuss ways their interests align and ways they diverge. Sebastian explains the role of ASEAN. And we discuss the differences between Southeast Asian nations. And we also discuss a few very specific examples. But most of all, Sebastian helps us understand the perspective from Southeast Asia towards China and towards each other. 

Now Sebastian and I leave out a lot of topics in the conversation. So, feel free to pick up where we left off. Leave a comment at www.democracyparadox.com or feel free to mention me on Twitter @DemParadox. I also enjoy the emails many listeners have sent to democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Sebastian Strangio…

jmk

Sebastian Strangio, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Sebastian

Thanks for having me.

jmk

Well Sebastian, your book was absolutely fascinating to me, because it’s not just about China or about Southeast Asia. But really about their intersection. And I found that the physical manifestation of that intersection is the Mekong River. Now most of us have only heard of the Mekong in passing. So, can you paint the picture of it and maybe the land surrounding it and tell us how this river explains the link between China and Southeast Asia?

Sebastian

Well, the Mekong River arises on the Tibetan plateau, inside the People’s Republic of China. From there it flows southward, through large gorges, through China’s Yunan province before entering or crossing the border into mainland Southeast Asia. From that point onwards, the Mekong flows past Myanmar. It flows through Thailand and Laos, forms a large part of the two nations’ border before moving through Cambodia and then spilling into the sea at its Delta in Southern Vietnam. I mean, this river is central to the livelihoods and cultures of the five mainland Southeast Asian nations. But it has also become a symbol of China’s strategic influence in the region because on the upper reaches of the river that lie within China, the Chinese government has built a cascade of mega dams, hydro power projects, designed to power China’s industrial economy.

And of course, stretches of the river downstream, which are much broader are less amenable to hydro-power development. The implication of this as these dams have come online over the past decade is that China is reaping the benefit of the river in terms of hydro-power, while exporting most of the costs downstream. And when you add China’s dam building on top of climate change and other challenges facing the river, including salination in the Delta, you have a situation in which Chinese dam engineers have increasing control over the amount of water that flows downstream. And just in the last couple of years, we’ve seen sharp swings in the water levels of the Mekong in the mainland Southeast Asian nations, which have caused all sorts of disruptions.

And this is increasingly becoming a fraught strategic and political issue, but it really does symbolize and magnify the power that China has now over the five nations downstream. And of course, this Mekong connection is just one of many ways in which China’s influence has grown in these nations. And the backdrop to this is a slow integration of these two regions and a breaking down of the geographic barrier that once kept the power of the Chinese state far away. This was a region of mountains and forests in the borderlands that was very difficult to traverse, but now there are railways, highways, special economic zones moving through these regions. And so, China and the mainland Southeast Asia have become much more closely integrated.

jmk

But it’s not just about the economic or environmental impact. You told a story in your book about how China was looking for some criminal bandits that had broken the law. And they went along the Mekong River into other countries’ territories in searches of these criminals. And you describe it as a situation, kind of like when the United States went into Mexico to search for Pancho Villa. A moment where they really demonstrated their hegemonic power. But it also really helped bring together how this river literally divides some of these Southeast Asian countries, at least on the mainland portion. I found it so fascinating, so interesting how it brought everything together.

Sebastian

Yeah. I mean that case, just to flush it out for your listeners, in 2011, 13, Chinese sailors were murdered on the Mekong River. Now, as background to this, I should explain to them, the Mekong River has become an increasingly important trade route. Chinese initiatives have led to the blasting of rapids and the opening of the Mekong to large-scale cargo trade. Most of the people applying this trade route are Chinese. Small river boats sailing from Yunan province down through the Golden Triangle to Northern Thailand and trading fruit and all sorts of things, and agricultural goods from Thailand being sent back upstream to China.

These 13 sailors were killed in 2011. They were operating two of these boats and the circumstances around the murders are very unclear, but the Thai government blamed a notorious bandit who operated in this region, a fellow called Naw Kham who’d been involved in the drug economy of the region in the past and had sort of set out on his own and set up a very profitable operation in which he taxed drug traffickers in the region. Of course, the Golden Triangle has long been notorious for its immersion in the global narcotics trade as it still is today.

And basically, the Chinese government, you know, responding to the huge public anger about the killing of these Chinese citizens abroad convinced the governments of Laos and Myanmar and Thailand to allow it to operate to bring this bandit to justice and they eventually did catch him in 2012 and he was sentenced to death early the following year. And I think this really did symbolize the extent to which China’s role in securing this stretch of the Mekong has deepened its influence in these countries. And the river patrols that were established at the time continue. Notably they do stop at the Thai border and turn around. So, the Thai government has not given permission for Chinese ships to sail through its waters, but they can sail down to the Golden Triangle where they turn around and go back upstream.

jmk

Now, the foundation to this growing political clout that China has in Southeast Asia is based on their economic strength. So, can you help us understand how China’s economic relationships with these Southeast Asian countries shape their political relationships with them?

Sebastian

The two are deeply intertwined. I mean, China is a leading trade partner and source of investment for every nation in the region. Now, it’s not the number one in every country, but it’s pretty close to it and this makes China increasingly central to the future prosperity and stability of most Southeast Asian countries. And this, of course, gives them a strong incentive to remain on good terms with Beijing and to take part in Chinese initiatives as a sort of signal of deference to China’s growing power in the region. Every nation is involved in some way in the Belt and Road Initiative, even though the Vietnamese are a little bit more standoffish about it. And the growing economic integration of the two regions has made it much more difficult to ignore China.

jmk

So, when I read a book like yours, where it’s very regionally focused and it’s talking about the relationship between China and a region of countries. And again, it’s geographically focused. It just really brings back the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations to me. And it brings it back both in terms of the strengths of his argument and also the weaknesses of his argument. The idea that the proximity really does give China an advantage. You bring that up again and again, but it also shows that the proximity also creates a disadvantage for China. You kind of alluded to Vietnam. I think that’s the perfect example where the proximity to China is almost too close for Vietnam. Can you explain a little bit about the special relationship between China and Vietnam?

Sebastian

Well, I think China and Vietnam really encapsulate the sort of dialectics of proximity. I mean, on the one hand, no nation in Southeast Asia, no people in Southeast Asia, has faced the hard edge of Chinese power more often, and more profoundly, than the Vietnamese in many ways. Vietnamese national identity defines itself against China. And the country has been subject to repeated invasions through history, culminating, of course, in the short-lived invasion of February and March 1979. But on the other hand, proximity has also been a huge gift to Vietnam. China has imprinted Vietnam with its culture, its civilization.  Vietnam adopted China’s writing system, a lot of its political philosophies, forms of military strategy. All of these sorts of things have left a very strong impression on Vietnam.

Of all the nations of Southeast Asia it’s the most Sinitic in the way that it feels, looks, and behaves. And the irony of Vietnamese history is that the tools that it borrowed from China had been the very things that have enabled it to maintain its independence from China. And that’s manifest in the fact that the two nations have outstanding territorial maritime disputes in the South China Sea, which are a huge point of tension, yet engage in a huge amount of trade annually and speak about the sort of common destiny of the two communist parties that rule these countries.

So, it’s a very fraught relationship, but I think it encapsulates well, you know, the sort of Janus-faced nature of proximity to China which is that it makes China something that’s impossible to ignore, that you need to remain on the good side of. On the other hand, that proximity and the size and power of China have inevitably produced feelings of consternation, concern, worry about what this means for the region’s future. And these two emotions, these two feelings coexist and feed back and forth into one another. They produce an abiding ambivalence really about China’s rise.

jmk

So, how do the interests of Southeast Asia converge with China?

Sebastian

So, of course, economics is a very powerful component of what draws Southeast Asia toward China. But there are other aspects to it as well.  You know, some of these aspects are often overlooked in the west, in the United States, which has a tendency to view China sort of as a malign actor. And this is sort of the assumption that any other country would see things the same way, but from a Southeast Asian perspective there are things about China’s perspective on international relations that are attractive. I think the most important thing is the two regions shared history of encounters with Western colonial power.

Most Southeast Asian nations were colonized by the west. Thailand remained independent and managed to preserve its independence, but even then, you know, it experienced French gunboat diplomacy and was forced to cede territories to the French and the British. And so, there’s also sort of an anti-colonial legacy in Thailand. And all of these legacies have shaped, you know, the anti-colonial struggles. The experience of Western colonization has imprinted all of these nations in profound ways.  And it’s tended to inculcate a sort of skepticism about Western invocations of democracy and the rule of law. China, of course, shares a similar skepticism. China was also not formerly colonized, or not fully colonized by Western powers, but it experienced what the Chinese communist party likes to term a century of humiliation.  And so, both regions share an abiding ambivalence about the current international order.

And China’s focus on an international order based on the principle of sovereignty. Sovereignty being, of course, very important for the post-colonial nations of the global south, represents a huge area of overlapping interests. And so, we tend to see this play out when a nation in Southeast Asia comes under Western pressure over human rights abuses or democratic backsliding, you tend to see sort of an angry response from that nation towards say the United States or the European union criticizing them for this. And then, sort of, understanding noises coming from Beijing about the importance of national sovereignty and respecting each other’s internal affairs and not interfering. And this is something that I think many Western observers underestimate the appeal that China’s sort of promise of no strings support has for many leaders in the region.

Of course, you know, this is also a two-edged sword for China because in supporting governments, regardless of what form of government they have, whether they’re democratic or authoritarian, China will work with them. Sometimes that does leave China open to being tarred by association to a repressive and hated regime. We’re seeing that in Myanmar right now where China’s willingness to deal with the military government, or not condemn the military government, is being seen by large swaths of the population of that country as support for a hated government. And so, you know, China’s reputation in Myanmar, which has never been particularly good, is really at an all-time low at the moment. But I do think that China’s pragmatism, it’s willingness to deal with nations regardless of the political hue or character, offers it a considerable advantage over Western powers in Southeast Asia.

jmk

Now clearly China overlooks human rights abuses and it will overlook authoritarian dictatorships and ignore violations of the rule of law. I mean, China has problems like that in its own country, but when China says that they respect the sovereignty of other nations, is there a little bit of lip service in that? Because when something really does matter to China, do they really allow the other countries to just do what they want to do or are they willing to get into the thick of it and try to compel that nation to do something based on China’s interests?

Sebastian

Yeah, like any hegemonic power China tries to legitimize its power with reference to a higher principle and in this case it’s the nostrum of national sovereignty, mutual noninterference. China will never intervene. China has never set foot or encroached upon a foreign nation soil, which of course isn’t true, and it’s entirely unsurprising that when China’s core interests are perceived to be at stake, then it will toss these principles out in a heartbeat.

I mean the same to a certain extent is true of the United States. American primacy is presented as a force for good by much of the American policy-making establishment, but in practice the US will back non-democratic governments, if its national interests necessitate that. It has done so for a very long time. And despite all the rhetoric coming out of the Biden administration now about recentering democracy promotion in American foreign policy, it’s very clear that the US is willing to deal with whatever governments it needs to in order to advance what it perceives to be its national interests.

And I don’t think that China is in substance any different in that regard. And I think that Southeast Asian nations know that well. I mean, a lot of them have faced Chinese interference with overseas Chinese communities, China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, it’s assertiveness, moving maritime militia vessels into the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian claimant states in violation of international law. And, you know, it has shown itself willing to employ various forms of economic coercion against nations that are perceived to violate its interests. So yeah, to a certain extent China’s anti-imperial and pro-sovereignty rhetoric is undermined by its own burgeoning Imperial potential. This is a constant tension in Chinese engagement with the global south, especially with Southeast Asia, which lives so close to China’s borders.

jmk

Yeah. And I’m not looking to identify contradictions for the sake of the contradictions, but rather to unpack the relationship between China and Southeast Asia. Because the sense of national sovereignty does ring very strongly to those Southeast Asian nations. You have a quote in your book where you write, “Fortified by a potent new sense of national pride and identity, tempered in some instances by ferocious struggles against Western colonial rule, the independent nation states of Southeast Asia were and remain fiercely defensive of their sovereignty, and much less willing to assume positions of deference.”

Now that obviously works in China’s favor when it’s against the west and the United States, but it also works against China in terms of becoming a hegemonic power for the region. And one of those issues that you’ve already alluded to regards the South China Sea and the conflicts between some of the nations and sometimes the delicate negotiations between some of the Southeast Asian nations and China over that area. Can you unpack that for us and explain what that conflict is and what the issues are in that debate?

Sebastian

Well, you know, the South China Sea is a hugely important conduit of international trade. Several trillion dollars of trade passes through the sea every year. It passes very close by, not just China’s coastline, but also the coastline of various Southeast Asian nations. And sorting out exactly where the maritime boundaries and the territorial boundaries between each of these nations lies would be a difficult thing to work out, even in the best of circumstances. But over the past sort of decade and a half, China has reasserted an old claim dating back to the late nationalist period which is, you know, basically a line on a map. It’s referred to as the nine-dash line because it constitutes nine dashes and this maritime claim essentially loops off upwards of 80% of the south China sea and asserts it as China’s sovereign territory.

The nine-dash line passes very close to the coast of Vietnam, the Northern coast of Borneo, and the coast of several of the Philippine islands. And its southernmost point lies more than a thousand miles from the southernmost point of the Chinese mainland. So, to any impartial observer looking at a map this claim looks ridiculous. And it has prompted a reemergence of what were sort of dormant maritime and territorial disputes between China and four Southeast Asian nations, and also Taiwan. And Indonesia sort of represents a fifth Southeast Asian nation that has frictions with China, although from a legal perspective, it does not consider itself a claimant in the way that the other four do.

But this issue has become a point of tension in China’s relationship with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei to varying extents since 2009, when China formerly reasserted the nine-dash line and since then we’ve seen China beef up its maritime presence in the region. It has begun dredging and reclaiming massive artificial islands on which it has built administrative buildings and military facilities. And, just recently, China deployed several hundred maritime militia vessels and fishing boats to parts of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, triggering another standoff between those two nations.

jmk

The Philippines is an interesting example because they actually took a claim regarding the South China sea and won. And then Duterte takes power and he decides to reverse the foreign policy within that country. I think it demonstrates the kind of yin yang direction of a lot of Southeast Asian nations in terms of trying to balance political interests versus economic interests. Can you help unravel some of that?

Sebastian

Right. So, in 2013, after a standoff, quite a heated standoff, over the Scarborough Shoal, which China ended up remaining in possession of despite agreeing to back off and evacuate, the Philippines’ government decided to take its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. So, it filed a case against China. It’s quite a legally complicated case. There were a number of different claims that the Philippines made.

And in 2016, shortly after President Duterte took office, the PCA handed down its arbitral award and it ruled in favor of the Philippines claims in virtually every case. I think there was one or two cases in which it demurred. But in layman’s terms, the overall effect was to reject any legal basis for China’s nine-dash line claim. It did not rule over who possessed what islands or what reefs, but it did say that China’s nine-dash line claim had no legal standing. So, it was really a vindication of the Philippines’ position.

But at that time, President Duterte opted to lay aside the arbitrary victory and to take a more conciliatory approach toward China. And his people figured, by lodging this legal claim, it had done little to dislodge China or stop its maritime assertiveness. At the same time, it had prevented Manila from accessing the potentially billions of dollars of funding available under the Belt and Road Initiative. And Duterte had a very ambitious domestic agenda of building up, of overhauling, the Philippines’ infrastructure and firing up the economy. And so, he made a calculation that going to China would help to advance these goals.

In the end, not a lot of these infrastructure projects have moved forward. There’s been a lot of bottlenecks, a lot of problems. And Duterte has come under a lot of criticism, particularly from hawkish members of the old administration, the Benigno Aquino administration, for basically selling out Philippine claims for very little gain. I think Duterte’s sort of pivot to China or dalliance with President Xi Jinping has reflected an ambivalence about the Philippine relationship with the United States, and also a recognition that the strategic balance of power is shifting. And that China is something that the Philippines can no longer ignore.

jmk

I think the Philippines also demonstrates how there’s a lot of diversity in the political and economic interests throughout Southeast Asia. But something that brings all of these nations together is that they belong to this organization, ASEAN. It’s not an organization that many people within the states are very familiar with. You hear about it in passing. You might come across it in The Economist, but it doesn’t capture the imagination in the mainstream press.  Can you help explain the role of ASEAN and help unravel whether it’s solely an economic Alliance or if it has maybe a security or political element to it as well?

Sebastian

I think it’s important to understand ASEAN in terms of the post-colonial history of the region. You know, ASEAN emerges in the late 1960s as an anticommunist grouping. It included five nations at the time, all of which were very hostile to communism. And the way it operates very much takes into consideration the sensitivities around national sovereignty. And so, ASEAN was founded with the idea that the various nations needed to band together to fight communist subversion. The idea was that we either hang together or hang separately, was sort of how it was expressed at the time. But given that these countries had a lot of differences among themselves, and a lot of sensitivities around questions of sovereignty, including territorial disputes, ASEAN adopted a very loose framework of consensus in which it would operate.

And so, the way that ASEAN operates is that no decision is made within the grouping that does not have the support of every member and so this gives every member a defacto veto over any statement or any policy that ASEAN formulates. This worked fairly well during the latter part of the Cold War given the alignment of interests between the five nations, later six when Brunei joined after its independence in the eighties. But what we’ve seen since the end of the Cold War is ASEAN expand. It included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. So now that brought ASEAN going up to its current membership of 10 and that also brought in most of what are recognized generally as the nations of Southeast Asia.

So, to a certain extent ASEAN and Southeast Asia have become synonymous, even though Timor Leste is one Southeast Asian nation, a very young nation, that still remains outside ASEAN and could potentially join it at some time in the future. But what we’ve seen since the end of the cold war is its interests become much more diverse. I mean, the admission of four new members that sit in a region territorially approximate to China has made it much more difficult for the region to establish a consensus about controversial issues.

Now, these issues include things like the disputes in the South China Sea which ASEAN has found it very difficult to establish a consensus about because, of course, Myanmar and Cambodia, to take just two examples, are not nations that have any real direct stake in the south China sea. And for a country like Cambodia, which has become increasingly reliant on Chinese largesse, investment, infrastructure funding, trade, and political backing, there is a temptation to support the Chinese position on this issue or at least prevent the emergence of any strong ASEAN position.

So, ASEAN functions sort of as a loose intramural grouping in which any nation can veto the block’s way forward. And this has produced a lot of frustration amongst Western observers. We’ve seen that particularly over the crisis in Myanmar, where given that Myanmar’s military government is a member of ASEAN, and can veto anything that ASEAN chooses to move forward with we’ve seen ASEAN react sluggishly to the crisis in that country and attract a lot of criticism as a result of it.

And so, yeah, I mean, these structural shortcomings have prevented ASEAN from becoming anything approaching sort of the European union in the way that it operates. And I don’t think it will ever become as unified as that. And in fact, most of the trends seem to be moving in the other direction, in which countries within ASEAN have increasingly divergent interests and this poses significant challenges for ASEAN‘s future.

jmk

Is the divide mainly between the mainland and the island nations? And even from a bigger picture perspective, it seems like the interests you’re talking about are economic and to some extent political. Is there a distinct cultural divide between these two different regions within Southeast Asia?

Sebastian

Well, one could loosely phrase it as being a mainland maritime division. I think that it’s complicated slightly by the case of Vietnam which uniquely is both a mainland nation in the sense that it’s territorially contiguous with China, yet also has a very long coastline and it is in many ways a maritime nation. And so, Vietnam’s interests align probably more closely with those of the Philippines and Malaysia than they do with those of Cambodia and Thailand and Myanmar. But yeah, one could argue that the peoples that have always oriented themselves towards the oceans have sort of a greater alignment of interests between them than there are within the region as a whole. A landlocked nation like Laos simply does not have that strong an interest in what happens in the oceans especially given the government’s heavy reliance on Chinese largesse.

And I think what ASEAN really needs is more creative and visionary political leadership. And this is the other big shortcoming in the region. You’ve got a structural shortcoming, but you also have a shortcoming in terms of leadership. I think the nations of the region, even those that don’t have a direct interest in the South China Sea should recognize that a robust ASEAN is ultimately in their long-term interests. Even if there is something to be gained in the short term by ignoring the questions of the disputes in the South China Sea, in the long run, a more united ASEAN is going to be able to represent Southeast Asia’s interests as a whole much better than a sort of a fractured ASEAN. But unfortunately for a lot of countries in Southeast Asia the quality of the political leadership is lacking.

jmk

Singapore typically has strong leaders. They’re not democratic, but they’re strong leaders with low levels of corruption to my understanding. It’s an interesting country because it’s ethnically Chinese. It’s also technically maritime. It used to be part of Malaysia. How does Singapore align within this environment of ASEAN?

Sebastian

Well, Singapore is a real exception to some of the characteristics I just described. I mean, there’s a highly competent political class and, as a result, Singapore has been probably the most abled Southeast Asian nation in terms of articulating a strategic vision and foreign policy strategy and implementing it over a long period of time. And Singapore has been very wary about becoming over dependent on China. At the same time, Singapore enjoys what has been described by some as a special relationship with China. As well as having very close relations with the United States, Singapore has been very good at balancing its relationship between these two superpowers and drawing the lines of its interests very clearly.

And so, in cases of both the United States and China, Singapore is not afraid to call out these powers when they step across that line. That has led to some tensions in recent years with China, because Singapore has expressed support for the ruling of the South China Sea in 2016. And that prompted an angry exchange of words between it and China. At the same time, it’s also been critical of the anti-China turn in the United States and the ideologization of US-China competition by many people in the US foreign policy establishment. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2019, the major annual defense conclave that’s held in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee was very outspoken toward both China and the United States and said that the two powers needed to sort things out and that their increased rivalry was not good for the region.

So, you know, Singapore has been probably the most articulate expositor of a Southeast Asian strategic vision.

jmk

So to bring this back to China again, the rise of Xi Jinping to a position of leadership within China has really dominated conversations about the direction that China is going. And you have an interesting quote in your book where you write, “Xi’s ends are familiar, however, his means are in many ways unprecedented.” Can you help unpack what you mean by that quote?

Sebastian

Well, I think, the Chinese Communist Party always had the aim ultimately of becoming a great power and potentially challenging the position of the United States in the Western Pacific. But Xi’s means have involved Chinese engagements with parts of the world where China had relatively fleeting engagements. It has involved a massive build-up of Naval force which is something that China has never historically been, at least not for a sustained period of maritime power. So, building up a serious maritime capability has been relatively unprecedented. The extension of Chinese investment, Chinese capital to the outside world has also been something that we haven’t seen for a very, very long time and certainly not under the People’s Republic of China on this scale. But we’ve seen China take steps forward in terms of the projection of its power that have no parallel in the modern era.

jmk

So, the United States is still widely recognized as a global hegemon. In the past, it was recognized as a hegemon, even within the region of Asia. Should we now be thinking of China as being the clear hegemon within the Asian region, and especially within Southeast Asia, or does America still act as a significant counterweight?

Sebastian

Well, China’s economic growth and expanding military power are impressive, but it is far from unchallenged in the region. I mean, the United States remains actively deployed in the region. I mean, it has troops in several nations in the region, has treaty alliances with several, and it has signaled that it is not willing to cede this ground without a fight. You also have other powers. I mean, the Japanese are very able too, have the most capable Navy in East Asia. You have the Russians and the Indians, both of which have a whole host of frictions with China that are both very concerned about China’s rising power.

You have other powers, the European Union is more of an economic presence in the region, but there’s been an increasing turn toward this sort of idea of the Indo-Pacific amongst European nations. Australia’s engaged in the region. South Korea, I mean, this is a region that is crowded with rivals. And so, while China aspires to a certain hegemony, it’s pursuit of that hegemony’s being challenged left and right. And I do believe that it’s unlikely that China will establish unchallenged control over the region. There are enough potential counterweights to prevent that from happening. The question is whether in the pursuit of that and the efforts of other countries to prevent it we see some sort of a conflict and that could arise over the South China Sea potentially, could also arise and there’s been increasing talk of this recently over Taiwan.

So, that to my mind is probably one of the main risks that’s been prompted by China’s rise. But I don’t think that it’s an unchallenged power in the region. I don’t think it will be over the longer term either.

jmk

You know, I’ve for a long time, felt like the rise of China in many ways paralleled the rise of the United States, where they’re both very reluctant superpowers. The United States for a long time didn’t want to get involved in foreign affairs. And China’s expressed that same ambivalence. And even today, the United States has a strong isolationist streak. There’s a significant portion of the population that always want to pull back from global conflicts and from commitments. And China, oftentimes feels the same way, and they have a strong portion of their population that believes very strongly that they should be doing even less internationally than they’re doing today. And there’s a strong balance between the two.

But what struck me was the point you just made and you make it in your book that there’s a huge difference between the United States and China in that the United States grew up as a very isolated country. It didn’t have rivals on its borders. China is surrounded by rivals. Japan is the third largest economy in the world following China and the United States. It’s interesting to think of how different the environment is for China than the United States.

Sebastian

It’s an unenviable position to be in for an aspiring superpower. Also notable is the fact that China lacks a Western coast, hence its interest in Myanmar. But the US really has a bounty of strategic gifts. It’s got two coastlines in a hemisphere where no rival that’s even in the same ballpark in terms of its power. And after the expulsion of the remnant of the Western powers from the Western hemisphere in the 19th century, the US has been totally unchallenged. China could not aspire to that sort of hegemony in east Asia. There are too many other powerful and populous nations that are concerned about China’s rise and will increasingly coordinate between each other in order to check Chinese ambitions in the region.

And I think that the United States has an important role to play there even though I’m concerned that this sort of belligerence toward China could push the two nations toward a conflict. I do think a strong American counterweight in the region is both desired by most of the nations of the region and probably necessary to avoid a conflict. It’s just a question of exactly how that’s calibrated and one of my concerns is turning US-China competition into an ideological struggle which is something that the Trump administration really focused on, particularly Secretary of State Pompeo. But it’s also something we’ve seen in the Biden administration, to present US-China competition as a contest of Democrats and authoritarians.

And to present authoritarianism as a cohesive international ideology as opposed to sort of a grab bag of regime types, I think that this has the potential to significantly ramp up the risks and, of course, the more that the US does that the more the Chinese Communist Party sort of pushes back with its rhetoric about the decadence of Western democracy and the superiority of the Chinese way.

So, there is a huge amount of risk, but I do think that basically the dilemma facing the United States is how to manage a transition to a world where China is a superpower. This will require the US to adjust both its strategy of global primacy. And it requires a certain psychological adjustment too, because in a world where China is the number one economy, this rubs up very closely or in a very uncomfortable way with notions of American exceptionalism. An idea that has been, over the past 70 years, really been reinforced by the fact that the US has been such a powerful nation. American ideals and American power have come together to sort of renew and reinforce the idea of American exceptionalism.

And I think the rise of China has really issued a very direct challenge to that notion. And hence, the very strident reaction, I think, that China’s rise has prompted in the United States. It touches on very deep things about what it means to be American and America’s role in the world. If America is no longer sort of the global defender of democracy and no longer has the ability to set the terms and the norms for how international affairs is conducted, then is it really exceptional anymore?

jmk

Of course, the thing that puts the United States over the top, both in the past and especially today, as China’s becoming more and more powerful is the breadth of alliances that it has. And Asia is no exception. Where in East Asia, between Japan and South Korea, and we can throw at Taiwan in the mix, it has a very potent group of allies. And then alongside with Europe, and other nations that are fundamental allies, not just in terms of economic interests, but also just in terms of well kind of like you warned against, the sense of ideology. They have very strong interests that are just naturally aligned with one another. But like you said, it’s no longer going to be that America on its own is exceptional. It’s America’s exceptional because it can tie these different nations and cultures together into a coherent strength.

You gave a really great explanation for some of the conflict between China and the United States. Let’s turn this upside down and look at it from the perspective of the Southeast Asian nations. How will they balance the increasing competition between the United States and China as this rivalry continues to heat up?

Sebastian

One thing you hear from Southeast Asian capitals is don’t make us choose. This is a region that has abiding security relationships with the United States, but also increasingly important economic ties to China. This is not a region that wants to make a choice between the two. It’s not a region that wants superpower competition between the two powers, even if it recognizes that such is inevitable to a certain extent. And so, the Southeast Asian way has been to hedge and balance.

Obviously, it’s hard to encapsulate the full range of approaches that the Southeast Asian nations have taken. And countries like Cambodia have a very different calculus in terms of their foreign policy than a nation like Indonesia does. But on the whole, there is a natural inclination in Southeast Asia born of generations of encounter with imperial power to maintain a judicious balance in its relationship with larger outside powers. Most small nations have a strong incentive to maintain good relationships with as many outside powers as possible. And that’s becoming more difficult as the United States and China both try to force upon the region choices. It’s becoming more difficult to maintain that balance.

But Southeast Asia is a region that has a lot of experience with these sorts of situations. It has long been a crossroad of empire. A lot of outside powers have interfered and involved themselves in the region being important parts of its politics. And so, there is a sort of natural ability to balance and hedge. And so, I predict that the region will continue doing this. And one thing that’s important to recognize is that this is not simply, a case of China and the United States.

There are a lot of other powers in the region. Southeast Asia is a naturally multipolar region. We talked about India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Australia, the European union, the presence of all of these powers gives Southeast Asian nations increasing options as to their international alignments, because while the European union and the United States are aligned on certain issues, there are also divergences in how those two powers view China. There’s definitely divergence between the United States and India. And so that does give Southeast Asian nations more room for maneuver. And so, I predict that the region will continue to sort of muddle through both at the regional level through ASEAN and also at the national level and that it’s fairly well equipped to sort of preserve that balance.

But the increasing superpower competition is going to make that more challenging and it’s going to require the region to dig deep about how it can establish sort of a foreign policy strategy that is consistent and well thought out. And I do think that certain nations in the region lack that, or lack of that continuity at least. So, this is going to impose increasing demands on the leaders of these nations to, to get that balance right.

jmk

Well, I think we should all keep our eyes on the developments in Southeast Asia. We’ve clearly seen the recent developments within Myanmar which have completely changed what looked like a possibly hopeful situation into something that looks like it could turn into something tragic. So, hopefully we can find opportunities for hope within some of these other nations. And I think it’s something to always keep our eyes on. So, thanks so much for writing your book. You did so much research. It was really an impressive read.

Sebastian

Thanks, I appreciate it. I’m glad to hear someone’s reading.

jmk

No problem. Well, thank you so much.

Sebastian

Thanks again.

Key Links

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century by Sebastian Strangio

www.thediplomat.com

www.sebastianstrangio.com

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