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The rise of China and the inherent power transition it is causing in Southeast Asia: Implications on US foreign policy

The rise of China and the inherent power transition it is causing in Southeast Asia: Implications on US foreign policy


The international sphere has significantly altered since the culmination of the Cold War. From a bipolar system to a unipolar system — and, at the turn of the twenty-first century, to a multipolar system — there has been a gradual shift in global power to Asia in general, and Southeast Asia[1] in particular. Under Bush, the US establishment reformed the strategy of “benign neglect” (Butcher, 2012: 21) against Southeast Asia and gradually steered the US back in the region. Obama, on the other hand, preferred a comprehensive return to Southeast Asia and espoused a dexterous combination of hard and soft power strategy (i.e., smart power) that employs a carrot (in the form of economic incentives) and stick (use of political-military leverage) approach simultaneously (Nossel, 2004).

Under the Bush administration, though the US got more involved in Southeast Asia, the region playing a significant part in America’s then strategic arrangement (Mauzy & Job, 2007), numerous observers hold the view that there had been a constant dearth of a coherent and harmonized Southeast Asian policy (Kerrey & Manning, 2001). Thus, it comes as no surprise that some Southeast Asian nations are apprehensive about American strategy in their region as they think China’s rise will lead to a power transition — and the Asian giant will replace the United States as the chief regional hegemon (Koh, 2004).

China’s relationship with Southeast Asia took a turn for the better after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, when China won plaudits for abstaining from devaluing its currency, thereby facilitating the stabilisation of other economies in the region. The US, on the other hand, supported IMF levied structural reforms in Southeast Asia that served its own interests (Hung & Lee, 2011). As China cozied up to the region, signing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, which helped alleviate some of the territorial disputes — the US, under Bush, adopted harsh unilateral military policies post-9/11 (Sutter, 2008).

Thus, the rise of China and its influence on the regional distribution of power is the prime driving force for the pressure to return to Southeast Asia under Obama.

Southeast Asian policy has been readapted by underscoring the practice of ‘smart power’ (Nossel, 2004) — a tactic that highlights “the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions at all levels to expand American influence and establish the legitimacy of American action” (Armitage & Nye, 2007: 7) inorder to combat the rise of China and combat global terrorism. Thus, a mixture of tangible resources, strategy and foreign policy is required to achieve tactical goals — may that be in the form of increasing allies and support to spread regional influence or capitalise in “public diplomacy”, the “global good” or economic interdependency in response to challenges (Ming-Te & Tai-Ting Liu, 2012: 200).

Notwithstanding America’s military muscle in the region, Washington still faces intricate foreign policy challenges thanks in part to China’s rise and the economic interdependency with the region itself. This report aims to analyse the impact that the region of Southeast Asia has on US foreign policy, especially keeping in mind the rapid rise of China as a regional power. The focus will predominantly be on post-9/11 strategy, and the significant policy divergence between Bush and Obama.


Although Northeast Asia received significant attention in US foreign policy circles in the years following the Second World War,[2] a policy of “benign neglect” (Butcher, 2012: 21) was imposed on Southeast Asia prior to 9/11.

On July 21, 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bangkok, announced, “the United States is back” (Clinton, 2009). President Obama, too, during his first trip to Asia after taking office, asserted that “as America’s first Pacific president”, he would guarantee that the United States, by virtue of being a “Pacific nation”, would “strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world” (Obama, 2009). The refocusing of American foreign policy towards Southeast Asia under the aegis of the Obama administration, underscores the importance of rebalancing China’s rise by engaging with the rest of the region.

The East Asian financial crisis weakened regional cohesion and led to growth in political instability and an intensification of ethno-religious frictions — which in turn, destabilized ASEAN’s security apparatus. Today, all the security issues that concern the United States subsist in Southeast Asia: existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), drug trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorist networks, to name a few. Bush followed a neoconservative strategy that fixated on pre-emptive actions against familiar dangers and proclaimed the American right to unilateral decision-making and action — this policy was labeled “too single-minded, too militaristic, insufficiently attentive to local politics and conditions and for mistaking locally sourced threats for global ones” (Ba, 2009: 377).

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s choice to give the 2005 and 2007 meetings of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) a miss, and Bush’s move to abandon a long-awaited US-ASEAN summit in 2007, were commonly held as an indication of Southeast Asia’s demotion in American eyes (Brinkley, 2005). This led to the US losing legitimacy and popular support in Southeast Asia, at the same time as China was gaining support (Nossel, 2004). The Obama administration, thus, has decided not to quarantine itself from the region and to deliver guidance founded on collective security and humanitarian consent in Southeast Asia (Eikenberry, 2015).

The concrete policy that highlights Obama’s return to Southeast Asia is the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) with ASEAN. The treaty has at its core the goal of lasting peace in the region. Bush, reluctant on the TAC due to it necessitating the United States to adapt other endorsements related to sovereignty of states, non-intervention in domestic matters, and peaceful settlements of conflicts (which had the potential to influence Washington’s stance concerning North Korea and Myanmar) sat on the fence when it came to Southeast Asia (Shen, 2009). Other rising powers in the region, such as China, Russia, India, etc., in the meantime, worked out agreements on the TAC and warmed up to ASEAN. Noting the blunder, the Obama administration swiftly reneged on the previous policy and reinitiated cooperation with ASEAN, signing the TAC (Percival, 2009).

Previously, the region did not receive much foreign policy attention due to its low level of domestic salience in the United States. Unlike the Middle East, which has a remarkable domestic constituency and noteworthy petroleum resources, a product whose effect is felt by every American citizen; Southeast Asian constituents are a comparatively smaller population in the United States, and have patchy record on political mobilization, making Asian Americans a less powerful force in American politics. Even business clusters such as the US-ASEAN Business Council do not hold as much sway as their other regional counterparts do — primarily because the region does not grip the American imagination or address the domestic concerns unlike Europe, Latin America or the Middle East. As Ba (2009) stresses, it is only because Americans now see China as a potential hegemon in the region that they are willing to be more involved in Southeast Asia.

A number of factors contributed to Southeast Asia being an important focus for US foreign policy — so significant that Hillary Clinton, on assuming office as Secretary of State in 2009, travelled to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China, with an important stop in the ASEAN secretariat for her first official visit — diverging from her predecessors who usually visited Western Europe or the Middle East in their first trips. The rise of China is largely accepted to be the prime driver of US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Other factors include combating the threat of terrorism, and safeguarding American strategic and security interests.

1. Rise of China:

Sino-American relation in the 1980s revolved around the restoration of China’s position in the global political-economic landscape. However, towards the end of the twentieth century, the Asian giant’s rise began resulting in an escalation of friction, particularly in economic and strategic spheres (Campbell, 2012). The rise of China is furthering, what many observers claim, an inherent power transition in Southeast Asia (Kupchan, 1998; Segal, 1996). China is already the largest economic partner of ASEAN — which is asymmetrically interdependent on the Asian giant (China Briefing, 2015). The US, on the other hand, is only the fourth largest partner of ASEAN (Ming-Te & Tai-Ting Liu, 2012) — and as Mastanduno (2006: 24) posits, America’s hegemonic authority in Southeast Asia remains “incomplete”. Chinese military capabilities have progressively increased over the years, and although it is unlikely that the United States’ military infrastructure would be challenged in the immediate future, analysts have accepted the challenge Beijing can pose to the status quo. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review report, for example, recognises the “rapid pace” and “comprehensive scope” of China’s military development, and stresses that the “lack of transparency and openness” regarding its military abilities and objectives spawns realistic doubt in the American foreign policy establishment (U.S. Department of Defense, 2014: 4).

A cursory examination of contemporary Chinese foreign policy reveals that while Beijing’s “peaceful rise” (Zhu, 2007: 228) has assisted the political establishment, the likelihood of China rising peacefully is likely to subside, due to the political-military realities in Southeast Asia (Buzan, 2010). Staunch and antagonistic posturing by the Chinese in the South China Sea — due to it being a “core interest” (Yoshihara & Holmes, 2011: 45) — in addition to their hefty defense budget, a growing naval presence and efforts to acquire “more high-quality friends” (Xuetong, 2011) has added to more pressure on the region’s current hegemon, the United States.

China’s hasty economic rise has had a significant effect on the balance of power in Southeast Asia. Many observers have watched closely the country’s growing soft power and the threat it possesses to US hegemony in the region (Huang & Ding, 2004/2005; Shambaugh, 2004/2005). Kurlantzick (2007) points out that China exudes global authority via its soft power — and that the United States should face up to the challenge imposed on it by the Asian giant. Nye (2005) mentions that American soft power in Southeast Asia displays a descending development, with US being seen as a passive player in the region.

The US’ desire to pledge and progress bilateral affairs with ASEAN members (both old and new) is predominantly down to the “China factor” (Limaye, 2010: 313). For China, Southeast Asia is strategically, politically, and economically attractive. Also, Chinese elites consider this region as the Achilles’ heel of the China containment policy, and aim to ebb US authority in Southeast Asia by fracturing the security infrastructure that US has set up with some of China’s neighbours (Ott, 2006).

2. Combating the threat of terrorism:

Post-9/11, Washington seemed to recognize its disregard for Southeast Asia in its strategic plan, and brought the region back in its tactical agenda by making it a “second front” in the war on terrorism (Tan, 2010: 26; Acharya & Acharya, 2007). It is widely held that some regional terrorist groups are intimately allied to fundamentalist networks across the world, especially in the Middle East. However, US anti-terrorism policy in Southeast Asia is not without its challenges. Although most national governments feel susceptible to danger due to Islamic militant networks within their territory, they have to weigh their security interests with popular domestic resentment against the United States impelled by its invasion of Iraq (Vaughn et al, 2009).

Despite the aims of terrorist organisations and revolutionary groups differ in Southeast Asia, the mutual condition for survival underwrites the creation of a shared network that conveys a comparatively high threshold of danger to regional stability. This shared network, when coupled with ethnic tensions and religious contradictions, aggravates the region’s political peace and stability. Terrorism, thus, is not just a problem for Southeast Asia, but for American economic, political, and strategic interests in Southeast Asia (Lohman, 2007). The US has recognized that joint, multilateral cooperation is crucial to combat terrorism in the region. For example, since 2002, Washington has teamed up with Singapore and Thailand to hold joint military exercises to battle terrorism, titled ‘Cobra Gold’; similarly, in 2005, US and Singapore initiated agreements promoting cooperation in “counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, military exercises and training, and defense technology” (Tan, 2010: 31).

3. Strategic and Security Concerns of the United States in Southeast Asia:

Southeast Asia falls at the convergence of the world’s two most densely navigated sea-lanes: The east-west route, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the north-south waterway, which unites Northeast Asia to Oceania (Khalilzad et al., 2001). Both waterways are absolutely essential to regional economic development and harmony, as it is via these routes that the nations of Northeast Asia export finished products to the rest of the globe, and amass vital imports of natural resources. Geographically, as there is a shortage of an extensive network of land-based transport infrastructure within ASEAN members (because of the primarily littoral nature of the countries in the region), most trade is carried out via these routes. Militarily, too, the waterways are immensely important to the strategic interests of the United States, as they are vital to the passage of U.S. forces to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf from the Western Pacific when required.

Strategic Straits: Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, Makassar and Other Sea Lanes. | Image Source: Richard Sokolsky, Angel Rabasa & C.R. Neu,  The Role of Southeast Asia in US Strategy toward China  (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000). p. 12.

Strategic Straits: Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, Makassar and Other Sea Lanes. | Image Source: Richard Sokolsky, Angel Rabasa & C.R. Neu, The Role of Southeast Asia in US Strategy toward China (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000). p. 12.

In similar stead, nearly all shipment must proceed by means of one of three “chokepoints” (Sokolsky_et_al., 2001: 11) in Southeast Asia: the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait, and the Straits of Lombok and Makassar (see_figure_1). Three American allies — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore — lie by these straits and have the power to implement prospective control over a significant proportion of the globe’s trade (Khalilzad et al., 2001).

In the time of the Cold War, accelerating seaborne trade was a secondary objective. The primary aim was preserving freedom of navigation of these sea-lanes for the US navy, whilst refuting that similar autonomy to the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet threat may have been thwarted, the United States and its allies need to pay heed to the rise of possible challengers. Thus, the US needs to guarantee its strategic allies, who use the straits, that it, once again, is a dependable supporter of widespread freedom of navigation (Sokolsky et al., 2001).


To conclude, the United States returned to Southeast Asia under the Bush administration, reversing the previous American policy of benignantly neglecting the region. Bush’s Southeast Asian policy is best seen as staunchly neoconservative — an “imperial imperative and the increased use of war for profit” (Tyner, 2007: 217). The War on Terror, as it teased out in Southeast Asia is a rearrangement of great power politics — the prime fear being the rise of an ever-assertive China, and not Islamic militancy or terrorism. Making the region a second front for the War on Terror and increasing the military presence of America in East Asia is a pretext to balance the Asian giant.

While there is no dearth of international relations theories to explain the current policies towards Southeast Asia, Realism and Neoliberalism characterize the debate best. Realists, many of who believe that ferocious competition between a hegemon and an aspiring challenger is the norm, claim that the region is currently in a security dilemma (Morgenthau, 2005; Mearsheimer, 2001) — and that both the United States and China will fall in the oft-called ‘Thucydides Trap’[3] — sooner rather than later (Friedberg, 1993/1994). Realists contend that every state is concerned with its own survival and, thus, they distrust their peers, focusing on maximising their own security (Waltz, 1979). This spiral of anxiety, which occurs as a result of one state labeling its competitor’s securitisation as aggressive and in turn securitising itself, is dubbed as a ‘security dilemma’ (Herz, 1950) — a situation analogous to Sino-US power politics in Southeast Asia. Realists contend that the United States needs to influence current allies, obtain new ones, and to infrequently accommodate China when American concerns are considerably few compared to those of China.

Neoliberals, on the other hand, contend that America should maintain the vibrancy and attractiveness of the status quo liberal economic order in the hope that a challenger would realize that it is more beneficial to be associated with a pre-existing institution, rather than starting its new one. The aim is that, over time, this would “lead to co-option and to an evolutionary change in the contender’s values” (Eikenberry, 2015).

However, due to the rise of China, and its fruitful spread of the Beijing Consensus in lieu of the Washington Consensus (which came into question post the financial crisis), US has realized that it cannot rely on hard power alone. As mentioned previously, Obama’s ‘smart power’ strategy can be seen as an amalgamation of both realist and liberal viewpoints: a carrot and stick approach that incentivizes economic trade and tries to sell the American-branded liberal order; a reliance on US command power in in addition to conventional liberal internationalism erected on the belief that conflicts are less prone to surface in a secure international order based on liberal democracy.

Finally, it should be noted that the geopolitical shift in Southeast Asia is a subset of a larger shift in the balance of international power. As Vaughn and Morrison (2006) ascertain: the Sino-US relationship is by far the most important relationship of this age and Southeast Asia — a region where China is very prone to dump its weight and where its authority could be most successful — is its primary battleground.

[1] Southeast Asia is defined as the region occupied by these ten countries: Indonesia, Philippine, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei.

[2] The foundation of U.S. foreign policy in Northeast Asia has long been the security apparatus that characterise some of America’s intimate alliances.

[3] A metaphor reminding us of the time Athens confronted Sparta in ancient Greece; a situation wherein a “rising power rivals a ruling power” (Allison, 2015)


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