South-East Asian countries are trapped between two superpowers

South-East Asian countries are trapped between two superpowers

Balancing China and America will be tough

NO PART OF the world risks suffering more from the economic, strategic and military rivalry now playing out between the United States and China than the 11 nations of South-East Asia. And that rivalry will intensify in 2021.

On the one hand, many in the region are wary of President Xi Jinping’s mission to reclaim for China the centrality it enjoyed in East Asia before the imperial depredations by the West and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is not just that China is aggressively challenging the maritime and territorial claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, through which the majority of China’s seaborne trade passes. It is also that Mr Xi’s call for “Asian people to run the affairs of Asia” sounds like code for China running Asia. As a Chinese foreign minister once told a gathering of the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN): “China is a big country and [you] are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

On the other hand, while ASEAN members welcome America as the dominant military power in the region to counter China’s growing heft, they know that conflict would be disastrous for them. South-East Asian diplomats did not loudly cheer the anti-China rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s administration, which is unlikely to soften much under Joe Biden. And no wonder. Many of the region’s governments are hostile to democracy, and few see America’s political model as one to emulate.