The epicentre of a global conflict

An analysis of the US-China rivalry in Southeast Asia.

US-China relations play a central role in efforts to craft a framework for the global order; ideally, the duo should help bring stability and structure to international politics. Yet during the past few years, and especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have come to symbolize the dysfunctionality of international understanding. Instead of engaging in urgently needed cooperation, they are battling more tenaciously than ever to augment their power and shape the world order.

Southeast Asia as the epicentre

Southeast Asia is the epicentre of the Sino-American global conflict and the crucial geopolitical linchpin in the Indo-Pacific region. It is the location of the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes; moreover, the countries in this region must find a place to stand between the spheres of influence of the dominant powers on many issues, including especially trade and technology policies.

There have been also numerous incidents between US and Chinese military forces in the South China Sea over the last few years, especially since Beijing began in 2010 to define this marine region as one of its core interests and to advance such interests in more assertive ways. Many observers around the world, but especially in neighbouring states, fear that, in the worst-case scenario, such an incident might spin out of control, leading to a military conflict. There are numerous maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbours. But in addition to those, the American insistence upon freedom of navigation (as manifested in the US-Indo-Pacific Strategy) is colliding with China’s quest to carve out an exclusive zone of influence and security in Asia while limiting the ability of the US to intervene as much as possible.

China’s assertive conduct in the South China Sea is provoking resistance not only in the United States, but also in the affected countries of Southeast Asia. Accordingly—and despite their ambivalent relationship to the United States—the latter are grateful for American Freedom of Navigation and Overflight operations in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, they themselves have been negotiating with Beijing over rules of conduct in the South China Sea for years.

ASEAN centrality

Amid these events, the countries of Southeast Asia (with a few exceptions) have been at pains not to unilaterally submit to the spheres of influence of either Beijing or Washington. On one hand, they do not want to incur economic disadvantages; on the other, neither do they wish to become pawns in a great-power conflict. Instead, they would prefer to stand their ground and assert their rights as actors to shape events based on their own institutions and designs. Thus, it is not surprising that they appeal to the unity of the region, reaffirm the centrality of ASEAN to ensure their own security, and recently have called for greater resilience against pressure from external powers. One expression of their assertion of sovereignty, their wish to shape events, and their reaction to other countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies (not to mention worries about the potentially negative consequences for their region of an escalation of the Sino-American rivalry) is a plan entitled the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, adopted under Thailand’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2019. 

A further vital interest of the ASEAN countries is free trade treaties, especially the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes not only the ten ASEAN member countries but also China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. Assuming that the agreement is concluded in the second half of 2020, it would give rise to the world’s largest trading bloc, representing half of the world’s population and a third of its collective gross product.

ASEAN, Europe and Germany

In interviews with experts in Southeast Asia, Beijing’s support for the countries of that region during the pandemic is described as quicker, as well as better coordinated and more extensive, than that of Washington. The prestige of the US in this region has been further diminished during the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, Beijing is working on its tattered image and has announced that it wishes to reinvigorate the idea of a “health silk road”. In any case there is much to be said for maintaining a good relationship between the countries of Southeast Asia and China. There are economic benefits to be gained from the size of China’s market, the investment potential of development and infrastructure banks controlled by China, and quite simply from the country’s geographical proximity to Southeast Asia. However, China’s tough demeanour in the South China Sea and Beijing´s growing political-strategic influence stirs concerns in the region.

By contrast, according to recent regional studies greater engagement by third parties like Japan and the EU is welcomed in the ASEAN region. On the other hand, the EU ought to have a major interest in getting involved more deeply in economic policymaking and supporting the freedom of navigation while seeking to de-escalate conflicts in the South China Sea.

The increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific - with ASEAN as its core - in political, economic and security terms for Europe and Germany has been not least underlined through the recent release of the Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific by the German Foreign Office.

Read the full analysis here.

Sergio Grassi is the Director of the FES Indonesia Office. His analysis was originally published in German on the 1 September 2020 in the magazine Neue Gesellschaft/Frankfurter Hefte

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.