China or the US? Why Southeast Asia cannot stay neutral forever

The difficult, bu inevitable choice that many Southeast Asian countries face

Hello fellow China watchers

Today I’m wrapping up two things. First, my look at China’s influence in Southeast Asia, a region that is of increasing strategic importance to the world (as discussed here). For a long time now, South East Asia’s leaders have been attempting to walk the tightrope between America and China, claiming neutrality in the Great Competition. The question is, how long can this last?

The second thing ending today is Series 1 of What China Wants. As I mentioned in my culture and history post on Saturday, I’ll be back after the summer with a new series of topics examining China’s increasing role in the world.

Until then, many thanks for reading and have a great break.

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China’s relationship with Southeast Asia goes back to at least the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD 608-917), as beautifully preserved trade goods recovered from wrecks off the coasts of Singapore and Sumatra reveal. America’s interests there, by contrast, stem only from its acquisition as a colony of the Philippines in 1898. Since the Second World War, America has been the dominant player in the region, but in recent years, China has been making heavy inroads into the economies and politics of the countries of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). 

Fully aware of the pitfalls of lining up with one superpower against the other, most ASEAN nations have been pursuing a position of neutrality between the two sides. “It will not be possible for Singapore to choose between the United States and China, given the extensive ties the Republic has with both superpowers”, said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this year, a sentiment that has received widespread support within the region.

The trouble is, despite the current balancing successes of PM Lee and others, it probably isn’t possible to keep neutral for ever. 

For a start, almost every nation in Southeast Asia is internally split between those favouring Beijing and those preferring Washington, and so there is a structural instability that might be open to manipulation by one or both of the superpowers. Not every nation there is as strong and avowedly non-aligned as Singapore.

Second, if conflict erupts between the two sides – for example over Taiwan – then this internal politics, together with assumptions of fealty by Washington and Beijing, mean that regional leaders are likely to be forced to declare their support for one side or the other.

I have explored this in much greater detail in my SCMP article from the other day. Please click through and enjoy.

I’ll see you after the summer.