The Sino-American contest for mastery of Southeast Asia is now in full force. In the past week, the two superpowers dispatched their top diplomats for a series of high-velocity meetings aimed at winning the hearts and minds of smaller Southeast Asian countries.
Sensing a new geopolitical chapter is on the horizon, each global giant put forward its own vision of the future – and of the place in it for Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Smaller regional states have, so far, welcomed this competition with cautious optimism, hoping to reap maximum economic and geostatic benefits – short of getting dragged into a zero-sum, all-out conflict between the US and China.
After four decades of detente, the velvet gloves are off. China, buoyed by its growing power base and US President Donald Trump’s increasing isolation of the US internationally, has begun to challenge America’s role in the world as never before.
Earlier this month, China’s state councillor and foreign minister, Wang Yi, was on top form, holding press conferences and bilateral meetings with diplomats globally with verve and vigour.
From Iran’s concerns over the fate of its nuclear deal to Canada’s worries about trade wars to the European Union’s anxieties over climate change, Wang reiterated Beijing’s commitment to upholding existing international agreements.
He also made it clear that China was willing to respond in kind to America’s renewed belligerence on the global stage.
When the Trump administration threatened to increase tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods by 100 per cent, Beijing responded by threatening to impose additional tariffs, some up to 25 per cent, on US$60 billion of American imports.
China has also opposed America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, underscoring its dedication to continuing a legitimate economic exchange with the Islamic Republic.
On climate change, China and the EU have formed an unlikely alliance to uphold the Paris Agreement that was created to reduce significantly global emissions in the coming decades .
In the Southeast, however, the parameters of the rising Sino-American rivalry have become most pronounced. The highlight of Wang’s recent diplomatic foray in Singapore was his meeting with Asean foreign ministers.
China and Asean announced a “milestone” in their decades-long discussions over the negotiation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The two sides agreed on a “single draft negotiating text” that is to serve as a basis for finalising the basic rules of conduct for competing claimant states in the South China Sea, namely China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Singapore’s foreign affairs minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, jubilantly described the new “single draft” as a “living document and the basis of future code of conduct negotiations.” In their joint statement, the Asean leaders “warmly welcomed the continued improving cooperation” with China in the realm of maritime security.
The sides also discussed regular joint naval exercises as well as joint energy exploration and developments agreement in the South China Sea. Crucially, China asked for the US to be excluded from these proposals.
A few days after the Asean-China foreign ministers meeting, Chinese and Southeast Asian naval forces staged their first computer-simulated drills so they could jointly respond to emergencies and build trust amid the long-simmering disputes in the South China Sea.
Unwilling to yield influence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched himself into a flurry of diplomatic meetings across the region, visiting top leaders in the important Asean countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
To win over Asean, he offered a US$300 million package of security aid to the region, focusing on maritime security cooperation. Before that, he had announced a US$117 million mobilisation fund aimed at driving hi-tech Western investment into the region.
The move came with the US Congress in the midst of discussing a multibillion-dollar Asia Reassurance Initiative bill aimed at boosting America’s influence and military presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
It is not clear if these new initiatives complement or supplant each other, or are just repackaging pre-existing initiatives from the Obama administration, including the Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia. Generating proactive publicity, however, is the name of the game.
While the US may not be positioned to match China’s investments dollar-by-dollar, it nevertheless hopes to dilute, denigrate and dampen the impact of Beijing’s eye-catching trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
Through expanded maritime security cooperation with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, the US also hopes to rally regional states against China in the South China Sea.
For the Trump administration, these initiatives are aimed at promoting and preserving a “free and open” order in the “Indo-Pacific”, the new geopolitical paradigm hegemony for Washington and its allies.
Major American partners such as Japan are expected to pitch in with their own multibillion-dollar connectivity initiatives, as well as institutionalised maritime security help for key Southeast Asian nations. The sole aim is to constrain China’s influence in Southeast Asia and push back against its expanding footprint in the South China Sea.
Asean, however, is particularly concerned about the prospect of a full-fledged trade war as well as naval confrontation in regional waters.
The fate of decades-long prosperity in Asia is now hanging in the balance.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author