As China and the US jostle for influence, Southeast Asian nations must find a new equilibrium

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 1:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 1:43am

China has conducted its first joint naval exercise with Malaysia and its largest yet with a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. More than 1,000 PLA troops took part in the exercise in the strategically vital Strait of Malacca, passage for 80 per cent of China's massive oil imports. This has prompted more than the usual comment on such operations from security and regional affairs experts, not all of it on the same page.

To describe the exercise as a forerunner of the "new normal" may be cliched, but it makes more sense than the comment by one mainland naval expert that the drill would be a concern to the United States and Japan as it demonstrated China had "successfully drawn the Malaysian military to its side". The two big military powers may indeed want Southeast Asian nations to take sides, but a significant body of sentiment is to be found in all of them that one position they do not want to be forced to adopt is to side with either of them. That certainly seems true of Malaysia. Nonetheless, analysts said the drill indicated the two nations were cooperating closely in military affairs in the strait.

That said, Southeast Asian countries cannot avoid being drawn into the orbit of great-power rivalry or the need to find a way to protect their interests without getting too close to either. Despite rising concern from the US about China's assertive stance in the South China Sea, China's trade and strategic interests mean it will continue to assert itself.

Southeast Asian countries therefore face a delicate balancing act. They will have to work closely with China because of its trading and rising investment power. On the other hand, a number have made it clear they see the US as a regional counterbalance to China, as evidenced by the welcome expressed to America's so-called strategic pivot back towards the region. Chinese assertiveness and American pushback can be expected to continue, meaning the two big rivals and Southeast Asian nations need to be constantly aware of the need to maintain a new equilibrium.