China, the US and the delicate diplomatic dance for Southeast Asian countries

China’s growing might will make it increasingly difficult for countries in the region to strike the right balance with the US, and at some point, they will have to choose sides

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 December, 2015, 9:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 12:43am

Southeast Asian countries tread a fine line when balancing their relations between China and the US. While their economies are heavily dependent on Chinese trade and investment, many also value an American military presence to dampen worries about the rise of their increasingly powerful northern neighbour. Singapore’s recent signing of an enhanced defence cooperation agreement with Washington was certain to be a delicate matter, especially given that one aspect is allowing US spy planes to operate from its territory. From Singapore’s perspective, there is nothing contradictory about such a decision, but following China’s rise, such balancing acts are bound to become increasingly delicate.

The Singaporean position is that the security and stability of Southeast Asia is dependent on a balance between China, the US and other regional powers. This requires a significant American military presence in Southeast Asia, which Washington is only too eager to provide. Stationing of US naval vessels has been part of a long-standing defence pact, and, apart from the decision on surveillance aircraft, the upgrade involves expanded dialogue and stepped-up cooperation on counterterrorism and cybersecurity. The agreement promptly took effect, with a P8 patrol plane deployed for a week from December 7.

Beijing was predictably less than happy, contending that tensions over the contested islands and waters of the South China Sea would as a result be inflamed. But it made a point of criticising the US, not Singapore. China is also in a difficult position, being Singapore’s biggest trading partner and the top destination in Asia for Chinese investment, while the island nation is its largest foreign investor. The closeness of their ties was on show last month during a state visit by President Xi Jinping (習近平), and China has suggested that relations could be a model for China and the Association of South East Asian Nations.

The US has used China’s increasing assertiveness over the South China Sea to forge closer military ties with nations involved in rival territorial claims. Singapore is not one, but its geography makes it strategic for Washington’s goal of maintaining its sphere of influence in the region while counterbalancing China’s rising power. Tensions have risen between China and the US with the passages of an American warship and B52 bombers through contested areas of the South China Sea.

China’s growing might will make it increasingly difficult for countries to strike the right balance with the US. At some point, they will be forced to choose sides.