Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Mark J. Valencia
by Mark J. Valencia

US-China relations: Southeast Asia cannot afford another neocolonial great power rivalry

  • A new great power contest would be a disaster for Southeast Asian states which struggle to maintain autonomy and prefer to selectively follow the wishes of bigger powers
  • The international order must accommodate China’s interests, and the US should compromise while it can influence the terms rather than resist the inevitable

As the United States and China ramp up their struggle for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian nations, it is clear we are in a new neocolonial era in the region.

The colonial era in Southeast Asia extended from the 15th to the late 20th century. During this period, the Western powers – including America in the late 19th century – competed for, occupied and governed Southeast Asia.

Although the colonies finally won their precious independence, a period of neocolonialism followed. The former colonial masters continued to impose economic, political, cultural and sometimes military pressures to influence the foreign and domestic policies of their former colonies. Now, just as they have finally begun to throw off their lingering colonial shackles, a new neocolonial era is in the offing.

This time, the struggle for domination of the region is between the West and China. It is for ideational, commercial, technological and maritime spheres of influence, as well as military access for strategic bases and places.

Nevertheless, the current contest still involves coercion that clearly challenges Southeast Asian countries’ independence and sovereignty. They were – and are – viewed as pawns in a great power contest.


Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

The world has changed dramatically since the previous colonial and neocolonial periods in Southeast Asia. China has now risen and is challenging the victors in the Cold War and the post-World War II liberal international order that the US helped build and now leads.

In this new neocolonial era, the methods of “colonialism” might have changed but the fundamental intent of subjugating Southeast Asian nations to their national interest has not. Now, instead of physical conquest and occupation, China and the United States are trying to impose their economic and ideational norms and values.
This is being manifested in the contest between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific and its spawn, the Quad.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, China’s belt and road is an attempt to create “vassal states [and] a tyrannical regime all around the world for global hegemony”. China views the Indo-Pacific initiative as an attempt to impose a Western version of an international order on it and the region, thereby constraining its rise and right to regional leadership.

Kiron Skinner, a former director of policy and planning in the US State Department, said China and the US “seek adherence to their set of values. This is a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology.” US director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has called China the “ greatest threat to America today and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II”.

While many might dispute these iconoclastic assertions, they do indicate the view deep within the upper reaches of the US government foreign policy apparatus.

At its heart is a clash of political systems – “efficient” authoritarian communism versus “inefficient” democratic capitalism – and their underlying values. US leaders are worried that China is proving that for itself and perhaps other developing countries, its system is superior in the eyes of its people.

Although the US hoped that China’s values and political system would become more like its own over time, that is now recognised as unlikely and probably always was. This has shaken the US establishment to the core because it challenges the fundamental assumption that all the world wanted to – and would – become like it.

This clash of fundamental values and norms is driving the US-China neocolonial competition for the political allegiance and support of Southeast Asian countries. They will continue to pressure them to side with their system.

Some Southeast Asian nations have tried to take advantage of this contest by hedging and thus benefiting from the largesse of both China’s economic strength and the US security blanket. However, this is proving to be an increasingly dangerous game as the two competitors crank up the pressure to choose sides.
If there is resistance by Southeast Asian countries to the entreaties of the competing powers, neither is beyond angry threats, military intimidation and formal or informal sanctions to get their way.

A particular concern is that the intensifying competition for influence and military dominance in the region could spill over into their domestic politics, with the US and China each aiding its supporters and hampering its opponents. This happened during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, and it could happen again.


Philippine President Duterte admits being at a loss getting Beijing to honour South China Sea ruling

Philippine President Duterte admits being at a loss getting Beijing to honour South China Sea ruling

This great power contest could be a disaster for some Southeast Asian countries. These countries are struggling to maintain their strategic autonomy and would like to follow great power wishes only when their interests align, but they cannot resist such pressures alone. They need to do so in unison.

However, their cohesion is in jeopardy. As outspoken Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warned, “The South China Sea issue is Asean’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community.”

The colliding ambitions and values of China and the US suggest the inevitability of a fundamental clash. The window for compromise is closing. China is on an upwards trajectory of increasing power, not unlike America was in its postcolonial days.

The US is still ahead and on top. It should compromise while it can still significantly influence the terms rather than resist the inevitable with needless suffering for all concerned.

The international order must at least partially accommodate China’s interests. Of course, there will be stresses and strains, but confrontation is the easy way out of this dilemma. The harder but better way for all concerned is for the US to determine and negotiate where, when and how to compromise on what.

History shows the US cannot be top dog forever. Negotiating will provide an extension of its supremacy and the possibility of a soft landing. The Joe Biden administration has an opportunity to move in this direction.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China