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