As US-China rivalry intensifies, Beijing must deploy more than economic muscle in Asia
- Countries that economically or militarily depend on both powers are in increasingly difficult positions
- China can better pursue its interests with these countries by increasing face-to-face interactions and strengthening human relations
More Asian countries will be caught in this kind of bind as the rivalry between China and the US unfolds. But despite growing pressure at home and abroad, policymakers in Seoul and other Asian capitals oppose being forced into binary choices. They are striving for a third way that preserves a degree of neutrality and allows for continued cooperation with both powers.
This was the key takeaway from our recent visits to Seoul and Singapore, the Asia leg of a global engagement tour by the Centre for China and Globalisation that also included stops in Berlin, Brussels, New York, Paris and Washington.
In Singapore and South Korea, we met scholars, business leaders and diplomats to take the temperature of local politics and share views on global issues. These visits also went some way towards reviving in-person interactions with Asian countries after a two-year hiatus.
Our discussions support the view that economic self-interest will continue to provide an incentive for Asian countries to get along with China given its role in the regional economy.
Cultural exchange has been a key channel for building relations between the two countries, but the pandemic disrupted these flows. At the peak in 2017, there were more than 73,000 South Korean students studying in China. That number plunged from 47,000 in 2020 to nearly 27,000 in 2021.
Like South Korea, Singapore has deep economic ties with China but is also a close security partner of the US. However, in many ways, the situation in Singapore is more conducive to positive relations with China. Singaporeans had the most favourable views among 19 countries polled in the recent Pew survey, with 67 per cent seeing China in a positive light, compared to 51 per cent with favourable views of the US.
Singaporeans, especially Mandarin speakers, tend to see China as an opportunity. This is partly because Singapore is more oriented to services rather than manufacturing and is well positioned as a gateway between China and the world.
Like many Asian countries, Singapore and South Korea became independent nations during the Cold War and faced intense pressure to side with external great powers. Not being dominated by great powers was part of what prompted Singapore and four other founding members to create Asean in 1967, seeking a “third way” based on regional consensus and cooperation.
That is a hope that still resonates among significant constituencies in Asian countries. It is in China’s interests to support this pursuit of a third way by increasing face-to-face interactions and strengthening human relations with its neighbours rather than relying on its economic muscle alone.
Wang Huiyao is the founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based non-governmental think tank