Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are the two biggest threats to global peace today. They’re both bullies, terrorising their respective “schoolyards”: Latin America as well as the Middle East in Trump’s case and Southeast Asia in Xi’s. Trump’s ignorance, malevolence and bigotry have always been there to see. It’s easy to dismiss his adventurism and bravado against Iran as an attempt to distract from his impeachment. Xi is infinitely more sinister. Back in 2016, the world’s leaders looked to Beijing as an alternative hub – for a principled, even-handed approach to global economics and politics. Instead, China under Xi has forgotten all the lessons of the late Deng Xiaoping. The Middle Kingdom is as thuggish and contemptuous of smaller states as the US. His regime brandishes its “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West as an excuse to manipulate other countries. For example, Xi passes off his aggressive actions in the South China Sea as part of China’s “peaceful rise to power”. Given such an environment, global trust and respect for rules have collapsed. Both the US and China disdain diplomacy. Why bother showing mutual respect when blunt force is more effective? This is classic bully behaviour. How else does one explain China’s growing belligerence in the South China Sea and the nearby Natuna Islands, which are part of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone? Beijing earlier this month sent not only fishing fleets but also coastguard vessels to stake its claim . Nearly one-third of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, worth some US$3.37 trillion each year. Its waters contain potential energy reserves of 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. China claims most of the sea, marking its maps with the “nine-dash line”, although this overlaps with the claims of several other Southeast Asian nations. China has not only violated almost everyone else’s waters but also constructed artificial islands there. Years of talks regarding a “code of conduct” to regulate behaviour in the South China Sea have so far proven fruitless. China is Asean’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade in the first half of 2019 worth US$292 billion. It has also invested about US$255 billion in infrastructure projects in Asean’s six largest economies. Chinese fishing vessels in spat with Indonesia leave Natunas. Friends again? Indonesia in the first three quarters of 2019 received some US$3.3 billion in Chinese investment, some of which was part of the Belt and Road Initiative , a planned network of trade routes and infrastructure projects across more than 150 countries. However, if China assumes this investment is a licence to ride roughshod over us, it risks forgetting the lessons of its own history: no people will ever accept foreign domination, whatever the threats or inducements. Southeast Asian countries care as much about territorial integrity as the Chinese themselves. So how should the rest of Southeast Asia respond? First, unity is key . We have our differences but bullies can’t mistreat the smaller kids in the schoolyard if they’re united. Indeed, the most potent defence lies in working together and we already have the structure of Asean to do so. Maritime infrastructure and capacities must be constantly upgraded. Cooperation between member states – including joint exercises, information-sharing and other forms of trust-building – is also vital. When Southeast Asian nations work in isolation, they can be picked off one-by-one. Second, giving in won’t solve anything. The Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte has basically done just that and have precious little to show for their grovelling. Trying to spare a bully’s feelings by splitting rhetorical hairs is pointless. Bullies are predictable: if they hurt you once, they’ll do so again in the future. Appeasement never works. Many Southeast Asians worry China will retaliate by altering the terms of trade and investment. This is entirely possible. However, Southeast Asia has traded with China for centuries and will continue to do so. The links are just too deep for there to be a long-term hiatus. China must realise that we take Southeast Asia’s independence seriously. Our struggles for sovereignty and freedom from foreign interference have not been forgotten. China’s new ambassador to Philippines begins job amid strained ties Finally, you need credibility to stand up to a bully. We mustn’t turn into bullies ourselves. All our countries have significant Chinese communities. They should not become unwitting victims of China’s actions in the region, least of all at the hands of their own governments. Still, it’s a tall order. Sometimes it seems as if nothing can help us against these two all-powerful bullies. But if Southeast Asia could see the bigger picture and stand together, there’s a chance to keep the region free and peaceful.