The global power struggle is shifting from Europe to the Asia-Pacific. The United States (US) and United Kingdom are trying to attract the world’s attention towards Taiwan. As the power rivalry in the Western Pacific deepens, it becomes increasingly difficult for the region to remain neutral. Therefore, it’s wondered how Southeast Asian states are positioned in the US-China rivalry.
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views it received from Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Assoc. Prof. at the Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), in order to evaluate the US’ encirclement strategy towards China and its effects on Southeast Asia.
- Do you think the US’ encirclement strategy towards China has a negative impact on Southeast Asian countries?
It can go both ways. Negatively, it will intensify the level of competition between the US and China in the region. The “imbalance” of power could bring instability to the region. It will also create a deep polarisation in the region–which side countries choose to be on. However, positively, this level of competition could be a boon for the region too. Small states in Southeast Asia could play one power against the other and in the process reap the benefits from the two powers.
- Does the Southeast Asian countries’ economic dependence on China prevent them from supporting the US?
Possibly. We cannot deny the fact that in terms of proximity, China has an advantage over the USA. We are talking about direct investments from China in Southeast Asia and the ease of not having to transport products from a far away place like the United States. We also cannot deny the fact that China shares land borders with a number of Southeast Asian countries and this constitutes border trade which China has long dominated.
- Do you think that the region is moving away from centrist policies and adapting to the bloc politics of the US?
I don’t think so. ASEAN has long maintained its policy of not depending on any particular powers. In terms of individual states, the likelihood is that more countries in this region may move away from centrist policies and lean towards China more for the reasons I cited above.
- Which countries in the region support the US and its policies the most?
It has to be old allies of the US, namely the Philippines and Singapore. These two countries continue to see their interests aligned with the United States and the benefit of forging political alliance with the US. Thailand is a strange case. It has long been an ally with the US but in the last decade we started to see the shift of the Thai position, away from the US and closer to China. This is partly due to the increasing authoritarian state of the Thai regime.
- Which countries are most leaning towards China despite the disputes in the South China Sea?
Malaysia may be in this case. This is because Malaysia is the least aggressive nation in terms of its policy toward SCS and China (Malaysia has its own view on sovereignty (in a positive way)– hence its relations with China are not always negative. Outside the conflict of SCS, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are leaning towards China more to the point of becoming “close partners” of Beijing.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS). Earning his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, he is the chief editor of the online journal “Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia” in which all articles are translated from English into Japanese, Thai, Bahasa and Vietnamese.
He served thirteen years as a diplomat in the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After the military coup in 2014, Pavin was dismissed for his critical views on the army and its monarchy, and his Thai passport was revoked. Pavin began to live in exile in Japan from that date on. His main areas of study are Thailand’s domestic and foreign policy, Southeast Asian politics, regional integration and ASEAN.