The United States (US) has increased its presence in the Western Pacific in recent months. China’s increasing claims on Taiwan lead the US to increase its security moves around the island. In this context, Manila and Tokyo have come to the fore as Washington’s most critical partners in the region. It’s also wondered where Australia, India and other Southeast Asian countries stand in the US-China rivalry.
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views it received from Hunter Marston, Researcher at the Australian National University (ANU), 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?
If you characterize the US strategy as one of encirclement, no Southeast Asian countries would support it (at least publicly). However, if we view the US strategy as one of encirclement, it will have mixed impacts on SE Asian states. From a security and military perspective, it might bind some states like the Philippines and Singapore more closely to the US, putting them in uncomfortable positions even as it enhances their own security in the short-term. For other security partners like Indonesia and Malaysia, they would likely oppose an encirclement strategy in the belief that it makes great power conflict more likely.
- Does the Southeast Asian countries’ economic dependence on China prevent them from supporting the US?
Economic interdependence does not dictate alignment, but it certainly makes the potential for conflict even more unattractive. Southeast Asian states are more likely to support a positive and inclusive agenda from Washington which does not preclude engagement with China where possible. Ultimately, the US must do more to offer Southeast Asian states economic (and political) autonomy so that they can make their own decisions regarding whom they will or will not support.
- Do you think that the region is moving away from centrist policies and adapting to the bloc politics of the US?
No, the majority of SE Asian states are continuing to practice hedging strategies that provide them maximum maneuverability and foreign policy autonomy. They will resist alliance politics and joining one or another bloc for as long as possible (excepting the Philippines, which is a close US ally, as well as Cambodia and Myanmar, which I argue have already drifted closer to China).
- Which countries in the region support the US and its policies the most?
Currently, the US-Philippines alliance is quite strong, and Manila has offered the US military a significant upgrade in terms of access to bases in the region with the implementation of EDCA. Singapore is also a close security partner of the United States and one of the most vocal proponents of deeper US economic engagement in the region. Other countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam will continue to engage with the US as security partners in a quieter and (primarily) multilateral manner while doing the same with China (as well as other partner states like Japan).
- Which countries are most leaning towards China despite the disputes in the South China Sea?
Currently, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are most leaning toward China. Arguably Myanmar’s alignment is of little benefit to Beijing at the moment, while both Cambodia and Myanmar have moved closer to China for the purpose of protecting their own regime interests rather than the national interest.
Hunter Marston commenced his PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in July 2019. His research is focused on great power competition in Southeast Asia. In particular, he explores how small states in Southeast Asia form hedging strategies to manage their relations with the United States and China, with particular focus on Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar. His main research interests include state-society relations and political change in Southeast Asia, US foreign policy, and US-China competition.
Prior to joining the ANU, Hunter worked as a Senior Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies. He also supported research and events for The India Project at Brookings.
Hunter completed his Masters in Public Policy at the University of Washington (2013) and his MA in Southeast Asia Studies, also at the University of Washington (2012). While at the University of Washington, Hunter spent a summer internship in the US Embassy in Myanmar as a Harold Rosenthal Fellow in International Relations.