Washington tells South-East Asians to pick a side

The US wants the region to gang up on China, but such ideas are fantasy

In this Friday, July 8, 2016, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near south China's Hainan Island and Paracel Islands. China is holding another round of military drills in the South China Sea amid an uptick in such activity in the area highlighting growing tensions. (Zha Chunming/Xinhua via AP, File)
Powered by automated translation

With China firing medium-range missiles across the South China Sea and the US navy in July sending two aircraft carriers into waters claimed by Beijing, tensions in the region continue to rise.

All too often the Trump administration's stance appears to be, as my former colleague at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Elina Noor, put it in a co-authored article recently, "reminiscent of the 'either you are with us, or against us' trope that cast a shadow over the Bush administration's Asia policy".

South-East Asian countries are being pushed strongly, especially by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to come down on America's side. While this conversation reverberates around the globe, voices and views from the 10 countries that constitute the Association of South-East Asia Nations (Asean) are curiously absent.

This is a real omission, considering that its population of 650 million made it collectively the fifth-largest economy in the world last year. Further, we who live there will have to face the consequences of this dangerous rhetoric. We are on the frontline of any future conflict that some hawks seem earnestly to desire, however catastrophic it might be.

So a new publication – In The Dragon's Shadow: South-east Asia in the Chinese Century – by the Australian journalist and scholar Sebastian Strangio could not be more timely and important. In this superbly researched book Mr Strangio sets out the historical background, going back centuries, before focusing on recent decades of a relationship he describes as "fraught" – but necessary.

In 2019's Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia's Great Archipelago, the storied columnist Philip Bowring argued that the region had "a common history and deep linguistic and cultural roots" going back millennia. Mr Strangio takes a more recent starting point. He notes that the term "south-east Asia" is of mid-20th century coinage; but that it has become something real, not least since the formation of Asean in 1967.

When I interviewed Zaim Mohzani, then a member of the Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative set up by the Obama-era State Department, for the association’s 50th anniversary three years ago, he agreed. The region, he said, had evolved into an extended family. “Uncle, aunty,” he said. Occasionally dysfunctional perhaps, “but it’s still a family".

However, it is not homogeneous. Mr Strangio correctly points out that what are known as the "CLMV countries" – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – have always been China's borderlands. Historically they may have had closer tributary arrangements with the emperors of old, and their relations with China today are complicated by Beijing's power over the mighty Mekong River, on which they all rely to a greater or lesser extent. Regulating its flows, which China can do after damming it, has enormous effects downstream.

Other countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, were just literally further away. Now, they feel closer; uncomfortably so, when China ventures out and presses its claims to wide stretches of the South China Sea that Asean states also lay claim to. But the proximity was always there. Mr Strangio quotes Malaysia’s then prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, saying in 1971 that being in China’s neighbourhood meant they were always “the first to live with the consequences of her policies”. Turning away from China is just a geopolitical impossibility.

Thailand prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (C) greets distinguished guests at a business forum on the sidelines of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok on November 2, 2019. / AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, centre, greets guests at an Asean business forum last year. While being a tight-knit regional bloc, it is however not homogeneous. AFP

The same is true economically. Quite apart from it being a source of much-needed infrastructure loans, Mr Strangio states: “From 2013 to 2018, China’s trade with the south-east Asian bloc totalled $2.37 trillion, compared to $1.33 trillion for the US and $1.32 trillion for Japan. It is also the leading source of tourists to the region.”

There are many other reasons why south-east Asia would not want to side against its giant neighbour. Mr Strangio quotes one US analyst talking of “China’s push to shape other countries’ political systems”, but there is next to no evidence of that in the region. Instead, he rightly concludes that China “works with the realities that exist… it has been mostly indifferent” to how Asean countries govern themselves. With a common belief in the principle of non-interference in other states’ internal business, that is exactly how all parties want it.

What most if not all regional governments do not want, in fact, is to be pushed to replicate the American-led liberal universalist model, which Mr Strangio found to be “viewed as quaint and parochial, if not an open threat” in conversations in South-East Asian capitals. In this, he is to be commended for not making the mistake of too many foreign correspondents in the region – of talking to a handful of urban liberals and assuming they represent more than the minority they actually are.

Customers sit inside and outside a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop at Parksons Mall in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Separated from peninsular Malaysia by the South China Sea, Sarawak was the country's third-largest state or territory contributor to gross domestic product in 2015, accounting for an estimated 10.6 percent of output. Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg
Customers hang out at a Starbucks coffee shop at Parksons Mall in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Sarawak is separated from peninsular Malaysia by the South China Sea. American businesses flourish in the region. Bloomberg
The strongly held view in south-east Asia about the US-China dispute is that 'the future should not be an ultimatum'

Then there is the question of American reliability. The fact that President Barack Obama needed to put forward his famous “pivot” to Asia shows that the US had neglected the region in the past, and the Trump administration’s wild oscillations and intemperate bellicosity have provided little reassurance of either long-term continuity or any commitment to stability.

Ultimately, as Mr Strangio quotes the eminent Sinologist Wang Gungwu as saying: “The Americans ‘have to justify being here’. The Chinese, on the other hand, ‘are just here. It’s their backyard'.”

And that is why South-East Asian governments will "simultaneously balance, hedge and bandwagon" between great powers, according to the leading Singaporean thinker Bilahari Kausikan. It "is embedded in our foreign-policy DNA. Not only do we see no contradiction in doing so, this is an instinctive response honed by centuries of hard experience".

It should be stressed that there is plenty of pro-American sentiment in the region. US culture and food have long been adopted, and co-operation on trade and security is widely welcomed. But as Ms Noor wrote in her article, the strongly held view is that “the future should not be an ultimatum". Should that scenario prevail, Mr Strangio’s book contains a stark warning to America from a former Singaporean ambassador to Washington: “Don’t press countries in the region to choose. You may not like what you hear.”

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National