Beyond binary choices? Navigating great power competition in Southeast Asia

U.S. National Security Advisor Robert C. O'Brien and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attend the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bangkok, Thailand, November 4, 2019. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa


The Brookings Institution has launched a new trilateral initiative with experts from Southeast Asia, Australia, and the United States to examine regional trends in Southeast Asia in the context of escalating U.S.-China rivalry and China’s dramatic rise. The initiative not only focuses on security trends in the region, but covers economic and governance developments as well. This report summarizes the main findings and policy recommendations discussed at an inaugural trilateral dialogue, convened in Singapore in late 2019 in partnership with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Lowy Institute.

A key theme running throughout the dialogue was how the region can move beyond a binary choice between the United States and China. In this connection, Southeast Asian countries could work with middle powers like Australia and Japan (admittedly a major power in economic terms) to expand middle-power agency and reduce the need for an all-or-nothing choice. Yet, there was little agreement on the feasibility of such collective action as well as doubts about whether the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has the capacity to create independent strategic space as U.S.-China competition continues to grow. Southeast Asian participants noted that Beijing has successfully leveraged its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand its soft-power in the region, to the detriment of U.S. influence, while voicing concern that development aid and infrastructure finance are increasingly becoming a proxy for geopolitical competition — especially in mainland Southeast Asia, home to a plethora of separate initiatives with minimal coordination between them. In the governance domain, participants saw little evidence that China is actively promoting a new political model based on authoritarianism or state capitalism. Beijing is trying to undermine the appeal of the Western democratic model by highlighting its flaws, however, and may be encouraging authoritarianism through the power of example.

The trilateral dialogue also generated initial recommendations for cooperation among regional partners, or for action by the partners individually. For instance, participants said the United States should better define the end goal of U.S. Asia policy today: Is it to reestablish preeminence, construct a new balance of power, preserve the rules-based order, or some combination of these elements? Strategic competition should be a means to an end, they noted, not an end in itself. In addition, the United States, Australia, Japan, and ASEAN should try to improve coordination of development assistance in mainland Southeast Asia, or the Lower Mekong subregion, exchanging information on their respective activities. They should also encourage China to multilateralize BRI on a project-by-project basis, mitigating strategic economic competition in the process. Meanwhile, the United States and other donors could expand assistance to ASEAN countries for negotiating and managing large infrastructure projects, from both Chinese lenders and private investors, to encourage transparency and reduce the corruption often associated with administering such endeavors.

With a second trilateral dialogue planned for late 2020, the report considers where substantive gaps remain among the issues covered at the trilateral and identifies topics that deserve deeper analysis going forward. Regarding middle-power agency, for example, future discussions could investigate whether this is indeed a “middle-power moment,” when middle powers have a genuine opportunity to increase collaboration and influence as great-power rivalry heats up in the region. If so, how can middle powers actually exercise this influence and on what issues? In the economic realm, future discussions could further examine how the United States, Australia, and Japan can effectively implement an evolving trilateral infrastructure partnership in Southeast Asia, promoting high governance standards in the process. What type of projects should be pursued and where? Moreover, it would be instructive to investigate what such initiatives may imply for infrastructure cooperation with China. Do they foretell a new form of geopolitical competition and a more bifurcated region, or is there still room to engage China, multilateralize BRI, and reduce strategic economic rivalry over time?

Finally, as this report goes to press, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is spreading throughout the world, including Southeast Asia. In addition to health and safety impacts, the region is expected to experience major economic and social dislocations depending in part on how other economic partners, including China and the United States, respond to and recover from the global pandemic. While the long-term effects are hard to gauge at this time, future discussions will need to consider how COVID-19 will affect political developments, socio-economic trends, U.S.-China relations, broader geopolitical shifts, and other critical issues addressed in this report.