The countries of Southeast Asia have fascinated me since the 1960s when I served in the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. At the time, China was a backward country dominated by Mao Zedong’s dreams. Today China is an economic powerhouse, second only to the United States. It’s also the principal trading partner with the 10 strategically located countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
A map of East Asia illustrates this region’s crucial importance for international commerce. Major world shipping passes through the Strait of Malacca at Singapore and proceeds northeast along Indonesia’s islands to waters off Vietnam and the Philippines before moving north through the Taiwan Strait.
If China’s long-term goal is forming a chokehold on the economies of Japan and South Korea, interfering with their commercial ocean traffic will do that.
ASEAN’s population of 622 million is nearly double the U.S. total and is larger than the European Union’s 448 million. Indonesia, with 276 million, has Southeast Asia’s largest population, with the Philippines next at 109 million.
Indonesia is a major prize for China for both trade and political influence. Recently Indonesia overtook both the United States and Japan as China’s largest trading partner, exporting $37 billion to China in 2020 and importing $41 billion.
Beijing ramped up similar trade deals with other ASEAN countries along its long border with the region: Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand. They receive large investments and building projects that entail Chinese workers.
In the case of Myanmar, China supported a military coup there, to increase its political influence.
The Philippines, a U.S. ally, recently moved closer to Beijing by supporting its claims to adjacent disputed waterways. China has made large investments in order to influence Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to continue his support.
Specialists on China believe Beijing’s leaders look at their long-term goals and avoid, if possible, short-term distractions. In that case, China’s will avoid military clashes with neighbors and the United States. Instead, Beijing builds its powerful economy based on mercantilist principles of exporting great quantities of goods, especially to the U.S. Meanwhile, China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia, especially with Indonesia, is growing.
International trade, including with China, had been Washington’s policy priority for 20 years, bolstered by America’s influential business and financial community. When Chinese leaders decided to use trade for political purposes, Washington under President Trump clamped down hard with high tariffs.
Beijing’s strategy was demonstrated last year when it singled out Australia for large cuts in exports to China following Canberra’s criticism of its suppression of political freedom in Hong Kong. Beijing’s action quickly registered with Asian governments wanting to protect their trade with China.
Some experts contend that Taiwan is China’s major short-term objective and the U.S. should prepare for naval confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. That’s not how I and a few others assess China’s strategy.
China’s leaders have waited 50 years to control this prosperous island, located a hundred miles off the coast, and won’t risk war to capture it now. Instead, Beijing will continue to expand its economic influence over Southeast Asia and slowly choke Taiwan’s economy. Eventually, its goal is to persuade Washington that defending Taiwan and remaining an influential power in East Asia is not worth the price or the effort.
The Biden administration laid out a tough new policy toward China when Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met China’s top foreign policy/national security official, Yang Jiechi, in Anchorage.
Unlike earlier meetings with Chinese leaders, this one started with acrimonious exchanges between Yang and Blinken. Observers say it illustrates China’s confidence that it is the new hegemon in East Asia, while the U.S. is in decline. President Biden’s major task is convincing China’s leaders they are wrong;
U.S. objectives in East Asia .remain largely what they’ve been for 40 years: Protect democratic allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, and support Taiwan’s autonomy.
U.S. interests in Southeast Asia evolved during the Cold War, and U.S. policies now emphasize independence and open markets of ASEAN states.
The question for the Biden administration is which of these countries rise to the level of U.S. vital interest. Japan and the Philippines clearly do, and South Korea probably does because of Japan’s vital interest in Korea.
Indonesia may become a vital economic interest because of its growing market, large population and potential control of large segments of Southeast Asia’s waterways.
The major question for President Biden is whether the future orientation of Southeast Asia is negotiable with China, or whether Beijing and Washington will clash over its strategic importance to the rest of East Asia, and the United States.
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and author who lives near Charlottesville.