Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia in the Sino-U.S. Strategic Balance

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia in the Sino-U.S. Strategic Balance

Article excerpt


Throughout much of the post-Gold War period, the dynamics of the Sino-U.S. relationship have been a critical factor in Southeast Asian states' foreign policies. Southeast Asia has traditionally been a site of great power competition for regional dominance, due to its strategic location as a bridge between continental and maritime East Asia. To manage this competition and to enhance their own subregional autonomy, the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) engaged in a number of regional institution building initiatives during the early 1990s. This "institutionalist" agenda led to speculation that ASEAN could become the hub of a nascent regional security community. (1)

Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, however, the prospect that ASEAN could act as an autonomous entity to mitigate Sino-U.S. geopolitical pressures seemed increasingly tenuous. Weakened by political and economic instability, intra-regional disputes and a simultaneous expansion of its membership, ASEAN has come to question its own identity. This has only further undermined ASEAN-led regional security initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). More frequently, Southeast Asian states have favoured bilateralism and have looked to external powers to realize their security interests. (2)

These changing subregional dynamics have, in turn, prompted renewed efforts by China and the United States to cultivate influence within Southeast Asia. China's attempts to gain support for its "new security concept" and US efforts to secure additional access and infrastructure agreements along the "East Asian littoral" are illustrative. To some extent, Sino-U.S. geopolitical competition has been modified by strategic cooperation resulting from the "war on terror". Yet China still remains wary of U.S. attempts to engage Southeast Asia in countering global terrorism. (3)

These trends have, in turn, compelled analysts to reconceptualize the Southeast Asian security landscape in a balance of power context. Principal among these exponents is Robert Ross. In his article "The Geography of Peace", Ross argues that as the two most geopolitically dominant regional actors, China and the United States preside over their own separate but complementary spheres of regional influence. He asserts that continental Southeast Asian states have aligned with China and maritime Southeast Asian states have aligned with the United States. (4) The geographic position of China and the United States, and the evolution of their interests and military capabilities accordingly, make it unlikely that either country would seek to project power into the other's respective sphere. Ross therefore postulates that the emerging bipolar structure is likely to be a stable and enduring one. This portrayal of Sino-U.S. relations has been acknowledged by recent literature on Asia-Pacific security. (5) However, Ross' depiction of how Southeast Asian states respond to this relationship has been subject much less to theoretical analysis.

One contending school that has emerged argues that ASEAN states have adjusted to great power geopolitical competition by pursuing a "hedging strategy" rather than by aligning with either China or the United States. Gaye Christofferson specifically seeks to refute Ross' argument by asserting that the Southeast Asian states maintain a position of equidistance between the great powers. She attributes this to the ASEAN states' general distrust of great powers and their desire to maintain the delicate Sino-U.S. regional balance. (6) In making this case, however, Christofferson fails to account for exactly how the Southeast Asian states overcome Sino-U.S. geopolitical pressures and under what conditions hedging prevails.

These weaknesses are, to some extent, addressed by Avery Goldstein and Amitav Acharya. Both analysts place greater emphasis on the smaller Southeast Asian states maintaining closer external ties with one power while engaging the opposing power. …

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