Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China, the United States, and Mainland Southeast Asia: Opportunism and the Limits of Power

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

China, the United States, and Mainland Southeast Asia: Opportunism and the Limits of Power

Article excerpt


Chinese and American policies toward mainland Southeast Asia, while not at the competitive or ideological levels of the Cold War era, show interesting and complicated aspects while periodically tending toward zero-sum outcomes as both sides hedge against future developments. Both great powers have close, even quasi-client relations with countries on the mainland--the United States with Thailand, and China with Myanmar. Relations with Vietnam are more difficult, meeting cautious resistance from Hanoi given the historic Chinese invasions of Vietnam and American bombing of northern Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Laotian and Cambodian affairs, while largely an afterthought for Washington, are more important for Beijing which pulls resources and trade out of these two Indochinese countries and has begun damming the Upper Mekong River system. For the United States, which has no need for Cambodian or Laotian exports, the human rights policies of the Phnom Penh and Vientiane regimes draw Washington's attention.

Ostensibly China would seem to have advantages in dealing with mainland Southeast Asian governments: China's close proximity to the area and the area's authoritarian governments allow Beijing to deal relatively simply with the four dictatorial regimes in the area. But the United States, as the global champion of human rights and market economics, also has an appeal to the poor and repressed populations of the area. However, these immediate differences become complicated as Beijing and Washington pursue their actual interests and activities on the ground: mainland Southeast Asian governments are sovereign, independent entities led by nationalistic, if often troubled, regimes, jealous of their interests and generally skilled at playing off big powers against each other. They seem to have adopted a kind of hedging "dual-strategy" toward both the United States and China: seeking or at least not opposing U.S. security involvement in the area, while engaging China in diplomatic and economic terms. In short, there are limits to and opportunities for Beijing's and Washington's influence with mainland Southeast Asia.

China's policies toward the area show a mix of opportunism and longer term design crafted to enhance PRC leverage, block or counterbalance U.S. and Indian influence, and secure these smaller states for Chinese advantage. Except for Thailand, China is dealing with authoritarian governments; thus a kind of "authoritarian comradeship" exists in Beijing's dealings with Yangon, Hanoi, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. However, mainland Southeast Asia also has known serious difficulties in past relations with China, and suspicions underlie local reactions to the Chinese in spite of government-to-government "cordiality". Moreover, the regimes in Myanmar and Cambodia are unstable enough to cause concern, even embarrassment, for Beijing as the PRC pursues its announced "peaceful rise", now "peaceful development", diplomacy, and its continuing UN Security Council role.

For the United States, currently preoccupied with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the evolving Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) challenges from North Korea and Iran, mainland Southeast Asia is clearly less important than it is for China. Moreover, Thailand, the sole democracy on the mainland, stands in sharp contrast to the authoritarian governments ruling Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And so the U.S. Government which, in both its executive and legislative branches, trumpets economic freedom and human rights, often finds all but one mainland Southeast Asia government hostile to or critical of a number of American policies.

From a great power viewpoint China benefited in Southeast Asia from the end of U.S. military operations in Indochina in the mid-1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today the Russians show little inclination to try again to become a player in Southeast Asia. …

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