The narrative of a U.S.-China rivalry for influence in Southeast Asia already dominates popular and academic commentary on the region, suggesting that efforts to enhance U.S. engagement there have been effective in signaling that the United States will continue to play a significant role in countering aggressive behavior by the People's Republic of China. However, with both China and the United States taking forceful stances on issues in recent months, the continuing media emphasis on rivalry risks both inflaming Chinese nationalism, potentially complicating the Chinese leadership's ability to make smart choices, and alienating regional actors with whom we want to strengthen ties--for they fear anything that smacks of choosing sides between the United States and China.
China is expanding its presence in Southeast Asia through investments, development assistance, security cooperation, and diplomatic engagement, while asserting control over aspects of the Southeast Asian environment (literally, in some instances, as with its dams on the Mekong River and unilateral fishing bans in the South China Sea). However, China's rise in itself poses only one regional strategic threat to the United States: a possible challenge to freedom of navigation. With regard to other U.S. strategic interests in Southeast Asia--essentially counterterrorism, trade, and potentially (in the case of Burma) nuclear nonproliferation--the mere fact of expanding Chinese influence is not in itself a threat. Thus, it is hard to argue that power relations in Southeast Asia will be definitive in the broader question of how the United States should approach a rising China. Instead, other factors--including China's military modernization, conduct in global institutions, and role in the global economy--will determine larger U.S. strategy.
Therefore, the United States must carefully calibrate its approach in Southeast Asia. In the South China Sea and other areas where the Chinese challenge freedom of navigation, the United States--as guarantor of the "global commons" of the sea lanes--will need to use a variety of means to assert said freedom, including potentially high-visibility acts such as sailing gray-hulled vessels through sensitive areas. However, the overall U.S. approach should reflect continuity with its current course:
* strengthen bilateral ties in ways that are not threatening to China
* invest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and related organizations that integrate the United States into the region and provide opportunities for engagement
* encourage critical regional (Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand) and extraregional (Japan, India, Korea, Australia) actors to strengthen mutual ties.
Many countries in Southeast Asia are displaying hedging behavior as China's expanding sphere of influence rubs up against their vital interests. By strengthening its engagement without directly challenging China, the United States can position itself as a power broker without spooking allies who wish to avoid choosing between the United States and the rising regional power.
In addition, Washington must avoid unnecessarily strengthening Chinese paranoia about American intentions in order to minimize the chances of inadvertently contributing to a growing security dilemma. Elements within the Chinese policy community, and within its increasingly nationalistic population, believe that the United States is already pursuing "containment" and that China's only option is to arm itself and challenge the United States.
China's Increasing Influence and Provocations
China's impact on Southeast Asia will only grow as its economy and consequent drive for energy, raw materials, and markets expand. However, it is precisely this behavior that is challenging the various countries of Southeast Asia to anxiously debate their China policies, and causing several to cast about for regional and extraregional allies in a classic example of hedging behavior. …