SOUTHEAST ASIA AND THE MAJOR POWERS: Engagement Not Entanglement

By Cook, Malcolm | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

SOUTHEAST ASIA AND THE MAJOR POWERS: Engagement Not Entanglement


Cook, Malcolm, Southeast Asian Affairs


Major powers' interests in enhancing their engagement with Southeast Asian states and the main regional organization, ASEAN, are at a historic high and rising. The United States of America and Japan, the established, mature major powers, and India and China, the re-emerging and neighbouring ones, are each increasing their policy interest in Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian states, ASEAN and the larger regional groupings that include Southeast Asian states. Reflecting this, India, in mid-2013, became the last of these four powers to commit to a separate ambassadorial-level diplomatic relationship with ASEAN.1 This enhancing engagement is due to the perceived growing strategic influence of key Southeast Asian states, particularly Indonesia, and the perceived central position of the region in the rapidly changing Asia-Pacific security order.

It is clear that some of these major power interests in Southeast Asia are competitive, often pitting China against the United States, Japan or India in the search for closer ties and greater influence with regional states. China's early move to sign a preferential trade deal with ASEAN and Japan's (and South Korea's, India's, Australia's and New Zealand's) tit-for-tat response is held up as an example of such competition2 as is the present competition between the US-led, China-less Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership favoured by China and India.3

Less commented on is the fact that there is growing policy cooperation among these major powers and Southeast Asian states. The establishment from 2009 of bi-annual disaster relief exercises under the auspices of the ASEAN Regional Forum, each exercise co-chaired by an ASEAN and non-ASEAN member of the Forum, is but one example. Greater major power interest in Southeast Asia has strengthened ASEAN as well as ASEAN's role in wider Asia-Pacific regionalism and aided Southeast Asian states to enhance their own security, market access and diplomatic influence.

Southeast Asian states, as small and medium-sized powers surrounded by the world's greatest ones, have long worried individually and collectively through ASEAN. As is the lot of small and medium powers, these worries have oscillated sharply between being ignored and abandoned by these major powers and becoming individually or collectively entangled with and constrained by great powers' regional interests. The growing engagement in Southeast Asia by the world's four largest national economies have brought the latter fears to the fore. This can be seen by the current concerns in Southeast Asia over the regional implications of US-China and to a lesser extent Japan-China competition.

To broaden the debate, this chapter will investigate the opportunities this historic level of major power engagement have and will continue to create for Southeast Asian states to advance their own interests individually and collectively through ASEAN and larger regional groupings. It will identify reasons behind and policy actions following from the greater interest of the United States, Japan, India and China respectively in Southeast Asia. Each major power section will identify the key reasons behind each of the four major powers' growing engagement with Southeast Asian states and the policy tools chosen for this engagement. The chapter will conclude by analysing how Southeast Asian states can take advantage of this historic and growing level of great power engagement to advance their own security and economic interests and how the simultaneous engagement by these four powers precludes any of them from establishing a hegemonic position in Southeast Asia.

The United States of America (US)

Despite the American homeland being on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from Southeast Asia, the United States is the most influential great power in the region.6 For all the states of maritime Southeast Asia, the United States is their most important security partner and provider despite only the Philippines and Thailand being formal allies of the United States. …

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