How the conflict between America and China is affecting Southeast Asia

0 14

WHEN Donald Trump he started slapping tariffs on imports from China in early 2018, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo (or Jokowi, as he’s called) saw an opportunity. He asked foreign visitors how Indonesia could take advantage of the growing growth. Could it, for example, attract multinational companies to move parts of their supply chains from China?

Listen to this story.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts ahead iOS or Android.

Your browser does not support the element

How times have changed. Under Mr. Trump’s successor as president, Joe Biden, the trade war with China has escalated, and has been reinforced by geopolitical, ideological and even military competition that has sometimes resembled conflict. On the Chinese side, powerful President Xi Jinping is talking about a titanic struggle with the American West. On the American side, Mr Biden in October announced tougher controls to stop Chinese companies benefiting from American technology – a clear bid to keep China down. It has also broken with a policy of decades of rhetorical friction in which America has refused to openly commit to defending Taiwan, the self-governing island that is finally reunifying with the mainland. as the most sacred tenure of the Communist Party.

Despite the superpower conflict, Southeast Asians feel powerless. They are “the grass, not the elephants”, regional strategists say. Jokowi has moved from seeing an opportunity to sounding the alarm. This month he told The Economist he was “deeply concerned” about the potential for conflict over Taiwan, especially as it could destroy the region’s hopes for development and prosperity. He pushed hard for this week’s meeting between Mr Biden and Mr Xi in Bali, on the eve of his hosting of world leaders there for the G20 roof He said it was the “hardest” G20 ever. “We should not divide the world into parts,” he said, in his opening speech. “We must not let the world fall into another cold war.”

Otherwise, President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine dominated discussion at the g20, where sentiment hardened against the Russian invasion. For Southeast Asian leaders, they are not the fight: only a minority of governments in the region have openly condemned the attack. But Asia is grappling with its effects, including concerns about food supplies and rising prices.

The distant conflict has also emphasized the importance of peace at home. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a national day rally in August: “Look how things have gone wrong in Europe. Can you be sure things can’t go wrong in our area too? It’s best to be real, and be mentally prepared.”

Taiwan is the primary security concern of Southeast Asian policymakers. They have long been concerned about superpower conflict. But it was thought more likely to be in the South China Sea, where China’s vague but broad “nine-dash line” includes almost all of the sea and where the she built military bases on offshore reefs. This has changed, says a regional diplomat. “The nine-dash line,” the diplomat says. “That’s not a red line. [For China] Taiwan is the real red line. “

An island in a storm

In that context, regional strategists are alarmed by the American trend in rhetoric. They believe the Biden administration has gone too far. They also scorn the visit to Taiwan in August by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, as unnecessarily provocative. China responded with live-fire military exercises across the island. So they are worried about the consequences if Ms. Pelosi’s Republican successor, Kevin McCarthy, follows through on his promise to visit Taiwan as well.

They are also concerned that a lack of trust hinders communication. At the same time, mutual distrust grows. A Southeast Asian diplomat who talks to both sides says Chinese officials view America’s political polarization as evidence of a declining superpower. Both sides complain that the talks are superficial. Chinese and American officials, the diplomat says, are not pulling their counterparts aside for open discussions about how to stop tensions. The pandemic, in reducing face-to-face meetings, made a bad situation worse.

As for technological weapons against China, even America’s closest allies in Southeast Asia say the administration is taking the region down a dangerous path. It forces nations to take sides in painful ways. Singapore has already accepted that in a dual world where technology is “shored up” the city will drag along American-led supply chains. But what if America extends sanctions to tech-heavy Chinese companies operating outside of China? This, says one Singaporean official, would create a major dilemma for a city whose reputation has been built on being a safe, predictable, open-for-business jurisdiction. For that matter, will Indonesia’s new electric vehicle power industry one day have to choose between America and China?

Mr. Biden and his team are aware of some of the area’s concerns. Just before the g20The American president was in Phnom Penh, where Cambodia was hosting the annual summit of the Association of Ten Southeast Asian Nations (axis). He made sure axis it was the “core” of his policy in the Indo-Pacific region. He promised a “new era” of cooperation – an acknowledgment that some attention had been paid to the interests of the region.

For all that their economies are tied to China, Southeast Asians want American engagement as a counterweight to their giant northern neighbor. China’s presence brings economic opportunities but also risks, such as military expansion in the South China Sea, debt from Chinese-led infrastructure projects and Chinese withdrawal axis unity as it turns Cambodia and Laos into client states.

American involvement is welcome, therefore. But, says one political leader, it must be within a more “balanced” framework that provides a long-term economic guarantee. In Phnom Penh and Bali, Mr. Biden promised this. America and Japan (which considers itself more capable of leading poorer Asian countries than its American friend, see Banyan) proposed new ways to help Indonesia decarbonize. Many Southeast Asians are skeptical that the promises will materialize. Mr. Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a proposal for American involvement in the region, is sorely lacking. Only a few pockets of Mr. Biden’s administration, such as the commerce department, are pushing for more openness. Too much of his Asia policy, regional strategists say, is driven by anti-China ideology.

There was relief, therefore, at Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Xi. It did not represent a reset, but a return communication. In any case, says one Southeast Asian official, the two elephants have trumpeted a desire to prevent a descent into war. The grass gets a little rest, but for how long?

Correction (18 November 2022): The original version of this article misstated a word used by Jokowi in his opening speech at the G20 tops. He said the world should not be allowed to “fall into another cold war”.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.