S-E Asia once again an arena for big-power struggle

AMERICA and China - one an established titan and the other an emerging one - seem destined to compete for the strategic heart and mind of South-east Asia.

The tectonic plates of the global international political system are now shifting again, inexorably grinding against one another, and the United States and China are on opposite sides of the divide.

No longer a Leviathan, the US is yesterday's and today's sole superpower, but its ability to impose its will is fast eroding.

China's leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, its leaders believe it is China's destiny to regain its prominence if not pre-eminence in the region and perhaps eventually the world.

This clash of the titans is not a new phenomenon. In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers feel constrained by the status quo and naturally strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they pose a threat to it.

Thucydides described this "natural" process regarding Athens and Sparta as a combination of "rise" and fear - which inevitably leads to war. Today this is known as the "Thucydides trap".

Can China and the US escape it? Or will China behave like the US during its own rise?

In the 20th century, there have been many instances in which the US intervened militarily to alter political conditions in its favour - in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan and more than 25 other independent states.

The US and other Western powers have set a precedent in this regard and it is quite "normal" to expect that as China rises, it will want, and try, to do the same.

South-east Asia attempted to stave off the repetition of its domination by outside powers by forming the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) in 1967. It began as a pro-Western capitalist bulwark against the spread of communism and emphasised enhanced economic cooperation.

Now it is trying to transform itself into a security organisation, which may be a bridge too far.

Like the ideological and cultural divisions that led to the clashes of old, the China-US political and strategic struggle will make that difficult and likely create instability and conflicts, both within and between regions. Indeed, it is quite possible that it will generate domestic political strife and even proxy inter-state conflict.

These are the primordial political dynamics of the burgeoning US-China struggle. Unfortunately for South-east Asia, this struggle will tacitly force Asian countries to choose between the two.

Indeed, the two big powers will try to push and pull hedging countries off the fence. Tensions are already rising along ancient civilisational fault lines and developmental gaps, and from these cracks oozes the essence of conflict.

Many Asean countries are trying not to choose between the US and China. But the pressure will mount. Senior officials from both China and the US have visited some Asean countries to lobby for their point of view.

China's then President Hu Jintao visited then Asean chair Cambodia in March last year and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made an official visit to China earlier this month.

Also last year, US President Barack Obama and then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured South-east Asia both together and separately.

The US has stepped up military contacts and cooperation with the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia while China is providing considerable aid to Myanmar and Cambodia. On the South China Sea disputes, the US is tacitly supporting South-east Asian jurisdictional claims versus that of China and backing Asean's attempt to negotiate a binding code of conduct with China.

Indonesia is becoming increasingly wary of China and fears a potential struggle between the US and China for supremacy in the region. Cambodia and Laos are leaning towards China while Vietnam's differences with China have become more manifest.

Supposed neutrals like Indonesia and Malaysia are now, reluctantly or not, leaning towards the US. The Philippines, a US ally, is already there. Singapore, while a strategic partner of the US, stresses that their relationship is special but not exclusive.

Thailand is a holdover US military ally from another era. But if its behaviour during World War II is any guide, it will bend towards the most powerful.

Vietnam has been very public in its attempts to draw the US in as a balancer to China.

And the US has even made political inroads in Myanmar - heretofore a staunch China supporter - while Mrs Clinton made an unusual but understandable visit to incoming Asean chair Brunei in September last year.

But this Western "invasion" has not completely erased the ancient influence of Chinese culture - and the respect for, and fear of, China. Many South-east Asian countries are fundamentally realistic and take the long view. China will always be there. Their valid concern is that the US, and its power - both soft and hard - may eventually recede like the outgoing tide only to be replaced by a Chinese storm surge.

In this historical context, the fundamental question for Southeast Asia is whether it can resist these outside influences - currently manifest in the South China Sea disputes - and sustain its own centrality in maintaining the security of the region.

Or will history repeat itself in that South-east Asia is once again riven, manipulated and tortured by a political struggle between outside powers - this time between China and the US?

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is with the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.