The diplomatic dance of South-east Asia

It is hardly possible today to talk about China in South-east Asia without talking about the United States as well in South-east Asia. But too many discussions of China's relations with South-east Asia - including by some South-east Asians who ought to know better - seem to assume that our region is inhabited by morons incapable of counting beyond two and that the choices facing us are only binary. This is a fundamental misreading of South-east Asia. Only the simple-minded or the partisan assume that one must necessarily "win" and the other "lose", as if the complex international relations of the region could be reduced to a two-horse race.

As a contiguous big country, China is always going to be influential in South-east Asia. For the same reason, because it is a contiguous big country, China is always going to evoke concerns in South-east Asia. In this apparent contradiction lies the essence of the relationship. China's rise is a geopolitical fact that cannot be ignored. China's rise is challenging but replete with opportunity; China is undoubtedly influential but distrusted.

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