Report: US must do more to win in contest for Asean with China

Although South-east Asia lies at the frontline of Beijing's expanding diplomatic and economic influence and military muscle, it remains reluctant to more overtly side with the US.
Although South-east Asia lies at the frontline of Beijing's expanding diplomatic and economic influence and military muscle, it remains reluctant to more overtly side with the US.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • South-east Asia has emerged as a key arena of competition between China and the United States, but the Trump administration has fallen short in engaging with the region, said a new report by a US security think-tank.

The Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) report, released on Thursday, recommended a series of economic, diplomatic and security moves that the US and its allies could adopt to present themselves as the region's alternative to China.

Although South-east Asia lies at the front line of Beijing's expanding diplomatic and economic influence and military muscle, it remains reluctant to more overtly side with Washington, said the report.

South-east Asian countries question the durability of Washington's commitment to the region and do not perceive a comprehensive US economic strategy that offers a meaningful alternative to Chinese trade and investment, it added.

South-east Asia has been wary of being seen as an arena for great power competition, fearing that Asean will be torn apart if it is forced to side with one superpower over another.

Acknowledging this, CNAS senior fellow and report co-author Daniel Kliman told The Straits Times: "Even if countries in the region do not want it to be a domain of great power competition, China has made it so. Our view is there can be a contest without confrontation. It's not about confrontation but competition."

Although South-east Asian countries are reluctant to publicly address the competition, Hudson Institute Asia-Pacific security chair and report co-author Patrick Cronin told The Straits Times: "While South-east Asian capitals are sensitive to raising the question of China's assertiveness, they're happy to see the US talk about these issues, provided that it's not then a prelude to a conflict."

 
 
 
 

The 32-page report, based on interviews in South-east Asia and conversations with unnamed embassy officials from Asean, urged the US government to craft a comprehensive approach to the region covering economics, security and diplomacy. It also called for the US to partner Asean to carry out its 2025 master plan for regional connectivity.

It also urged further cooperation in the region with allies like Japan.

The report acknowledged that the Trump administration had come to realise that it needed to "get South-east Asia right" for its overall effort to compete with China to succeed, but fell short in several areas.

It noted that several key posts, including the ambassador positions to Asean and Singapore, have stayed empty, and the President's absence from last year's Asean summit and related meetings was not encouraging.

"If Trump sits out another series of trips to the region, he will stoke fears that his administration undervalues its strategic importance," said the report.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline 'Report: US must do more to win in contest for Asean with China'. Print Edition | Subscribe