Portuguese traveller Tomé Pires once remarked that ‘Whoever is Lord in Malacca, has his hand on the throat of Venice’. Perhaps this exact sentiment echoes in the mind of David Shambaugh in the preface of his new book, Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia, as he marvels at the ships from all over the world that pass through the Malacca Strait and the immense Chinese-sponsored infrastructure projects being built right next to it. However, Malacca is just one of the many factors that make the southeastern corner of the Asian continent one of the most geopolitically significant regions on the planet. Due to its unique position in the realm of international politics, Southeast Asia serves as a microcosm of the global competition between two of the world’s biggest superpowers – the USA and China.
In his latest work, David Shambaugh – the director of the China Policy Program at the Elliot School of International Affairs in Washington D.C. – delves into the dynamics of the rivalry between the two nations as it plays out in Southeast Asia. By tracing the historical legacy of the US and China in the region, he explains their contemporary roles with respect to the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), setting in context his predictions for the future of these power relations. Through the course of seven chapters, Shambaugh argues that the potential capabilities of the United States in Southeast Asia are “underappreciated”, while those of the People’s Republic of China is “overestimated”.
The Dragon’s Fading Shadow
Despite the almost counter-intuitive nature of this argument, Shambaugh’s book builds a convincing case for it by highlighting the growing concerns among Southeast Asian experts about China’s overreach into the sovereign nations in the region. Evidence for these observations can be found in the Mekong Delta, where China has engaged in some of its most controversial infrastructure projects by building dams that restrict the water flow of the Mekong river to countries located downstream such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The anti-dam sentiment was so strong in Myanmar that it forced the government to cement its ties to the West by joining the US-Mekong partnership to balance against China’s aggressive actions. Thus, Shambaugh’s claim that China’s sway over the region may decline and give way for more US influence seems likely considering the former nation’s increasingly risky policies towards ASEAN countries.
This analysis contradicts the popular understanding of the power balance in the region, in which China is the inevitable hegemon that exploits the US’ waning presence in Asia by dragging the Southeast Asian states into its sphere of influence. However, the flaw in this perception is that it frames the countries in the region as mere pawns in a game dominated by superpowers. This narrative casts aside the role played by ASEAN in this power struggle by disregarding it as a weak institution that lacks a “cohesive identity”. As the Singaporean diplomat Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan explains, studying ASEAN through such a narrow lens is like “accusing a cow of being an imperfect horse”.
One of the strengths of Shambaugh’s book is that it does not support the common misconception that Southeast Asia is nothing but an arena for the powerplay between the US and China; rather, it dedicates a whole chapter to understand the agency that each Southeast Asian nation exercises when dealing with the two superpowers. He recognizes that none of the states in the region can be categorized as falling entirely under American or Chinese influence. Instead, they manoeuvre between both countries by aligning with China in certain domains such as trade and infrastructure while seeking ties with the US in other domains such as diplomacy and security. At the same time, these nations engage multilaterally with other middle powers such as India, Japan and South Korea to balance against these two dominant powers.
He also emphasizes that despite their lack of consensus on several issues, ASEAN’s ability to juggle the influences of these various powers in the region has allowed it to remain relatively peaceful in the past. This understanding aligns with what Ambassador Kausikan describes as the instinct to simultaneously “hedge, balance and bandwagon” that is “deeply imprinted in the diplomatic DNA of all Southeast Asian countries”.
The Eagle’s Advancing Shadow
While Shambaugh’s analysis of the greater relative capability that the US possesses in the region in comparison to China is grounded in reality, his hope that the former state will act on these opportunities in the future may still be a pipe dream. After a golden era of US-ASEAN relations under President Obama, the four years under the Trump administration were marked by the notable absence of the US from key policy meetings in Southeast Asia and a return to what Shambaugh himself refers to as “episodic” diplomacy that was locally perceived as plain neglect. According to political scientist Nehginpao Kipgen, the United States may have “missed the bus” on the opportunity to define trade rules in the region when it withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), encouraging its Southeast Asian allies to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that eclipses the TPP and lacks strict regulation on several critical issues.
While Shambaugh acknowledges the problems created by the Trump administration in one section of his book, he concludes it by saying that despite their reluctance to rely on the US after the events of the past four years, ASEAN countries may still be open to working with them to counter China’s growing footprint in the region. However, despite the increase in the global faith in US leadership that has arrived with the Biden administration, the nation’s policy towards Southeast Asia may not undergo the dramatic change that Shambaugh proposes. Following his experience in the Obama administration, Biden may still seek to return to the path of remaining constantly engaged in the region by deepening his security ties with ASEAN countries. At the same time, despite having championed the TPP during his term as Vice President, it is unlikely that Biden will also seek to reverse the decline of the US’ economic influence in the region due to the lack of domestic political support for free trade. As a result, it remains to be seen whether Shambaugh’s prediction that all Southeast Asian nations will return to neutrally hedging between both superpowers across all domains will come true.
The Future of Great Power Rivalry
In a world slowly emerging from a pandemic, now more than ever, David Shambaugh’s description of the rivalry between the United States and China as an “indefinite comprehensive competition” is extremely relevant. As the development and distribution of vaccines by both nations adds yet another dimension to this conflict, his book serves as a vital starting point for the analysis of the future of global politics as defined by the power struggle between these two superpowers.
Sagara Ann Johny is a second-year student studying Economics, Finance and International Relations at Ashoka University