How the United States can compete with Chinese influence in Southeast Asia


Editor’s Note: China is rising and the influence of the United States is diminishing. It is difficult to go beyond this vague description, however, because influence is so difficult to measure. Collin Meisel, Jonathan Moyer, Austin Matthews and David Bohl of the University of Denver and Mathew Burrows of the Atlantic Council attempt to address this challenge and in doing so map the evolution of American and Chinese influence over the years. time. Their approach suggests ways the United States can stop this decline.

Daniel Byman


Is China Winning the Competition for Global Influence? Answering such a question is difficult, and articles and in-depth studies often focus on a particular country or area rather than broader trends.

In one recent report written by the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative and the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver, we analyzed Sino-U.S. competition using the Formal Bilateral Influence Capacity Index (FBIC), a quantitative measure of the multidimensional influence between pairs of states from 1960 to 2020. As detailed in the report, the FBIC index attempts to capture the size of interactions, as well as a country’s dependence on others on the economic, political and security dimensions, in order to assess a state’s capacity to influence other countries in the international system.

The capacity to influence is built from two main elements: bandwidth, or the size of the interaction between states, and addiction, or how dependent one state is on the other. As an example, the United States and China have a lot of bandwidth between them, especially given their large trade volume, but neither depends solely on the other as a part of their total economy or on the other. their security relationships. In contrast, it is common for many small oceanic countries, such as Tuvalu, which often have low-bandwidth relationships due to their size, to be heavily dependent on major regional and global powers for their help, Trade, and security relations.

Trade wars and tariffs are an example of how addiction can be used to exert influence. In 2020, China had twice as much influence over Australia as Australia over China, as measured by the FBIC index. So when Australia limit foreign investment and banned Huawei from building a broadband network, China has imposed sanctions. There followed a series of Chinese actions aimed at reducing imports of various goods traded in Australia, resulting in a reduction $ 2.3 billion in exports from Australia to China in 2020.

As U.S. policymakers reflect on how to control China’s growing capacity for influence in Southeast Asia, they can avoid being hampered by similar asymmetries of interdependence by leveraging U.S. influence over a wider range of economic, diplomatic and security issues. This approach involves working with close partners who have substantial influence in the region. It also means strengthening interdependencies within the region, which will provide countries with greater independence and resistance to foreign influences, both from the United States and China, the latter having less reliance on a favorable influence by proxy. If successful, a similar approach could be taken beyond Southeast Asia, balancing Chinese influence through multilateral rather than militarist and unilateral means.

Sino-American competition in Southeast Asia

Globally, China’s growing capacity for influence has eaten away at America’s long-held positions of regional preeminence. In Southeast Asia, where former strongholds of American influence are now characterized by contestation, the transition in recent decades has been dramatic. As the maps below illustrate, China’s capacity for influence exceeded that of the United States in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries where American influence was about ten times that of China in 1992, according to l ‘FBIC index. Collectively, the sum of Chinese influence among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) now exceeds that of the United States throughout the region.

American influence crumbles: Net U.S. influence, where China’s FBIC score in each country was subtracted from that of the United States.

The United States should respond to this growth by leveraging the collective influence of American allies and partners. In Vietnam, for example, South Korea’s capacity for influence far exceeds that of the United States or China, and even overshadows Hanoi’s extensive ties with Russia. Washington should count on its partners in Seoul and Tokyo, which also have considerable influence in Vietnam, to continue relations ultimately favorable to the two states. If a “Quad Plus” partnership (made up of the United States, Australia, India, Japan and South Korea) or “Semi-QuadIf the partnership (United States, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) materializes, the situation risks becoming all the more favorable to American interests.

In addition, US policymakers should consider the gains in influence that could be achieved through further integration into multilateral trading partnerships, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). While imperfect on labor and environmental issues, the CPTPP or a similar agreement would dramatically increase US trade bandwidth with key partners in the Asia-Pacific region. As far as ASEAN is concerned, this would further extend the already substantial US advantage to Singapore and potentially give the US an economic advantage in Vietnam. U.S.-Japanese relations would also be deepened, a significant gain given Tokyo’s influence in Southeast Asia and neighboring regions.

The United States could further embrace multilateralism and strengthen its relationship with Japan by encouraging and sponsoring the expansion of the United States-Australia-Canada-New Zealand-United Kingdom “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partnership ( which currently includes the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom) to include Japan as the “sixth eye”. This would ensure that China’s challenge is met with a wide range of tools. Indeed, rather than focusing primarily on securing relations between the United States and its partners in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the goal should be to create a balanced network of influence capacity comprised of a diverse set of actors and their economic, political and security actors. related tools of the art of government.

Increasing regional power by supporting regional organizations, such as ASEAN, and their member states could be another key political priority. Strengthening intraregional interdependence could allow groups of neighboring countries to come together, identify common interests, resolve differences and work in a more unified way to counter external influences. Although it is not necessary to work through an international organization such as ASEAN (although the FBIC index postulates that shared membership in international organizations itself modestly increases the capacity to influence between countries), the formal affiliation of an organization that alreadyexerts a real influence”Provides a forum to bring together and develop other policies and coherent responses internally to external partnerships.

Evidence of this strategy of regional organization, measured collectively, the sum of the capacity of influence that the member states of ASEAN have among themselves greatly exceeds that that the United States or China have individually through these states. If ASEAN can improve its capacity to facilitate collective action, it could more effectively resist efforts by external powers to dominate their regional security and economic ties, becoming more self-sufficient at the regional level and more assertive of the interests of its members.

Stronger Together: The sum of the influence of ASEAN member countries within ASEAN far exceeds that of China or the United States, although the average influence of ASEAN member countries remains low.

While a more interdependent ASEAN could also thwart U.S. influence efforts in the region, it could pose a greater obstacle to China’s influence efforts in its immediate neighborhood. Rather than seeking to compete directly for influence with China one-on-one, which would likely be a lost business in most ASEAN countries, the United States should aim to collaborate with influential allies. , especially Japan and South Korea, and help the region. develop its own strong internal interdependencies. While this is a gamble, this strategy would work within the limits of US capabilities and counterbalance China, while helping strategic partners develop their own independent forces.

Admittedly, with this approach comes a unique set of challenges, namely those that involve bridging the gap between different states’ perceptions of the extent and severity of the challenge that China poses to their respective national interests and its countries. associated costs. The costs of China’s opposition to South Korea, for example, could be much higher and the threat of retaliation much closer to home than to the United States. This fact was recently highlighted by China’s retaliation against South Korea’s hosting of a US High Altitude Terminal Area Defense (THAAD) battery. According to an estimation, China’s THAAD-related sanctions cost Seoul an estimated $ 7.5 billion, including trade and tourism losses, in November 2020.

With heavy dependence on China for imports and exports, Japanese leaders must also carefully weigh the costs of a tougher stance against China. The onus is on the Biden administration to demonstrate in Tokyo that the long-term benefits of collective action to counteract Chinese influence are greater. The administration should also make it clear to ASEAN leadership that its goal is not just member states choose sides but to diversify dependencies within the region and give them the means to act more independently.

Beyond South East Asia

Although our recommendations focus on one region, Southeast Asia, our work indicates that the story is the same in virtually every region of the world: China’s rapid and substantial increase translates into decline. relative, but not necessarily absolute, of the influence capacity of the United States.

American policymakers can manage these changing dynamics by adjusting foreign policy to take advantage of specific elements of influence where the United States retains an advantage. At the heart of this strategy is leverage, or perhaps simply the use of influence from partners.

In contrast, a one-sided approach is likely to fail. In the Middle East and North Africa, where unilateralism has been the standard U.S. strategy for decades, public opinion leaned heavily in favor of China. Combined with the effects of the resurgence of Russia and the expansion of Iranian influence, the “American era” in the Middle East is over. If the United States chooses unilateralism in Southeast Asia, it could be next.


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