ASEAN Must Choose: America or China?


It is time for Southeast Asian states and ASEAN to think, act and speak consistently and clearly for its own interests—or else court irrelevance and ruin of its own strategic objectives.

THE 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes China as a revisionist power seeking to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an accurate characterization which was resisted by previous American administrations despite there being little evidence that China is content to be a “responsible stakeholder” under a U.S.-led order.

The Chinese desire to gradually exclude the United States and reduce the latter’s role in strategic affairs in the region preceded the current regime of Xi Jinping. However, Xi has intensified China’s use of all the instruments of national power to further its goal of regaining the preponderant position in East Asia. Given explicit U.S. security guarantees offered to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—themselves formidable military powers—Beijing has identified Southeast Asia as a region of immense strategic importance and opportunity. It is in this sub-region consisting of eleven countries and home to over six hundred million people that China has been the most proactive and assertive.

Consider China’s illegal artificial island building program and militarization of features in the South China Sea which have accelerated in the Xi era. This is designed to extend Beijing’s control of those areas and increase its capacity to defend them against “intrusions.” It also enhances China’s ability to inflict heavy and possibly “prohibitive” costs on military assets of other countries including the United States. It also extends Beijing’s capacity to implement its “active defense” approach which states that an effective counter-attack is only possible when the People’s Liberation Army can negate the enemy’s offensive military assets in pre-determined areas.