The United States and Japan need to significantly increase economic involvement in Southeast Asia to more effectively counter China’s fast-growing influence in the region, regional experts say.
While the United States and China are tussling with one another in a so-called trade war, they each also are attempting to build and strengthen alliances in the Southeast Asia region, especially in light of a protracted South China Sea controversy, large infusions of investment through China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, as in Cambodia’s case, the prospect of a Chinese military presence at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province.
Panelists at a virtual forum recently hosted by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington agreed that Japan and the U.S. should substantively increase their engagement with ASEAN member states, many of which are orbiting closer to China.
David Shear, a senior fellow at SAIS, said the U.S. needed to balance deterrence and freedom of movement in the South China Sea, with an effective diplomatic strategy to build alliances in the region.
“We can’t win influence in Southeast Asia by just throwing aircraft carriers at the South China Sea,” said Shear, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. “We need a coherent diplomatic strategy designed to win influence and it needs to be thoroughly coordinated with Japan and our other allies.”
The geopolitical friction in ASEAN between the U.S. and China has been apparent in Cambodia, where Washington has taken umbrage with development plans at the Ream Naval Base by the Cambodian military. The U.S. military has expressed public concern that China desires a military presence in Cambodia. Cambodia recently took down a structure at the Ream base built in 2012 with US military assistance.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh is engaging in a year-long commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the diplomatic ties with Cambodia. Washington has sanctioned several senior Cambodian officials and, most recently, the Chinese-owned Union Development Group, which is developing a massive post-resort complex in Koh Kong province.
In recent years, more ASEAN countries have accepted China’s patronage often in the form of loans for infrastructure projects, and through increased trade and investment, and experts said this has highlighted the shortcomings of ASEAN engagement efforts by the U.S. and Japan.
“They didn’t have a political choice,’’ Nobuhiro Aizawa, an associate professor at Kyushu University in Japan, said of ASEAN nations. ‘’So, if we’re ready with the political choices, the demand is there. It’s just that we haven’t stepped up to it.”
On the investment front, the balance tilts considerably in favor of China, which outspends the U.S. in infrastructure development in the region. Japan has attempted to rival this investment with its continued financial and technical support for development projects in the region, mostly directed through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
China has expanded its economic power through the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to provide credit and concessionary loans for infrastructure projects across the region and the world. In contrast, the United States established a new $60 billion International Development Finance Corporation in 2018, which some analysts said was a direct challenge to China’s BRI.
Ro Vannak, co-founder of Cambodian Institute for Democracy in Phnom Penh, said Japan was attempting to counterpoise massive Chinese investments in Cambodia, but also staying clear of putting Cambodia at the center of this geopolitical scrap.
“Japan has played an important role in counterbalance with China in the region in a quiet manner without pushing Cambodia or other Southeast Asian countries to take the side of either Japan or China,” Ro Vannak said.
He said the Japanese had a higher favorability within the region because their projects were considered to be high quality and free from the graft. This put Japan in an advantageous position to balance Chinese inroads into ASEAN, he said.
Another bid by the U.S. to engage the region is its recent focus on the Lower Mekong Initiative, which was recently rebranded to the Mekong-U.S. Partnership – again a transparent attempt, some experts say, to counter the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, which is China’s effort to influence development along the critical river.
The U.S. Administration’s pivot was apparent at a September meeting of foreign ministers from Mekong River countries, where U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took direct aim at China and the Chinese Communist Party.
“Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people,’’ Pompeo was quoted saying by the Washington Post. ‘’You should have confidence and the Americans will be here in friendship to help you.”
Despite the aggressive rhetoric, Nobuhiro Aizawa, from Kyushu University, questioned whether the U.S., in alliance with Japan, could make equally attractive diplomatic and monetary counteroffers to ASEAN nations. He emphasized the value for both the U.S. and Japan to find genuine partners in one or two ASEAN nations, for each project they attempt to initiate in Southeast Asia.
“We really need to find Southeast Asian partners every time: the U.S., Japan and one Southeast Asian country or two Southeast Asian countries advancing its project,” Aizawa said at the SAIS virtual event.
“I think this kind of new alliance is...going to be very attractive and beneficial,” he said.
Chheang Vannarith, president of Asian Vision Institute in Phnom Penh, said it was unlikely ASEAN countries would place all their bets on either of the superpowers. He said most of the countries are skilled in maintaining their distance from both sides, while also gaining some benefits from China and the U.S.
“In the context of the U.S.-China competition for now and in the future, I think ASEAN and each country of the 10-nation bloc will not turn to the U.S. to counter China or vice versa,” he said.
“They will simply stay in the middle.”