Over the past three decades, Washington has arguably overlooked the international strategic importance of Southeast Asia more than any other region. Nevertheless, according to Marvin Ott, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, the prevalent mood governing relations in Southeast Asia, and Asia in general, is one of intense realpolitik, and deserves American attention. Interstate politics in Asia are beset by mutual suspicion, rivalry, and the search for security above all else.
The most salient factor in the Asian geopolitical mix has been the rise of China, both in economic and military terms. Double-digit increases in Beijing’s military spending in recent years have yielded such new Chinese capabilities as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, Ott believes that China’s political elite are departing from the exhortations of former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping to de-emphasize foreign policy, in order to focus on economic issues to sustain national growth.
Indeed, China’s economic rise has fueled a new nationalism, informed by the sheer longevity and magnificence of Chinese culture. While many Chinese may not know the details of their nation’s history, they know that this history is both long and great in its own right, and insist that it should be viewed by others as such. They have therefore interpreted European colonization of China in the 19th century, Japanese colonization in the 20th, and American global dominance in the early 21st, as attempts by outsiders to smother Chinese greatness. In Ott’s words, many Chinese believe that “history owes China a debt, and now it is time to pay.”
Economic growth has also changed China’s outlook. For most of the Cold War and the period of American dominance thereafter, nations in Southeast Asia did not have the military capability to openly contest and defend territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea, even if they had the will. With the United States now weakened by financial turmoil and drawing down from military engagements in the Middle East, Ott believes that China’s growing strength symbolizes a significant shift in power from West to East. Moreover, with Russia and Japan also exhibiting weakness in recent years, China is turning its attention to its interests in Southeast Asia. China claims as its territory much of the South China Sea through which critical sea lanes pass, and is rapidly building naval and air forces capable of projecting military power into this and other areas.
Ott argues that China’s moves in Southeast Asia are consistent with a darker understanding of its motives. First, he claims, China is attempting to bind itself to Southeast Asia economically, challenging Japanese economic interests in an attempt to make Tokyo politically irrelevant in the region. Second, Beijing is attempting to deny the United States strategic access to the region. Both of these tactics would facilitate China’s intermediate objective of completely subordinating Southeast Asia, and its ultimate goal of gaining international recognition of its supremacy in the region.
The challenges China’s activity pose for the United States, currently the primary offshore power in Southeast Asia, are therefore real—but until recently they remained largely ignored by a Washington foreign-policy apparatus preoccupied with other parts of the world. American foreign policymakers have become accustomed to viewing an invigorated Chinese presence in Asia in economic terms. However, this may be changing. While China has been cautious about its approach in the past, its recent behavior, notably its insistence at the 2010 Shangri-La forum of its claims in the region, have prompted many in America and beyond to take a second look at Beijing’s motives. Ott believes that such a “clear-eyed” reassessment of Chinese motives cannot come too soon.
By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
- Senior Scholar