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Finding a Balanced China Policy: Constraints and Opportunities for Southeast Asian Leaders

2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover
2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover


Much of recent U.S. policy discussion of maritime conflict in East Asia, especially around the South China Sea, has focused on U.S. and China great power competition. Often left out are the political dynamics within and among Southeast Asian (explicitly or implicitly) claimant countries, which are highly important for the conduct of foreign affairs in the region and the ultimate disposition of the conflict. Specifically, this project examines the often highly nationalistic domestic political pressures that leaders in Southeast Asia face vis-à-vis China, at the same time that they navigate increasing trade reliance on the Chinese market and growing PRC assertiveness in terms of territorial claims in maritime Asia. It also documents the growing level of conflict between ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) countries in the South China Sea, something that imperils any collective action on the topic.

Implications and Key Takeaways

  • Policymakers in United States should recognize that confrontation with China is bad domestic politics for most leaders in Southeast Asia, including those with claims in the SCS.
  • The United States should work to help SE Asian countries resolve their bilateral disputes in the SCS, along with disincentivizing posturing between ASEAN countries, as a critical precursor to any collective action vis-à-vis China.
  • The United States should seek to understand and carefully navigate the divergence in views between elites and regular citizens in Southeast Asia on international affairs, which complicates strategic calculations and diplomatic engagement.
  • U.S. economic engagement in SE Asia lags behind security cooperation, and although the latter is valued, without greater public and private economic engagement rebalancing towards China by most SE Asian countries is increasingly likely over time.
  • Although ‘ASEAN Centrality’ is often viewed as a useful, if hollow, diplomatic buzz-phrase, ASEAN may in practice be an impediment to resolution of the issues by distracting limited political energy from other processes that would have a chance to succeed.

About the Author

Renard Sexton

Renard Sexton

Wilson China Fellow;
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Emory University.
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