U.S.-China & the World is an interview series investigating how the U.S.-China relationship impacts societies, economies, and policies around the globe. Through short interviews with local experts, this series takes a closer look at the countries and regions impacted by and navigating through U.S.-China tensions—and ultimately, how the United States and China together can build a better future for the international community.
The countries of Southeast Asia represent a large diversity of diplomatic stances, tactics, and goals on the global political stage. What can the United States and China do to further the interests of Southeast Asian nations? From the South China Seas to trade and climate, China and the United States must take into consideration Southeast Asia’s regional interests. Selina Ho joined the National Committee on April 1, 2023, to discuss Southeast Asia’s social and political dynamics within the great context of the U.S.-China relationship.
Prayuj Pushkarna (NCUSCR staff): Thank you so much, Dr. Ho, for being here and being with our audience to talk about China and Southeast Asia and the U.S. The first question that I have is, in what ways is China’s influence in Southeast Asia most apparent?
Selina Ho: To answer your first question about Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, I think probably trade is the most visible sign of Chinese influence. China’s ASEAN’s largest trading partner. And then since 2020, ASEAN replaced the EU as China’s largest trading partner. And that relationship has deepened and is continuing to deepen. Digital trade is a big part of this story. Alibaba has a huge presence in this region.
So you can imagine that the impetus provided by COVID actually drove this digital trade to deal with this global supply chain disruptions. So that’s one sign of Chinese influence in this region. And the other one off is, of course, the BRI. There are many projects of the BRI in Southeast Asia and this is natural because we are the closest region to China.
And there are some cultural similarities which make it easier for Chinese companies, relatively easier to function in this part of the world. Now, the other side of Chinese influence in this part of the world is when you see countries increasingly taking into account Chinese preferences and interests when they make certain decisions. I mean, we have heard of some meetings, ASEAN meetings, where even if China is not present, countries will think, oh, maybe we shouldn’t say this, maybe we shouldn’t do that because the Chinese are not going to like it.
So, I mean, I consider these are the three key signs that Chinese influence of Chinese influence in this part of the world.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that’s awesome. Are there one or two BRI projects that come to mind when you think of, you know, the most significant, the biggest and most ambitious, the most influential.
Selina Ho: In this region?
Prayuj Pushkarna: In this region.
Selina Ho: Can I bring my book down?
Prayuj Pushkarna: Oh, absolutely!
Selina Ho: Yeah. Okay, so this is a bit of self-advertisement. This book is called Rivers of Iron, and I’ve written this with two other professors, one from the United States, the other from Malaysia. So this is actually, I would consider this the biggest, most visible infrastructure project in the region. It is—it’s not built completely yet and is in the process of being built.
It is a vision of a pan-Asia high speed railway. The idea is to connect Southeast Asia to China, the southern part of China, that’s Yunnan. So the idea is to build this this high speed railway from Yunnan. All the way down through Laos to Thailand, through Malaysia, and then to connect Singapore with the sea.
Now, this this vision, this part, these are being built bilaterally with countries that I’ve just mentioned, the part with Laos has already been built complete and the ridership is very high. It was all constructed in time despite COVID. The portions that are in Thailand are still working process. As and as we know, the Singapore portion has to be put on hold because KL (Kuala Lumpur) and Singapore are not able to come to agreement on how to move the project forward.
So this is actually the probably the most visible and largest project I can think of in terms of high speed rail, in terms of BRI projects. There are, of course, others that deal with, for example, building roads, highways, also special economic zones. Those are prominent parts. But when you finally put them all together, this is the one that’s going to appear very high in Chinese profile in the region.
Prayuj Pushkarna: So kind of given that extent of the influence of China in Southeast Asia, what makes China an attractive partner for Southeast Asian countries?
Selina Ho: I can think of two key reasons why, and there could be more, why China is an attractive partner for Southeast Asian countries. One is that there is actually an alignment of interests, alignment of interests in terms of economic growth. China growth has been growing very well. And it’s you know, it’s growth has actually brought benefits to the region.
So the region tends to think and view China’s rise in a positive sense because its growth did bring about economic benefits for the region. So there’s this alignment of interests and the other thing about infrastructure building and we were talking about the BRI, just talking about the BRI, is that the region desperately needs infrastructure. Multilateral organizations like ADB, the World Bank, can only provide a certain amount of these infrastructure funding.
But the Chinese come along and, you know, [they are] willing to provide loans and to invest in risky projects. And other countries are reluctant to take on. Now, they also—the other thing that makes Chinese partnership attractive is the Chinese do not put—there are no strings attached to these projects. There is no you know, you must have a certain level of liberalization, you must have a certain style of government, adopt a different value system, in order to acquire Chinese funding and technology. China does not impose such conditions, and that is attractive for many countries in this region.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that makes that makes so much sense. So our audience is definitely familiar with U.S.-China competition, this kind of intensification of U.S.-China rivalry over the last few years. How are Southeast Asian countries specifically responding to this sort of tension? How are they responding to what one might call heightened U.S.-China rivalry?
Selina Ho: Two ways. Again, one is to ask an appeal to both superpowers to please keep your conflict treated as competition. And it may not necessarily be conflict. So Southeast Asians would prefer that there’s healthy competition between the United States and China while keeping the tone on conflict, the intensification of the rivalry under control because it is not beneficial for the region as a whole, for stability, for the region, and economic growth in long term if there is real conflict breaking out, and the the possibility of conflict over an issue like Taiwan could be something that that could even be devastating not only for the region, but for the United States and China.
Now, the other position Southeast Asian countries have taken is, please don’t pressure us to take sides. We don’t want to make choices. Both the United States and China have been good for the region in different ways. The United States in being a security provider, and also, the U.S. is actually the largest foreign investor in this world in this part of the world.
And, you know, China is the region’s largest trading partner. So it will—it’s really difficult to choose. And the region really doesn’t want to choose. I think that’s a key message that has also been sent over to the United States and and China.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Are there any incidents or anecdotes that pop up in your mind of countries kind of being pressured to choose one side or the other within the region? And of course, you know, understanding that every country in Southeast Asia has its own interests and its own independent foreign policy as well.
Selina Ho: Oh, okay. So I think the evidence is much more anecdotal than I think it’s been than being carefully documented. Examples would be, you know, whether, you know, messages from the Americans telling Singapore, I heard this kind of messages myself, you know, eventually you’ve got to think for yourself whether it benefits the region to side with the United States or China. Do you really want an authoritarian system, authoritarian country? Do you want to be under the influence of an authoritarian country? These are the kind of messages that Americans will see and that they will want you know, they will tell the region, you have to step up in the South China Sea. You have to take control of your own security instead of relying on the Americans. You’ve got to push back on the Chinese a bit more. And that’s the pressure from the American side.
Now from the Chinese side, they are a lot more—they are less direct. I think that’s that’s somewhat cultural, I believe are less direct, but the pressures are indirect forms. I think Singapore went through a period of that in 2016, 2017, when, for instance, the Hong Kong authorities actually impounded our trucks, vehicles that were training in Taiwan and coming back through Hong Kong to Singapore. And the Hong Kong authorities held on to it for two months. They didn’t say anything. And Chinese authorities say anything. But this is in a way an indirect pressure on us to cut our training in in Taiwan. So that’s just one example of ways and, you know, and Americans tend to be a bit more direct in their approach to us.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, even if they are anecdotes, those are really, really informative anecdotes. Switching gears a little bit, kind of coming from the American perspective, why should Americans be paying attention to Southeast Asia and also Southeast Asian countries’ relationship with China? For the last couple of decades, a lot of our attention in the United States when it comes to foreign policy has been focused on other regions. So I guess I’m curious to hear your take on why Southeast Asia and countries in the region’s relationship with China is important for Americans to learn about and understand?
Selina Ho: Well, first of all, Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing economic areas in the whole world, economic region. It is vibrant. There is economic transition in terms of growth to this part of the world is one of the fastest growing regions. So it does benefit Americans to look at, to pay more attention to Southeast Asia.
That’s one reason. The other reason is that the battlefield in terms of U.S.-China competition is going to be Southeast Asia, primarily because this is the area that’s closest to China. It is you know, its traditional backyard, historical backyard, right, where the Chinese have most influence, whether it’s cultural, whether it’s economic. But the interesting thing is that even though America is not a resident power, it is a Asia-Pacific power or Indo-Pacific powers, as you know, the region has been renamed, as having the identity as an Indo-Pacific power, because its interests will translate to this part of the world.
We have two American allies among Southeast Asian countries, Thailand and the Philippines and, you know, other American allies nearby, South Korea and Japan. And Hawaii is not far away. And Taiwan is definitely also part of the region very close by. America has a strategic interest in this part of the world. So it’s both economic and strategic reasons, imperatives for Americans to pay attention to Southeast Asia and Southeast Asia’s relations with China.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Yeah, that’s really great. Just kind of one last question. You’ve talked about what makes China an attractive partner to Southeast Asia. You know, China has grown very quickly, [and] there aren’t many strings attached to its investment. Presumably, there are things that China is offering the region that no other country is capable or is willing to offer yet. And maybe the United States, you know, is included in that as well.
But in your view, what can the United States do to be a better partner for Southeast Asian countries? So, what is it that Southeast Asian countries are looking for that the United States has the capability to provide? Maybe even the unique capability to provide?
Selina Ho: That’s a great question. And that is, I think, something that the region has been sending messages to United States about. I think to these are three key messages that we have sent to the United States. First, you have to move beyond security because it is the interests of this part of the world, countries in this region, to think about economic growth.
And I think that the United States need to move beyond security, think about economic benefits to the region. So it was a huge disappointment when the United States did not ratify the TPP. The U.S. has now put up the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, IPEF, but IPEF does not give market access to countries, which is one of the greatest advantages of TPP. So I think the United States needs to present a more robust economic choice for the region. So the region doesn’t over-rely on one country, which is China. So that’s one thing, economics, be more of an economic provider and moving beyond security.
The second one is perhaps not to pressure countries in the region to choose sides because, you know, countries will make decisions based on their national interest. Too much pressure either from either superpower, from the United States or China is going to create a backlash. So it would actually behoove the United States to just not make calls for choosing sides, because countries will not choose sides as far as they can and then, you know, there’s a possibility of a backlash.
The third, I think, message that has been consistently sent to the Americans is that you have to be present to be a reliable partner. As I mentioned just now, in East Asia, the United States has four security partners. Now, obviously, there has been questions about reliability of the U.S. as an ally, especially for countries like Thailand, a long term ally, but whose domestic politics is not something that America likes to see. And we know what happened when the military took over in 2014. There were sanctions imposed on Thailand, which is an ally. Now understandably from American value viewpoints, this is something that they preferred not to see. But I think there’s a need to recognize that there are certain expectations when you’re ally of a state, you would expect that the country they allied with would actually help to ensure your regime stability, your regime legitimacy. So I think the U.S. will have to emphasize less on human rights, be more reliable as a as a partner, a security partner, even for a country like Japan.
Obviously, when Trump came in, there were all these questions about making our allies pay. Biden does not do that. Biden has—the Biden administration has tried to build up these alliances, knowing how important these alliances are for us global power. And I think that’s something that United States needs to continue doing, to be present, to be a reliable partner, attend regional meetings.
So these three messages that the region has been sending to the United States, first, to move beyond security, think about how economically you can bring benefits to the region, how to be an alternative to provide an alternative choice to China as a partner. The second is to not pressure countries to choose sides because that will create a backlash. Number three, to be present and to be a reliable partner.
Prayuj Pushkarna: Thank you so much, Dr. Ho, for laying out those points so clearly. I know this conversation has been very enriching for me, and I hope for our audience as well.