from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Southeast Asian Perspectives on U.S.-China Competition

Insights From a CFR-Lowy Institute Workshop

June 21, 2016


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Competition between the United States and a rising China has shaped the contours of global politics, security, and economics since the beginning of the twenty-first century. However, the perspectives of Southeast Asian countries, where this great power rivalry has far-reaching consequences, are often overlooked.

To acquire a more nuanced understanding of Southeast Asian views of U.S.-China competition across a range of issues—including maritime disputes, trade and investment, and transnational security challenges—the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Lowy Institute for International Policy convened prominent scholars, think tank representatives, and current and former government officials for a workshop in Singapore on April 3–5, 2016.  The report, which you can download here, summarizes the discussion's highlights. The report reflects the views of workshop participants alone; CFR takes no position on policy issues. 

Framing Questions for the Workshop

The Role of the United States and China in Southeast Asia

What role do Southeast Asian states want the United States and China to play in the region? How do their visions compare with those of the United States and China for the region? To what extent should the United States continue to exert leadership in Southeast Asia? How do different Southeast Asian states view the rise of China? Is China perceived as a regional security threat or as a potential economic partner? Should a leading Southeast Asian state, or ASEAN members collectively, seek to balance the United States and China in the region?

Regional Trade and Investment Architecture

What is the best regional trade and investment architecture for Southeast Asia? Do Southeast Asian states see the Transpacific Partnership; the One Belt, One Road initiative; and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as competing or complementary? How do they view the rise of new institutions, such as China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS’ New Development Bank? To what extent can the United States and China cooperate economically in the region?

Regional Maritime Issues

What are the priorities of Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea? How do Southeast Asian states view China’s activities in the South China Sea? What are the prerequisites for concluding a binding South China Sea Code of Conduct among China and ASEAN members? What steps should the United States, China, and Southeast Asian states take to strengthen communication, reduce tensions, decrease the risk of accidents, and prevent the unintentional escalation of conflict in the South China Sea? What role should the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), play in arbitrating maritime disputes among regional actors? To what degree does the failure of the United States to ratify UNCLOS undermine its credibility in the region?

Transnational Security Issues in Southeast Asia

What are the domestic and transnational security concerns of Southeast Asian states? How do states in the region view U.S. and Chinese counterterrorism policies? To what degree is the threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia linked to events in the Middle East and North Africa? What are the other domestic and transnational security concerns of Southeast Asian States? How can the United States and China help Southeast Asian states build their capacities to confront their most pressing security concerns?

The Future of ASEAN

In light of competition between the United States and China, what role should ASEAN play in promoting regional order, economic prosperity, and security? How do recent measures to institutionalize ASEAN bolster its capacity to do so? What are the prospects for further integration among ASEAN member states? To what extent should ASEAN partner with, or balance against, the United States and China? Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s summit with ASEAN leaders in February, what are the prospects for intensified U.S.-ASEAN cooperation, and what are the regional implications vis-à-vis China?


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