When elephants fight, do ants always get hurt? –U.S.-China competition, choices for Southeast Asian countries

South and Southeast Asia have recently become the latest battleground in the U.S.-China rivalry. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just concluded a visit to South and Southeast Asia. Prior to that, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, which is responsible for foreign affairs, also visited the region. In Southeast Asia, there is a popular proverb, “When elephants fight, ants suffer.” The phrase has also been used by some to describe the future fate of relatively small countries in Southeast and South Asia in the U.S.-China confrontation. However, analysts point out that these smaller countries are not waiting hopelessly for their fate, they are more or less in the “balance” (balancing) or “hedging” (hedging) strategy, some even “Manipulate” the big powers to protect their own interests and avoid becoming victims of “great power competition”.

Vietnam: Pulling up the US “heavy hedge” against China’s risks

Pompeo wrapped up his visit to Vietnam on Friday (Oct. 30). Vietnam was not originally on the itinerary of Pompeo’s South and Southeast Asia trip. Vietnamese media reported that Pompeo’s trip was temporarily added at the invitation of Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

In a statement released by the U.S. State Department on October 29 about the trip, Pompeo demonstrated U.S. support for a “strong, prosperous and independent” Vietnam. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, our partnership is stronger than ever,” Pompeo tweeted after meeting with Pham Binh Minh.

Building a “stronger” relationship with the US “is one of the most important ways Vietnam is using its “hedging” strategy to deal with the growing threat from China. Not only Vietnam, but also most Southeast Asian countries have adopted similar “counterbalance” or “hedge” strategies to avoid falling victim to U.S.-China confrontation.

The term “hedging” is originally a financial term that refers to an investment strategy aimed at reducing risk. In international relations, it is used to explain the strategy that a country adopts to avoid risk. In general, hedging strategies refer to a combination of engagement and counterbalancing strategies, rather than simply “counterbalancing” or “following” a relatively small country in the face of the rise of a neighboring power.

Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow at the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. He told VOA: “It’s clear that it’s very difficult for Vietnam to confront China without some kind of support from the United States behind them.”

Vietnam and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan, claim majority or partial sovereignty over the South China Sea region. Because Vietnam occupies the most islands in the South China Sea, it has the most conflicts with China in its disputes. This year, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have rammed Vietnamese fishing boats several times. Vietnam has also protested against China’s frequent military exercises in the South China Sea region.

In a statement from the US State Department, the US once again made its position on the South China Sea issue clear. The statement reiterated Pompeo’s statement issued on July 13 this year, clearly declared that the United States side considers Beijing’s claim to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea “completely illegal”, and rejects China’s maritime claims to the waters around Van An Beach off the coast of Vietnam. The statement said: “The United States is prepared to take firm action to resist China’s bullying.”

David Lampton, a leading U.S. expert on China, said that in great power competition, driven by multiple interests, small countries are not just passive adaptation or acceptance, they will seek to cooperate with the party that can help them maximize their interests, and they can even “manipulate” the big powers.

He says: “When the big powers compete, smaller countries have the ability to identify the highest bidder for their priority development projects, which gives them a degree of freedom of choice.”

Lambton has just completed a new book with two other authors, Rivers of Iron Railroads, High-Speed Rail Networks and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia. By examining China’s efforts to build a “Trans-Asian Railway Network” in Southeast Asia, the book reveals the political strengths and weaknesses of the project while also demonstrating that Southeast Asian countries have the ability to reject, influence and even “manipulate” China in this endeavor. Lampton said, not only Vietnam, even the smaller Cambodia can do so.

In recent years, Vietnam and the United States have been getting closer and closer. Twice in the past three years, Vietnam has invited U.S. aircraft carriers to visit Da Nang, Vietnam. Last year, Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Vietnam for the first time to highlight the growing US-Vietnam security relationship.In 2020, Washington also invited Vietnam for the second time in a row to participate in this year’s Pacific Rim (RIMPAC) exercise. In addition, the U.S. has mobilized two Hamilton-class coastal patrol vessels to help strengthen Vietnam’s Coast Guard capabilities, and on July 22, Vietnam and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding on fisheries cooperation in the South China Sea, which includes strengthening Vietnam’s law enforcement capabilities.

Vietnam also recently followed the U.S. lead by banning Huawei 5G in Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Pompeo discussed resource issues in the Mekong River basin with Vietnamese officials. Vietnam also participates in the U.S.-sponsored Mekong-U.S. Partnership, which was launched on September 11 with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as the ASEAN Secretariat. China accused the U.S. of “constantly speculating on the Mekong River’s water resources, deliberately creating hot spots, provoking regional relations and undermining the atmosphere of Mekong-Mekong cooperation”. The Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang River, originates on the Tibetan Plateau and is known as the Mekong River after leaving the country through Yunnan Province.

The U.S. action also compelled Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to pay an official visit to Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand from Oct. 11 to 15, as well as a transit visit to Singapore, in a bid to consolidate relations with these countries.

Hibbert, a senior fellow at the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., stressed that the strengthening of U.S.-Vietnam relations is mutually necessary. With the further deterioration of U.S.-China relations, Vietnam’s position in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy has become more important due to its strategic location and growing strength.

Although the United States and Vietnam are getting closer, but, some analysts believe that, unlike India and Australia, Vietnam is only using “heavy hedging” (heavy hedging) strategy to respond to the Chinese threat, because Vietnam has not chosen to “overwhelmingly” back to the United States, but also cautiously promote relations with the United States.

There are reports that the United States wants to lease Vietnam’s military base in Cam Ranh Bay to strengthen military cooperation with Vietnam, but Vietnam has not yet agreed. Cam Ranh Bay controls the strategic shipping lanes linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

On November 25, 2019, Vietnam released the White Paper on Vietnam’s National Defense 2019, emphasizing, “Vietnam advocates not participating in military alliances, not joining forces with this country against another, not allowing foreign countries to establish military bases in Vietnam or use Vietnamese territory against other countries, and not using force or threatening to use force in international relations. “

For example, in July this year, after Pompeo’s position statement on the South China Sea, Vietnam did not behave cheerfully, but instead was slightly ambiguous. Vietnam did not even mention the name of the United States. A spokesman for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said, “Vietnam welcomes the positions of countries on the East Sea (Vietnam’s term for the South China Sea) issue in line with international law.”

On the other hand, Vietnam is also maintaining its relations with China. In 2017, China and Vietnam signed a memorandum of cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), however, advancing the initiative has never made significant progress in Vietnam.

Nor has Vietnam abandoned its socialist label. In view of this, some Chinese believe that maintaining peaceful and friendly diplomatic relations with China should always be a priority issue for Vietnam’s diplomacy. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese nationalist newspaper Global Times, even suggested that “Vietnamese comrades” take advantage of Pompeo’s visit to Vietnam to “teach him (Pompeo) a lesson to his face”.

Vietnam’s “hedging” of China’s risks is not limited to strengthening relations with the United States. In recent years, Vietnam has also strengthened ties with Japan, Australia and India. The United States is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, and Japan is the country’s largest donor. Japan’s new Prime Minister Kan’s first trip outside of the country has set destinations in Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam also has an ambitious common strategy with India. In addition, Vietnam has strengthened its ties with Russia.

Indonesia: “No” to both the US and China.

Indonesia is the penultimate stop on Pompeo’s tour of South and Southeast Asia. In a press conference after his meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Pompeo praised the Indonesian government for its courage in resisting China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

Indonesia and China are locked in tensions over the protection of fishing in the Natuna Islands, which are located in the southwestern part of the South China Sea. Indonesia has accused China of repeatedly sending coast guard vessels to escort fishing vessels to fish in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while China has asserted that its sovereignty in the South China Sea overlaps partially with Indonesia’s Natuna waters and that the Chinese fishermen’s fishing activities are “perfectly legal and reasonable”.

The Indonesian government has taken a tough stance against China on the issue of the Natuna Islands, not only writing to the UN Secretary General that China’s claims are not in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but also sending a number of warships and military aircraft to the region to defend its sovereignty. Indonesian President Joko also made a high-profile visit to Greater Natuna earlier this year, stressing that the Natuna Islands and its waters are Indonesian territory.

During the press conference, Retno also criticized China’s actions in the Natuna waters without naming names. However, she also stressed Indonesia’s “independent and free” foreign policy and said that Indonesia was not prepared to join the Washington-led campaign against Beijing.

Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow at the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, said Indonesia could be the one Southeast Asian country that “shuts out” both the U.S. and China. He believes Indonesia’s ability to do so has to do with the country’s geography, size, and culture of maintaining independence.

Indonesia does have a couple of advantages over other Southeast Asian countries on the continent,” he told VOA. Being farther away from China, that’s one. Second, it’s by far the largest country in Southeast Asia, with almost half the GDP of Southeast Asia. Indonesia is an important force, and Indonesia is also a member of the G20. It could be argued that Indonesians use religious fervor to try to avoid becoming overly dependent on any one country. “

This is not the first time Retno has stressed Indonesia’s neutrality between the United States and China. In an interview with Reuters on Sept. 8, she reminded the two powerful countries, “We don’t want to get into this confrontation.” She added that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) needed to remain steadfastly neutral and united.

Indonesia has rejected four times this year the request of the U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime anti-submarine patrol aircraft to land and refuel in Indonesia, the P-8 Poseidon is essential for the U.S. to closely monitor China’s military activities in the South China Sea. But the Indonesian government also rejected China’s idea of establishing military bases in Indonesia.

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto (Prabowo) visited the United States on October 15-19 at the invitation of U.S. Defense Secretary Esper after being banned from entering the country for 20 years, and discussed strengthening bilateral military ties and security cooperation with the U.S. However, the latest figures show that Indonesia’s P-8 “Poseidon” has been banned from the U.S. this year. But the latest figures also show that China became Indonesia’s second-largest investor in the first three quarters of this year, after Singapore and ahead of Japan.

In an effort to stay out of US-China competition, Indonesia, like Vietnam, has strengthened its ties with Japan, India and Australia. Like Vietnam, Indonesia is one of the destinations for new Japanese Prime Minister Kan’s first overseas trip.

Singapore: “Balancing actor” committed to balance

When it comes to maintaining a balance between the United States and China, Singapore is the “balancing champion” among Southeast Asian countries. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech to the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, on 28 July that Asian countries want to maintain friendly relations with the US and China at the same time.

Singapore’s “great power balancing act” can be traced back to the leadership of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said early on that the Asian countries wanted to maintain friendly relations with the US and China. As Lee Kuan Yew said long ago, “If elephants fight, the grass under their feet will suffer for no reason at all. For this reason, too, Lee Kuan Yew has been committed to maintaining a balance between the United States and China. For example, it was only in October 1990 that Singapore established diplomatic relations with China, and in November it signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation with the United States, providing it with naval and air bases.

At a time of tension between the United States and China, both Singapore and the United States have maintained relatively frequent contacts. Although Pompeo did not visit Singapore this time, Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, paid a special visit to Singapore on August 20. On October 11, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made another transit visit to Singapore.

On August 31, Singapore’s Minister of Defense Huang Yonghong and U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper held a video conference. At the end of the meeting, Singapore’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement emphasizing that it was essential for the United States to remain engaged in Asia and that Singapore and the United States would continue to work closely together in the military field.

Philippines: Getting a little tough on China lately

The Philippines is an ally of the United States, but since the current Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, came to power, the Philippines has deliberately distanced itself from the United States and sought to reduce its military dependence on it. Not only did Duterte speak of “separation from the United States” during Obama’s term, but in February 2020, he also terminated the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, a framework that gave the United States the right to station troops, fighter jets, and other weapons on Philippine soil.

On the other hand, in exchange for Chinese investment and support, Duterte, who came to power after the South China Sea arbitration ruling, set aside the ruling in favor of the Philippines and showed a clear gesture of conciliation.

In April 2020, the Philippines expressed its “deep concern” over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea, and expressed its solidarity with Vietnam.

In July, following the release of the latest U.S. position on the South China Sea, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lozenzana said the Philippines fully agrees with the U.S. position on the issue.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on 22 September, Duterte said that the outcome of the South China Sea arbitration is already part of international law and that the Philippines would not compromise with China and that it “resolutely opposes any attempt to weaken it”.

At the same time, the Philippines has also strengthened its ties with Japan, and has even offered an olive branch to Russia.

Malaysia and Thailand: “soft counterbalance”, or “light hedge” against China

Hibbert, a senior fellow in the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has also recently published a new book entitled In Beijing’s Shadow: The China Challenge in Southeast Asia. In the book, he calls Malaysia and Thailand’s strategy toward Beijing “soft balancing.

Thailand is one of the U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, but it has been cooperating with China. According to Hibbert, Thailand has demonstrated a “soft balancing” strategy against China during the “Sino-Thai railway” negotiations.

The China-Thailand Railway in Thailand is an important part of Beijing’s “Trans-Asian Railway Network” in Southeast Asia and an important part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” project. On October 28, after more than a year and 30 rounds of negotiations, the two countries finally signed a contract for the first phase of the Sino-Thai railway project (Bangkok – Korat section).

Hibbert described the Thais as “masters of the wind” who know exactly what to do for themselves. The Thais are masters, they move with the wind, they move in all directions,” he said. I think their attitude towards the Chinese has cooled. Their resistance to the Chinese on the issue of building a railway is very telling. They’re not giving the Chinese a lot.”

Kuik Cheng-Chwee, another author of Steel Rivers, High-Speed Rail Networks and China’s Influence in Southeast Asia and an associate professor in the Department of Strategic Studies and International Relations at the National University of Malaysia, agrees that the Thais are well versed in the “hedging” strategy.

We have seen the Thais in particular bringing the Japanese into the picture when negotiating the Bangkok-Nongkai railway with the Chinese,” he says.

Malaysia, which shares China’s claim to the South China Sea, should theoretically take a tough approach to China, but has always responded to Beijing’s threats in a non-direct, low-key manner. Hibbert sees this as a “soft counterbalance”,” Hibbert says.

They are less likely to stand up to China,” says Hibbert. Last year and this year, China harassed Malaysian ships for months, and they didn’t tell the media, they didn’t say anything. They do have military exercises with the US, but they are very economically dependent on China and they participate in several ‘One Belt, One Road’ projects. They rarely say anything critical of China. Although they also engage in military cooperation with the United States, they have a cooler attitude with the United States.”

In April this year, China’s “Marine Geology VIII” near an exploration vessel operated by the Malaysian national oil company, the United States sent three warships to intervene “to carry out the mission”, an Australian warship later joined in. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo accused China of using the epidemic to “coerce its South China Sea neighbors”, but Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin said that any dispute in the South China Sea should be resolved through peaceful means.

However, Malaysia’s first defense white paper released in 2020 described China’s activities in the South China Sea in recent years as “occupation” and “militarization,” “radical actions.

On October 10, Malaysian marine police detained six Chinese fishing boats and 60 fishermen on board in waters near the country’s Johor state for failing to provide documentation of permission to fish in Malaysian waters.

Kuo Qingshui of the National University of Malaysia recently mentioned in one of his articles that many Malaysians believe that it is outrageous that a great country like China, which is thousands of kilometers away, is claiming sovereignty over coral reefs and atolls that are only a few dozen nautical miles from the Malaysian coastline. The constant presence of Chinese ships in Malaysian waters is a betrayal of Malaysia’s long-standing policy of friendship with China.

Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar: the “little ants” bargaining with the “elephant”.

Cambodia and Laos have long been considered hard-core “followers” of China. Both countries have signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Building a Community of Destiny” with China, and their long-standing close ties with China have led some to view them as China’s proxies in ASEAN.

Bilahari Kausikan, a retired Singaporean diplomat, said in an ASEAN webinar on Oct. 23 that the attitude of Laos and Cambodia toward China in the South China Sea dispute will influence ASEAN’s development, and that “moderate consideration” must be given to kicking out the two countries.

During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Cambodia on October 12, the two sides also signed a free trade agreement (FTA), which is also the first FTA signed by Cambodia. But even Cambodia has joined the US Mekong-US partnership.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s University of Chulalongkorn University, has told VOA that the five Mekong countries want to avoid overdependence on Chinese aid, in particular By controlling the dams upstream of the river, China would dry up the land in Southeast Asia, which is downstream. He said, “What the United States provides is an offset, a counterbalance.” None of these countries, he said, wants to be controlled by China.

Weak Laos, too, has won negotiations with China over high-speed rail. Hibbert of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “They had five years of negotiations with China, which led to the Chinese cutting their interest rates, reducing their demands, and giving the Laotians a say in how much land is used on either side of the high-speed rail.”

Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu port is the centerpiece of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a major link in the Belt and Road. To avoid falling into a debt trap, the Myanmar government has scaled back its investment in the deep-water port project, cutting the cost from $7.2 billion to $1.3 billion.

Brunei is a sovereignty claimant in the South China Sea, but has always had close relations with China.