An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft prepares to land aboard the USS Essex in the Philippine Sea

commentary

(The National Interest)

March 17, 2015

China and America's Coming Battle for Southeast Asia

An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft prepares to land aboard the USS Essex in the Philippine Sea

Photo by MC3 Casey H. Kyhl/U.S. Navy

by Peter Chalk

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has declared its intent to establish a fully integrated Community that extends across the economic, political, security and social realms by the end of 2015. Such a regional arrangement would, for the first time, provide the countries of Southeast Asia with a single regime of intergovernmental collaboration that can be used to draft, implement and refine joint policies and courses of action. That would greatly facilitate future proactive planning and aid the development of comprehensive and codified forms of supranational cooperation and governance.

The main aim of those changes is to better situate ASEAN to achieve its core goal of “centrality” — a term coined to emphasize how internal cohesion can be leveraged to both advance economic progress and manage the Association's relations with external partners.

One external variable that's likely to bear heavily on the trajectory of the proposed ASEAN community is the influence of an increasingly assertive People's Republic of China (PRC). The country is now the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific and its ties with the Association have grown substantially over the past 25 years. Both factors imbue Beijing with a real potential to sway the future course of ASEAN integration.

In economic terms, the PRC's overall impact is likely to be largely positive. Since the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2003, bilateral fiscal and commerce relations have boomed and over the past decade the two-way flow of goods and services has increased more than six-fold — topping $400 million in 2013. The growth and prosperity of ASEAN and China will be highly contingent on further expanding that mutually beneficial economic partnership, something the two sides no doubt fully appreciate.

In the political and security realm, there's far less certainty in ASEAN perceptions of China. This is especially true with regards to the PRC's strategic intentions in Southeast Asia. Concerns that anti-access/area denial platforms may be used to restrict access in the South China Sea or to institute a regional order that's determined in Beijing could encourage ASEAN's littoral states to look to Washington — rather than the Association itself — as the ultimate guarantor of national and wider defense in this part of the world....

The remainder of this commentary is available on nationalinterest.org.


Peter Chalk is an adjunct senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation in the US. This post complements his ASPI Strategy paper published today called ASEAN ascending: achieving “centrality” in the emerging Asian order. This article originally appeared on ASPI's The Strategist.

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on March 16, 2015. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.