‘Demonising’ China could backfire on US in Southeast Asia, report warns

Liu Zhen

Donald Trump’s administration should stop “demonising” China’s actions in Southeast Asia because forcing countries in the region to choose between Beijing and Washington could backfire, a US think tank has suggested.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have largely been “like-minded” in resisting American pressure to distance themselves from China and prefer to keep a constructive relationship with both sides, a report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution argued.

“The administration’s constant demonisation of China isn’t serving US interests: it creates … the impression that Washington is fomenting a new cold war that could marginalise Washington and play into Chinese hands,” said the report.

It compared the current economic strength of the two countries in the region, saying that the US is the top foreign direct investor and important security contributor, while China is the No 1 trading partner and dominant economic driving power.

It also argued that the Trump administration’s current China policy of pushing for a broader economic decoupling was risky and “the nightmare scenario for Asean countries”.

The report also pointed out that China’s fast-growing economic influence has surpassed the US in many areas – especially in infrastructure thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative, which the White House has criticised for being “aggressive and predatory” and a potential “debt trap” to participating nations.

But the report said that for many of Beijing’s neighbours, the main sentiment was just one of “China is here”.

The report said China’s Belt and Road Initiative had given it an edge over the US in spheres such as infrastructure. Photo: Reuters

While they were worried about China’s goal of creating a sphere of influence through economic and military means, like the militarisation of the South China Sea – where many countries have competing claims – the report argued that many Asean countries also had concerns about America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

“Unfortunately for Washington, China’s loss isn’t America’s gain in the trust department,” it said.

The report suggested that the US government should adjust its Southeast Asia policy by supporting home-grown regional initiatives, deepening bilateral relations with emerging partners like Vietnam, accelerating infrastructure coordination with allies and partners, and even appointing a US special envoy for infrastructure based in the region.

It also suggested that the US should re-engage China on regional and global issues and organise some degree of cooperation, but take a tough stance when Beijing defies international law, violates human rights or engages in unfair trade practices.

“Looking ahead in Asia, it is time for the United States to behave again as a confident nation that is secure in its own values and principles, not as a reactive power whose actions and diplomatic statements come in response to China’s every move,” the report said.

It continued that the Asean countries were more acutely aware of China’s rise than others, and were a valuable testing ground for future power games between the two sides in arenas such as Africa and Latin America.

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