CLM Insights Interview with David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh, author of Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press, 2021)
You argue in the book that Southeast Asia is the epicenter of U.S.-China strategic competition. Can you briefly explain why you think so?
I proceed from the premise, and I believe in general, that the United States and China are now locked into indefinite comprehensive competition—across all functional domains (political systems, diplomacy, commerce, security, military, espionage, ideology, values, science and technology, education and research, public diplomacy, soft power, culture, media, governance practices, and global governance) as well as all regions of the world. This is the overriding defining characteristic of international relations today. This is a reality that both powers and the world must accept as the “new normal” and will have to adjust to well into the future. So, that is my starting point which is the backdrop to the study.
The reason I describe Southeast Asia as the “epicenter” refers to both dimensions of this competition—it is geographically concentrated in and functionally comprehensive across the region. U.S.-China competition is evident throughout many other regions of the world, but not as comprehensively as it is in Southeast Asia. The two powers are each engaged and competing for influence throughout both continental and maritime Southeast Asia and they are trying to expand their footprints in each individual country as well as vis-à-vis ASEAN as an institution.
Thus, Southeast Asia represents a perfect microcosm of U.S.-China global competition. While other regions of the world may experience some of these areas of competition, Southeast Asia has them all.
What is the current strategic thinking in China about Southeast Asia? What do Chinese strategic thinkers get right? What are their blind spots or erroneous assumptions?
This is an interesting question. Oddly enough, especially given the overall importance of the region and China’s proximity to it, I find that Southeast Asia is not at all that central in Beijing’s thinking or diplomacy. It is certainly not unimportant, but I am surprised that it is not a higher priority for the Chinese government. The relative lack of government attention parallels a relative dearth of research and scholarship on the region in China. Beijing’s many think tanks have precious little expertise on Southeast Asia. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has individual research institutes on every region of the world, but none on Southeast Asia. China’s main expertise on Southeast Asia resides at six southern universities (Xiamen University being the best).
Reading the internal publications written by China’s Southeast Asia hands, they seem preoccupied by several things. First, they are fixated on the role of the United States in the region. Second, they prioritize ASEAN as an institution—which leads to viewing the region holistically rather than in a variegated fashion. There are precious few books or articles that dive deeply into the complexities of individual countries. While there are studies of national economies, I came across virtually no sources that analyze domestic political parties, ethnic groups, civil society and the public sphere, intellectual trends, educational systems, indigenous cultures, or other particularities in individual countries. I also find that China has a relatively poor feel for the extraordinary diversity and on-the-ground realities of the eleven Southeast Asian countries (Timor-Leste is not yet a member of ASEAN). Third, the Chinese exhibit virtually no awareness of the ambivalence and suspicions that many Southeast Asians hold about China—it is as if they believe their own narratives about Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny,” “traditional friendship,” and other propaganda tropes. They show little consciousness of how imperial China’s historical thrust into “Nanyang” is viewed or how Beijing’s destabilizing support for regional communist parties during the 1960s and 1970s is remembered—much less the longstanding sensitivities surrounding the overseas Chinese in the region or China’s totalistic claims to the South China Sea and island-building and military installations there.
This lack of self-awareness and knowledge concerning the diversity and details across the region has led China to have numerous “blind spots”: the particularities of individual societies, the nuanced diplomacy of regional states, the sensitivities about ethnic Chinese, local environmental concerns about Belt & Road projects, security concerns surrounding the South China Sea, and the sheer economic heft and geostrategic size of China.
What are China’s key interests and priority issues in the region? What tools does China have to pursue these interests? Can you comment in particular on BRI?
I would say that China’s principal interest in the region is to draw the region within its own sphere of influence, a kind of de facto hegemony in which Beijing has preponderant influence and exercises an essential “veto power” over the regional states’ dealings with other external actors (and even with each other). Like the “tribute system” of old, such aspirational hegemony operates primarily on the “soft” instruments of power—economics, culture, and deference—not necessarily through military coercion (although China’s rapidly developing hard power “sticks” backstop its soft power “carrots”).
In terms of the instruments that China has in its “toolbox” I actually inventory these methodically and in considerable detail in the book. To put it simply, China’s strengths are its size, proximity, and money. Beijing showers the region with money and commercial projects—including through the BRI—and its enormous continental location hovers over the region daily. I cannot tell you how many Southeast Asians with whom I spoke pointed their finger into the sky to illustrate that China was always “up there” to the north.
The book also explores and demonstrates the numerous weaknesses that China has in the region. The biggest weakness is, ironically, precisely China’s close proximity and its outsized economic presence. A second notable weakness is an almost complete lack of security partnerships and military linkages. Those that China does have are miniscule and limited largely to arms sales and some training with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. China’s regional security presence is dwarfed by that of the United States. I also found China’s soft power to be substantially lacking (paralleling other regions of the world). Even among the Chinese diaspora it is uneven—but otherwise only really in Thailand does one find a significant Chinese cultural presence. Finally, Beijing’s diplomats are sometimes heavy-handed and manipulative of regional governments and the ASEAN Secretariat.
So, unlike some other analysts, I am not of the view that China dominates Southeast Asia. I find, and the book elaborates on in considerable detail, just how uneven China’s presence and influence are—and how Southeast Asians generally view it with deep ambivalence and substantial suspicion.
What are China’s competitive advantages vis-à-vis the U.S. in Southeast Asia? What are its disadvantages? How is China trying to compensate for its disadvantages? China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea seem to be its biggest liability. Can Beijing really improve its strategic competitiveness in the region without making substantial concessions on its claims?
I have just noted what I see to be China’s competitive advantages and disadvantages in the region. I would only add that Beijing has a “tin ear” and lives in its own propaganda bubble and echo chamber—which means it is not well-attuned to how it is viewed in the region (I would also argue that this is a global phenomenon). Beijing does not have its “ear to the ground” and its collection of intelligence in the region is questionable (paralleling the analytical myopia noted above). It tends to rely on “united front” activities, which inevitably are focused on commercial and political elites as awell as the Chinese diaspora—rather than understanding local suspicions and discontent, civil society, political trends, ethnic politics, and other particularities of Southeast Asian societies. The 2011 Mitsone dam incident in Myanmar and the 2017 Malaysian pushback on BRI projects are just two examples of Beijing’s inattention and lack of understanding of local sentiments.
You also ask about China’s South China Sea claims and say it seems to be Beijing’s “biggest liability.” It is a liability, but not necessarily the biggest one in the eyes of Southeast Asians. It seems to matter more here in the United States than it does in the region. The five Southeast Asian claimant countries are certainly troubled by China’s exaggerated and inflexible position as well as by the island-building and positioning of military equipment on seven “land features”—yet there seems to be a general attitude of acquiescence of “what can we do about it?” But it only adds to other underlying sources of suspicion toward China.
Which countries in the region are pivotal to Chinese interests? Do you see a coherent Chinese strategy in dealing with the countries in the region according to their strategic importance?
Thailand is absolutely central to China’s regional ambitions and interests. Malaysia is also important. If Beijing can “swing” Thailand fully into its sphere of influence and away from its “alliance” with the United States, then it will have gained a significant foothold in continental Southeast Asia (and it has made significant strides in doing this in recent years). Cambodia is already China’s client state, with Laos not far behind, while Myanmar has slipped back into Beijing’s fold following the 2011–2016 period. So, if you add Thailand to this list, China could conceivably dominate all of continental Southeast Asia (other than Vietnam). Maritime Southeast Asia is more complicated and China’s influence there varies a lot by country—it is quite deep in Brunei and across Malaysia, mixed in Singapore, but I see Indonesia and the Philippines as having deep suspicions about China (Presidents Duterte and Jokowi notwithstanding).
How is ASEAN as a whole responding to the escalating tensions between China and the U.S.? Do you see differentiated approaches by the most influential members of ASEAN?
As a whole, it is fair to say that the ASEAN states’ reaction to the escalating competition between the U.S. and China is for the most part one of anxiety. There is a lot of handwringing that goes on about China’s growing presence throughout the region. Most Southeast Asians do not “wish to choose” or to be put into a position where they may have to choose between the two powers—and several Southeast Asian leaders (most notably Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong) explicitly say so. Southeast Asians are masters of “hedging” behavior, their “sweet spot” lies somewhere in the middle between the U.S. and China—and they are quite comfortable navigating back-and-forth between the two while trying to maximize benefits from both (as well as from other Asian and external countries such as Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, and the European Union).
The annual 2020 “State of Southeast Asia” survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore captured this very well recently when it asked respondents how ASEAN should best respond to increased U.S.-China regional rivalry. Nearly half (48%) answered that “ASEAN should enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers,” while 31.3% said ASEAN “should continue its position of not siding with the U.S. or China.” That strong majority of 79.3% argued for regional autonomy in the face of superpower competition. Adding to this consensus, 14.7% said that ASEAN “should seek out ‘third parties’ to broaden its strategic space and options.” A tiny fraction of 3.1% responded that “ASEAN has to choose between one of the two major powers,” while 2.9% said that ASEAN “should keep both China and the U.S. out of the region.”
This is the general characteristic I would observe. But when one digs down into each country’s individual case—as I do in four chapters in the book—you find a lot of variation and differentiation among the various countries.
What are the two or three regional developments in the next decade that could tip the balance in the U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia?
I think the most significant potential developments lie with each of the two major powers themselves rather than with any of the regional countries. The biggest potential development I envision is China overreaching in its presence and behavior throughout the region and in individual countries. China definitely has the capacity to be its own worst enemy in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere). As noted above, China’s government has a relatively low level of real understanding of the dynamics in other societies, is frequently insensitive to others’ perceptions and concerns, does not listen well or take criticism constructively, and does not tend to recalibrate its policies and behavior as a consequence. Its proximity is ever-so-close to Southeast Asia and its footprint is broadening and deepening. So, I think that China’s own behavior will likely be the most important variable going forward.
The second most important variable I foresee is the behavior of the United States. If China’s greatest problem is potential overreach, America’s greatest challenge is relative inattention and underperformance. Since the Vietnam War, during numerous administrations (except Obama’s) Washington has demonstrated a repetitive pattern of episodic engagement and benign neglect of Southeast Asia. This is not because of the regional actors (as, for the most part, they want the United States present and engaged on multiple levels)—rather, it has to do with the “tyranny of distance,” other competing and seemingly more important regional priorities in other parts of the world, complacency, and a failure to recognize the strategic significance of the region. The Trump administration reverted to this pattern after inheriting the best position the U.S. has ever had in the region. We will see if the Biden administration prioritizes and reengages intensively with the region, as it should—or whether it continues the pattern of “fly in, fly out diplomacy.”
While I argue in the book that Washington’s episodic diplomatic attention is one of the weakest links in America’s position in the region, I found in other spheres that the United States actually possesses across-the-board strengths. Its military presence and network of security partners run wide and deep. Its soft power—particularly in popular culture and education—remains very appealing. Its commercial presence is longstanding and huge. Over 4,200 U.S. companies now operate throughout the region. ASEAN is now America’s fourth largest trading partner worldwide, with $303 billion in trade in 2017 (the last year in which a combined figure for goods and services is available). This does not rival China’s $587.87 billion in 2018, but U.S.-ASEAN trade levels are not insignificant. More impressive, and a little known or appreciated fact, concerns America’s direct investment in ASEAN, the total stock of which reached $329 billion in 2019—greater than China, Japan, and South Korea combined! Even on an annual basis American FDI in the region is almost double that of China—$24.9 billion vs. $13.7 billion in 2017, according to ASEAN statistics.
So, when examined empirically, the United States is no shrinking violet in Southeast Asia. Yet, one would not know this when traveling around the region and consuming regional media—where the narratives are dominated by the meme that China is the predominant power in Southeast Asia. Counterintuitively, my book concludes that China is an “overestimated power” whereas the U.S. is an “underappreciated power.”
About the Author
David Shambaugh is an internationally recognized authority and award-winning author on contemporary China and the international relations of Asia. He currently is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, and the founding Director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. From 1996-2015 he was also a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. Professor Shambaugh was also previously Reader in Chinese Politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), where he also served as Editor of The China Quarterly. He has served on the Board of Directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Asia-Pacific Council, and other public policy and scholarly organizations.
 Similarly, this is paralleled by a similar dearth of expertise on China throughout Southeast Asian universities and think tanks. Only Vietnam and Singapore have a serious capacity to analyze China. Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand have just a smattering of experts. Expertise in Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar on China is altogether absent.  See the chapters in David Shambaugh, ed., China & the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).  ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, The State of Southeast Asia 2020 Survey Report, question 25: https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/TheStateofSEASurveyReport_2020.pdf.  See Joseph Chinyong Liow, Ambivalent Engagement: The United States and Regional Security in East Asia After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).  United States Trade Representative, “U.S.-ASEAN-10 Trade and Investment Facts,” https://ustr.gov/issue-areas/trade-organizations/association-southeast-asian-nations-asean/us-asean-10-trade-and.  Xinhua, “China-ASEAN Trade Continues to Boom Amid Global Growth Slowdown, Uncertainties,” https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201907/23/WS5d367792a310d8305640082a.html.  Flows of Inward Foreign Investment (FDI) into ASEAN by Source Country (in million US$) (2017), https://data.aseanstats.org/fdi-by-hosts-and-sources.