Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned today at the conclusion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit that Southeast nations may have to choose between the US and China: “I think it’s very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I am hoping that it’s not coming soon.”Lee’s remarks highlighted a deep sense of unease in the region, where concern is growing about being caught in the middle of escalating economic and security rivalry between the two powers.
US President Donald Trump’s absence from the two high-profile Asian summits this week – Asean and also Apec in Papua New Guinea – has raised questions as to America’s right to be a leader in the region, at a time when China is angling to supplant it.
But Pence said the US saw Asean as an “irreplaceable strategic partner”.In a veiled swipe at China’s rising military strength in the South China Sea, he said: “We all agree that empire and aggression has no place in the Indo-Pacific. “Let me be clear, though: our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that nations treat their neighbours with respect, and respect the sovereignty of our nations and international rules and order.”
The ongoing trade war between the two countries “would hurt the superpowers but it would be more ominous” for Southeast Asia, writes Derwin Pereira for South China Morning Post. “The choice would no longer be between capitalism and communism: it would be between two versions of capitalism, each determined to prove the other aberrant.”
The region’s “more autocratic states would veer towards China, while their democratic counterparts would look to the US,” but, Pereira argues, “any hope that the US-China trade war will encourage Asian democracies to embrace the US is misplaced.”
China has modernized its military “to recapture historical space lost to the imperial West… It may succeed, or it may not.” Meanwhile, “Asean nations, which have no common defence policy, will have to choose which side of the Sino-American military contest to be on. Their economic instincts will help them make choices, but there is no knowing which side will prevail.”