The meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali on Tuesday rightly attracted world headlines. But why did they meet in Southeast Asia, and not Washington or Beijing or a venue between?
Why did the leaders of the East Asia Summit, the G20, and APEC also choose to meet there in a diplomacy-intensive week? And why did the Southeast Asia leaders welcome them?
The answer is that Southeast Asia is increasingly significant geopolitically. Whereas, Northeast Asian stability is relatively fixed in the post-World War II US and Chinese hegemonic framework, Southeast Asia is still fluid in its relationships. The Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore lean towards the West but Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar prefer close association with China. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei attempt to steer more neutral courses, albeit with pragmatic policy zigs and zags to one side or the other.
It is in Southeast Asia that China has the most to gain, and the US has the most to lose. This rivalry for geo-political influence explains why the presidents of both China and the US have travelled to the region this week, far from home, to assert their respective interests and firm up their partnerships. For China this means access to exports and raw materials and promotion of the Belt and Road infrastructure projects, particularly the Ream port-cum-naval support base at Cambodia’s Gulf of Thailand coast, and asserting its claims to the South China Sea in defiance of UNCLOS [UN Conference on the Law of the Sea] entitlements by Vietnam, Philippines, and three other states.
For the US this means reversing Trump-era neglect of the region, asserting freedom of navigation and air routes, and implementing an ambitious programme of aid, economic co-operation, and military deployment. The Biden Administration has given Southeast Asia renewed prominence in its latest National Security Strategy. Washington hosted a US-ASEAN Special Summit in May and has just signed up to a new US-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
The new partnership foreshadows maritime co-operation, connectivity, Millennium Development Goals, and economic co-operation; and it sets up five new working dialogues on health, education, women’s empowerment, environment and climate change. Washington has pledged nearly one billion US dollars to aid projects in the coming years, and with rare bipartisan agreement has extended diplomatic immunity to ASEAN officials.
Great power rivalry aside, Southeast Asia is important in its own right. Demographically, Southeast Asians make up one-tenth of humanity. Indonesia is the planet’s fourth most populous country and largest Muslim country. Singapore is a model of an efficient and wealthy city-state. The waters of the region are rich in oil, gas, and fish, their lands produce minerals and foods, and their skilled workforces produce manufactured goods. Poverty and illiteracy are almost unknown. Southeast Asia’s 10 countries are collectively New Zealand’s fourth most valuable trade partner, below only China, Australia, and the United States and ahead of Japan, South Korea and Great Britain. New Zealand has been engaged diplomatically, militarily, and in development and education co-operation for over half a century and has a free trade agreement, just upgraded, with the region.
The region has its problems, but they are being dealt with. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously the region is a patchwork stitched together by English-speaking elites. Motivated by post-colonial ambitions to develop economically, to avoid domination by China or the West, and to prevent conflict among themselves, in the 1960s the newly independent leaders began negotiating institutions for mutual support and bargaining influence. These institutions are voluntary and hardly constitute supra-governance. But they cover a wide spectrum from defence and security to economic co-operation and environmental management. They set aims and standards and induce norm convergence and best practice, and moderate tensions. ASEAN, with its secretariat in Jakarta, is the umbrella under which dozens of specialised regional organisations and working groups flourish. In contrast to other regions, in Africa or the Middle East, for example, Southeast Asia is a modest success story.
Will the military tensions so evident in Korea and around Taiwan intrude into Southeast Asia? Yes, insofar as China and the US dispute jurisdiction over South China Sea waters. But in other parts of the region probably not. Biden’s stated policy is to “out-complete” China, not engage it in war (although deterrence remains essential). US competition will take mainly economic and technical forms as the US gradually disengages from China on the one hand, and strengthens its links with like-minded Southeast Asian governments on the other. The same could be said of the US’ China policy in the South Asian and Pacific island regions as well.
The recent renewal of Xi’s leadership of China, and the reaffirmation of Biden’s leadership in the US midterm elections, or at least the failure of Trumpism to prevail, may give the two leaders confidence to discuss frankly their “red lines” [vital commitments] as well as their common interests. To take one example, resumption of China-US co-operation on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which China suspended in August, would be a welcome step towards coexistence, if not rapprochement.
In sum, the week’s multiple international meetings in Southeast Asia are opportunities for leaders and officials to promote stability not only among themselves but also among the great powers that compete for influence in their region.
For New Zealand, and even more so for Australia, Southeast Asian stability is a vital interest, and the region deserves serious government and public attention.
Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at The University of Auckland.