David Shambaugh on Where Great Powers Meet: America and China in Southeast Asia

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. He was also a formerly a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at The Brookings Institution and Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He also worked in the U.S. Department of State and National Security Council. 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. Before joining the GW faculty Professor Shambaugh was Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and Reader in Chinese Politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) from 1986-1996, where he also served as Editor of The China Quarterly.

Nohl Patterson CMC '22 interviewed Dr. David Shambaugh on April 24, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. David Shambaugh.

In When Great Powers Meet, you discuss the historical context for Chinese and American actions in Southeast Asia. What were the factors that helped the U.S. establish a strong presence in the region historically?  How did these factors differ from those that built China’s presence?

Historically, China certainly established its presence in the region considerably before the United States. The Chinese established their presence as far back as 221 BC, during the Qin Dynasty period. The United States only established its presence in the 1800s. For the U.S., with Southeast Asia, along with East Asia more broadly, commerce was the original impetus. American trading vessels first went into China in 1784, and subsequently went into Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Commerce led the way, supplanted by missionaries—and this was a pattern that happened across Asia, not just Southeast Asia. American missionaries established a presence in what was then called Siam, the Philippines, the former Dutch East Indies, and Malaya. The first wave of the American presence in the region was commercial, the second was missionaries, and the third was diplomatic. The third wave began in 1802 when the U.S. sent a consul to the Dutch East Indies and there is in fact a statue to the first American diplomat today in modern-day Indonesia.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Americans had a fairly comprehensive foothold in East Asia. Then came Pearl Harbor, the outbreak of the Pacific War, and the rollback of Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia was absolutely central to the defeat of Japan. The question became, though, what to do about these countries at the end of the war because there were no independent countries in Southeast Asia going into World War II, as they were all European colonies. The resistance against Japan morphed into independence movements in each Southeast Asian country. That coincided with President Franklin Roosevelt’s belief that these colonies should transition to independent countries. The U.S. was instrumental in helping to transition Southeast Asia from European colonial rule to the independent countries they are today. That is not an unimportant role and I do not think Southeast Asians are terribly aware of that today. The Americans helped facilitate the independence that Southeast Asians enjoy today.

The major thing to note in the post-war period is the Vietnam War, which raged for 15 years and involved the United States at the loss of 60,000 American soldiers in the process. The Vietnam War was the product of broad anti-communism throughout Southeast Asia. It was not the United States imposing the war on Vietnam; quite to the contrary, Southeast Asia was entirely non-Communist and wanted to stay that way. There was support across the entire region for the war against the North Vietnamese. The support varied from one country to another but certainly in Thailand and certainly in the Philippines.  When the war ended Southeast Asians did not want the U.S. to retreat and go away. It would have been very natural for the U.S. to recoil and become very insular and return to the homeland. Southeast Asians did not want that to happen, and the U.S. remained engaged in the 1970’s during the Carter Administration. 

If you look at the last twenty to thirty years in the post-Vietnam environment, what is really impressive is the substantial American commercial footprint across Southeast Asia, the American security footprint, and the appeal of American soft power. American diplomacy has not been terribly consistent, that has been a problem. However, in commerce, culture, and security the U.S. has a very longstanding footprint in the region and is one of the central arguments in my book.

China’s historical records in Southeast Asia date back to the Qin dynasty, but in real terms it was during the 16th and 17th centuries that China began to interact considerably more with the Southeast Asians. This came to be known as the “tribute system,” whereby Southeast Asian countries would pay tribute to the Chinese emperor and Chinese imperial state. Thereafter, beginning in the 1800’s the book discusses the Chinese trading vessels that went out into the region during the Ming Dynasty. With these boats went not only commerce but people, so there began to be the establishment of ethnic Chinese communities and a Chinese diaspora throughout Southeast Asia. Even today there are 18.5 million ethnic Chinese living in Southeast Asia. Other than that, China did not conquer, invade, or occupy Southeast Asian countries (other than Vietnam). China had a sphere of influence during these centuries but one that was primarily political and might be said in today’s terms to be “soft power” based.

The Chinese regional footprint grew over time during the 16th and 17th century, and during the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Southeast Asia became very important to Chinese domestic politics because the Qing dynasty was on its last legs. Many Chinese were exiled abroad to Japan, Europe, and the United States, but also  in Singapore and Malaya, including Sun Yat-sen himself. Southeast Asia played an important role in that Chinese domestic transition.  From 1949-1979 when the Chinese Communists had come to power and People’s Republic had been established, not much interaction with Southeast Asia took place as the region was still very much anti-communist. Secondly, one area where China was involved, was in trying to overthrow existing governments with communist insurgencies supported by Beijing. It was not until the 1980’s when Deng Xiaoping came to power that diplomatic  relations were normalized between China and Southeast Asia.

The point I would make is that China’s presence in Southeast Asia is a relatively new phenomena since the 1980’s.  I would note that the American presence in Southeast Asia is longer and far deeper than China’s historically excluding the Qing Dynasty.

In one chapter you state that “Beijing began prioritizing the region [Southeast Asia] in its new global diplomacy… this emphasis was a part of a deeper set of debates and rethinking among Chinese foreign policy practitioners and experts during the 1996-1999 period.” Yet you state that today, there is a significant lack of expertise in Beijing regarding Southeast Asia. To what do you attribute this significant academic gap?

The reason China began to prioritize Southeast Asia during that period was due to an internal strategic debate in the wake of the Kosovo War. You may ask what does a war halfway around the planet have to do with Southeast Asia? In the Chinese mind, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was seen as the unilateral power and was using that power militarily in the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, and accidentally, the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing five Chinese citizens at the embassy. The Chinese had a big strategic debate about whether Deng Xiaoping’s theory of “peace and development” was still the so-called “trend of the times.” Deng had said “the world is moving towards peace and development,” but in the wake of the Soviet collapse and end of the Cold War the world looked like anything but peace and development. There were small wars all across the planet including between Iran and Iraq. The Chinese said if this is the case, what should we do about it? Maybe these wars will start breaking out on our periphery too, they wondered. 

The debate that took place in 1997-1998 and began to be implemented in 1999 was that China needed to be more proactive on its periphery, so that it was not in a passive, reactive state. They began to build diplomatic buffers and Southeast Asia was a function in this effort. It produced what was known as the “golden era” of Southeast Asian and Chinese relations.

The second part of this question deals with the lack of expertise in Beijing regarding Southeast Asia, particularly in the academic community. Yes, there are Chinese diplomats who speak Southeast Asian languages and are posted to the region, but there is not any systematic research being done in the so-called “think tanks” in Beijing, it is very ad hoc. Then the question becomes “Where is the expertise on Southeast Asia in China?”—and the answer is in the universities in the southern part of the country. There are a number of universities such as Jinan University in Guangzhou, Xiamen University, Yunnan University, and Guangxi Normal University—all of which have serious Southeast Asian studies programs and considerable expertise in their faculty.

However, I note in the book that if you go to Southeast Asia there is the exact same phenomenon about the lack of expertise on China in Southeast Asia. It is absolutely unbelievable.  The only place in the entire region that has any substantial expertise is in Vietnam, in the city of Hanoi in one institution—the Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute for China Studies. There is a big cohort of about sixty researchers there that have been studying China for a long time and they are quite good. I have visited them a couple of times. Other than that, there are a cohort of researchers in Singapore at the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore, but those researchers are mostly all mainland Chinese who have immigrated to Singapore and produce publications for the Singaporean government and the Institute.

This is a real peculiarity—the Chinese don’t know about Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asians do not know about the Chinese. Yet, but both are prioritizing each other.

During Obama’s presidency we saw the “pivot” to Southeast Asia and there are many former Obama officials in the current administration. However, there has been a significant pivot towards strategic competition with China since 2016.  What can we expect to see in the short-term in Southeast Asia with the Biden administration? What do you think they should prioritize?  What actions do they need to avoid?

I would first note that the pivot policy of the Obama administration was simply a term used that had everything to do with strategic competition (it was later rebranded as the “rebalance”). The underlying ideas of the Obama administration were two. First it was to geographically pivot from the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia and to move personnel and resources from one region to another. There was a recognition that the U.S. was bogged down in regions not of high importance in world affairs whereas East Asia was more important. The second element of the pivot was China itself. You could not call it containment and it was not containment, but rather “constrainment.”  It was an attempt by the Obama administration to pursue and build up and strengthen ties with countries all around China and while simultaneously engaging China. Then during the Trump administration there is no engagement and continued “constrainment” in the so-called “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy of the Trump Administration. The Trump administration was all about bringing increased pressure to bear on China all around its periphery.

Now we have the Biden administration which has continued the Indo-Pacific language. It is normal when administrations change that they discontinue language from previous administrations. The Asia-Pacific has been rebranded the Indo-Pacific and the American military in Hawaii was rebranded from the Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command. That is a geographic but also a conceptual change that took place under Trump and that has been continued under Biden.

The first thing we can expect with Southeast Asia now is greater attention paid by Washington to Southeast Asia.  Southeast Asians have a deep insecurity complex when it comes to the US, frankly, and they really feel they are not noticed, appreciated, or taken seriously by the United States or others in the world. They feel, and quite correctly, that the United States has been episodic at best with the attention and diplomatic attention they have paid to the region. The first thing you are going to see from the Biden Administration is consistency and attention. In fact, Southeast Asia has never been a higher priority for any American administration than during the Obama administration.  Secretary of State Blinken has already had several phone calls with his counterparts in the region. National Security Advisor Sullivan has had video conferences with ASEAN ambassadors in Washington. Similarly, you will see visits from Southeast Asian heads of state to Washington.  Southeast Asia is going to play a critical role in the new American strategy towards China. Again, it's not containment, and one reason it is not containment is that Southeast Asia wants no part of containment. The real trick for the Biden administration is how to play to Southeast Asia’s anxiety about China which I write about at length in the book.  So Southeast Asians are not necessarily “all in” with China and they do not want to be sucked into a 21st century version of the tribute system and into Beijing’s sphere of influence.  Therefore, the United States and many other powers have a significant role to play. I think Southeast Asia is going to welcome the new Biden initiatives, but the Biden administration needs to take a nuanced and sophisticated view on each country in Southeast Asia.  You cannot have a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all strategy or you will really miss what makes Southeast Asia unique.

Your thesis revolves around the idea that the maneuvering between ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), China, and the United States will be a good barometer to measure the increasing competition between “great powers.” In classical international theory terms, which Southeast Asian countries are currently “hedging” and which ones are “bandwagoning”?  Why?

The first question revolves around the question of Southeast Asia as a barometer, which I refer to in the book as a “harbinger” for likely things to come in other regions of the world. I also call it the “epicenter” of U.S.-China competition worldwide because I think it is where all the elements of U.S.-China competition come to bear in one geographic space. A lot of what you are seeing in Southeast Asia between the U.S. and China could very well play out across the world. Now, of course, every region in the world is different. U.S.-China competition in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa looks different from competition in Southeast Asia. But the point I am trying to make is that Southeast Asia prides itself on its independence and does not want to “choose.” They consistently tell the Americans “Don’t force us to choose.” That is why the Americans have to be very careful not to push them into a false choice and they will push them away from the U.S. The Biden administration cannot go to the Southeast Asians and say “Are you with us or against us?”  That is not the way to deal with that region.

Now the second part of your question about hedging and bandwagoning. Well, if you look at the last chapter of the book, I have a chart that lists all ten countries on a spectrum between pro-U.S. and pro-China with a notional idea that the middle is neutralism.  First of all, I have to say that this is my own sense of the orientation of these countries as of 2020 when the book was published. In fact, that orientation is slightly different than when I was researching it in 2017 to 2019. The first point to make is that there is enormous fluidity in Southeast Asia vis-a-vis the U.S. and China, which in fact shows hedging.  Southeast Asians do not want to be aligned with, or too close to, one power. The Philippines and Thailand are American allies, and we can discuss the differences between those two alliances, because they are different. There is a real alliance between the Philippines and the United States—if the Philippines was attacked the U.S. would come to its defense and vice versa. The alliance with Thailand is not like that, it is a series of understandings.

So where does this put us in relation to bandwagoning? I think it is somewhat wrong to juxtapose hedging and bandwagoning—hedging with the U.S. vs. bandwagoning with Beijing. It is not quite the way it is, because as I said all Southeast Asian countries are bandwagoning to some extent with Beijing.  But I would argue that there is no country in Southeast Asia that has been bandwagoning with the United States. In the spectrum I have in the last chapter, seven of the ten countries are on the neutral side of the line with the PRC. They are all closer to China than the U.S., and only Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines I put on the American side of the spectrum. Even there all three of those countries have significant relations with China, including Vietnam. So, the Vietnamese are probably the closest to the United States of all Southeast Asian countries, but in each of these cases they are hedging. They have broad cultural, military, commercial and diplomatic exchanges with China. There has been a trend when I was researching this book from 2017-2019 of bandwagoning with Beijing. Part of it had to do with neglect by Trump and the second thing had to do with Chinese money through the Belt and Road Initiative. I even describe Cambodia as a “client state” of China in the book. However, from 2019-present I see at least some distancing and discontentment among many of these countries with China and especially over the Belt and Road Initiative. I see China overreaching and overstepping and ultimately alienating these countries and pushing them back towards the neutral line.

At the end of the book you lay out your four likely scenarios for future directions this trilateral relationship could take.  Which do you believe to be the most likely outcome and why? Which one is the least desirable for most countries in Southeast Asia?

The first scenario is further bandwagoning, because at the time when I was researching the book the majority of Southeast Asian countries were bandwagoning—but towards the end of the research in 2019-2020, it was from then that the distancing began. The second scenario is what I call continued “soft rivalry” and “competitive coexistence.” The third scenario is “hard rivalry” and polarization. The fourth and final scenario is more neutral hedging.

Scenario number 2 refers to the fact that the U.S.-China competition in the region is not yet an action-reaction competition as it was during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. If Moscow did A, the U.S. did B to counter it and so forth. You do not find that dynamic anywhere in the world between the U.S. and China, at least not yet. In fact, if it is going to happen, I would argue we are going to see it first in Southeast Asia.  Thus, I see it as a “soft rivalry” whereas the Cold War would be described as a “hard rivalry.” This soft rivalry is like shadow boxing, where each power dances around the ring, very wary of the other but taking its own moves without striking the other—or, perhaps more importantly, premising its policies on the basis of countering the other.

So, this kind of strategic competition in the region is all about China advancing its interest and the U.S. advancing its interest. They are not advancing them directly against the other yet. That is scenario number 3—polarization and hard rivalry where they do begin to make their policies and undertake their actions with the other power in mind.

The other scenario is neutral hedging, similar to what I described with the Southeast Asian countries themselves moving towards the middle of the spectrum, trying to occupy the middle ground between the U.S. and China. We have presently been living through scenario 1 and 2. I would argue “competitive coexistence” is an optimal state not only for the U.S. and China but for the Southeast Asians. They can live with the competitive coexistence and they do not mind if the U.S. and China are competing in their region, but they do not want to be caught in this binary dynamic where they are forced to choose.

I would say that what the situation has been over the past five years is the best the Americans can hope for as well. If the situation becomes a hard rivalry and polarization of the region, between countries aligned with the U.S. and countries aligned with China, that is going to require real labor and resource intensive efforts by the United States. I am not sure that really behooves the U.S. and it is why the U.S. needs to really do its homework on each of the ten countries and tailor its regional policies that is actually premised on each of ten countries, not just the region as a whole. the fourth scenario is really the “sweet spot” for Southeast Asia and where they really want to be. If you want to get anything out of life you have to figure out what the opposing party wants, what is optimal for them and then tailor your own policies to converge with other parties. So, if the Southeast Asians do not want to be too closely aligned with either country, how does the U.S. help them get to that more neutralist point? As a colleague of mine who used to be the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear (who I quote in the book) said “The major challenge for the United States is to help them hedge.” Hedging is a positive thing, it is a neutral thing. The best thing the U.S. can do is help Southeast Asia not become dependent on China.

The last point I will make is that it is not just up to the United States.There are many other key actors in this region, so-called “middle powers” like Australia, India, Japan and I would add South Korea and the European Union. All five of those actors are present in Southeast Asia significantly and that is a good thing from the Southeast Asian perspective. They want more partners because it dilutes the pressures of the superpower competition.  All these external actors, these “middle powers,” are increasingly involved in the region, which is good news for the Southeast Asians and good news for the U.S. It is not necessarily good for China, but that’s fine. I think it behooves the United States to use these multipliers.

Nohl Patterson CMC '22Student Journalist

Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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