Prioritizing Southeast Asia in American China Strategy

By Zack Cooper | Orville Schell | David Shambaugh | Danny Russel | Charlene Barshefsky | Steven F. Jackson | Mary Kay Magistad | Karl W. Eikenberry

Asia Society

August 01, 2023

Southeast Asia is a critically important—but underappreciated—region when it comes to U.S. interests and competition with China. Now, more than ever, there are ample reasons for the United States to strengthen its already considerable economic, political, and strategic ties with the region.

The ten Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) states have become an engine of growth for the global
economy, with a combined GDP of more than $3.6 trillion. If Southeast Asia were a single country, it would be the world’s fifth largest economy. In addition, much of the world’s trade moves through Southeast Asia’s strategically important waters – the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.

Should a conflict break out between the United States and China in or around Taiwan, or in the South
China Sea – which is claimed by China, but with conflicting claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – the United States will likely hope for support from its treaty allies the Philippines and Thailand, as well as from other friendly Southeast Asian countries.

China, as a near neighbor, has its own centuries-long relationship with Southeast Asia. The region is now China’s top worldwide trading partner, and vice versa. Over the past decade, Beijing’s infrastructure building and development finance through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made Southeast Asia a significant recipient of PRC loans and projects.

While many Southeast Asians view their region’s economic relationship with China relatively favorably, concern is growing about the extent to which China uses its economic clout for political leverage and strategic positioning, at the expense of Southeast Asian interests. In response, individual Southeast Asian countries, as well as ASEAN, are seeking a stronger relationship with the United States and with other regional partners—including Japan, South Korea, India, the European Union, and Australia—to counterbalance China’s growing influence and sometimes caustic and punitive diplomacy in the region.

The object of this report is to unpack and carefully examine the respective positions of the United States and People’s Republic of China in Southeast Asia—and concludes by offering policy prescriptions for the U.S. Government to advance American interests while competing more effectively with China in the region.

Read the full report here.