The New ‘Neocolonialism’ in Southeast Asia

Dec 22, 2020

In the colonial era in Southeast Asia extending from the 15th to the late 20th century, the Western powers, (including America in the late 19th century) competed for, occupied and governed Southeast Asia. The former colonial masters continued to impose economic, political, cultural and other pressures to control or influence their former colonies. Now, just as they have finally begun to throw off their lingering colonial shackles, a new neocolonial era is in the offing, more conceptual than physical.  This time the struggle for domination of the region is between the West (led by the U.S). and China, and it is for ideational, commercial, technological, and maritime spheres of influence – – as well as access for strategic bases and ‘places’. Nevertheless, the current contest still involves coercion that clearly challenges Southeast Asian countries’ independence and sovereignty. In both eras they were – and are –viewed as pawns in a great power contest.

The world has changed dramatically since the previous colonial and neocolonial periods. WW II has come and gone. The former colonies have won their independence and are fervently defending it. However, they continue to struggle with inherited problems created by colonially imposed affiliations, national borders, territorial disputes and the results of mass trafficking of human labor.

The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union that split and damaged Southeast Asia has ended. China has risen and is challenging the victor—the U.S. and the West– and the post WW II liberal international order that the U.S. helped build and now leads –to its asymmetric benefit.

In this new neocolonial era, the methods of “colonialism” may have changed— but not the fundamental intent of subjugating these nations to their national interest. Now instead of physical conquering and occupation, China and the U.S. are trying to impose their respective economic and ideational norms and values. This is manifested in the contest between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative (FOIP) and its spawn, the Quad.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo China’s Initiative is an attempt to create “vassal states [and] a tyrannical regime all around the world for global hegemony .” China views the FOIP initiative as an attempt to impose its version of an international order on it and the region, and thereby to constrain its rightful rise to dominate at least the region.

Kiron Skinner, a former Director of Policy and Planning in the US State Department said China and the U.S. “seek adherence to their set of values. This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.” The US Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has called China the “greatest threat to America today and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II.” While many might dispute these iconoclastic assertions, they do indicate the view deep within the upper reaches of the US government foreign policy apparatus.

They are deeply worried that China is proving that for itself and perhaps other developing countries, its system is superior in the eyes of its people – and observers. Indeed, at base is a clash of political systems—‘efficient’ authoritarian communism versus ‘inefficient’ democratic capitalism- and their underlying values. Although the U.S. hoped that China’s values and political system would become more like its own, that is now recognized as unlikely and probably always was. This has shaken the U.S. establishment to the core because it challenges the fundamental assumption that all the world wanted to—and would—become like it. This clash of fundamental values and norms will not change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, China and the U.S. will continue to struggle for the political allegiance and support of Southeast Asian countries and will continue to pressure them to side with their system.

Some Southeast Asian have welcomed the contest and tried to hedge and thus benefit from the largess of both –China’s economic assistance and the US security blanket. But this is proving to be an increasingly dangerous game as the two competitors crank up the pressure to choose sides. If there is resistance by Southeast Asian countries to the ‘entreaties’ of the contesting powers, neither is beyond angry threats, military intimidation and formal or informal sanctions to get their way.A particular concern is that the intensifying competition for influence and military dominance in the region could spill over into their domestic politics with the U.S. and China each supporting its supporters and opposing its opponents. This happened during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and it could happen again.

Indeed, this great power contest could be a disaster for Southeast Asia. These countries are struggling to maintain their strategic autonomy and would like to follow great power wishes only when their interests align. But they cannot resist such pressures alone. They need to do so in unison. However, cohesion is in jeopardy. As outspoken Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warns “The South China Sea issue is ASEAN’s strategic challenge. How we deal with this matter lays bare our strengths and weaknesses as a community.”

The Biden administration will be faced with fundamental choices and opportunities regarding China. The Trump administration has made the world—and Southeast Asia– wonder if the U.S. is really interested in the fate of others besides itself. They wonder if it is willing to compromise to avoid confrontation and the pain and suffering that will bring to the rest of the world—and to Southeast Asia in particular. Of course the Biden administration will inherit the anti-China bias in D.C. That is in part because the Trump administration has done so much damage the trust between the two countries- – particularly with its nasty name calling. But it is also because of the group-think that now consumes the US body politic. An administration with guts and version could overcome this.

But under these present circumstances the best that Biden can probably do in, and for Southeast Asia is to “show up but not to speak up” ,that is cease using the ASEAN forums to continuously attack China and its leadership. “Engaged indifference “ would be better for all concerned.

The colliding ambitions of China and the U.S. suggest the inevitability of a fundamental clash. And the door to the room for compromise is closing. China is in an inexorable upward trajectory of increasing power not unlike America was in its post-colonial days. The U.S. is still ahead and on top. It should compromise while it can still significantly influence the terms thereof– rather than fight the inevitable.

The ‘international order must at least partially accommodate China’s interests. Of course there will be stresses and strains. But confrontation is the easy way out of this dilemma. The harder but better way out for all concerned is for the U.S. to determine and negotiate where, when, and how to compromise on what. History shows the U.S. cannot be top dog forever. Negotiating will provide an extension of its reign and the possibility of a ‘soft’ landing.

A shorter version of this piece first appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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