Opinion: Southeast Asia: an arena between America and China

Haoran Li

Haoran Li

Haoran Li is a sophomore communication studies major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. He can be reached at [email protected].

With the absence of President Barack Obama, who was trapped in the White House because of the government shutdown, at the annual meeting in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Bali, Indonesia, President Xi Jinping of China became the undisputed star at the APEC meeting. Not only because of Obama’s no-show but also because President Jinping proposed to create an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in this region in order to promote interconnectivity and economic integration among southeastern countries.

“Beijing stands ready to offer financial support for infrastructure construction in developing countries in the region, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” Jinping said. “The new bank,” he added, “will cooperate with existing multilateral development banks to make full use of their respective advantages and jointly promote the sustained and stable growth of the Asian economy.”

Southeast Asian countries include Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, East Timor and Christmas Island. Their estimated gross domestic product in 2013 is $3.818 trillion. America and China’s estimated GDP are $15.685 trillion and $12.450 trillion, respectively, according to the International Monetary Fund. Southeast Asian countries’ economies may not seem considerable, however, the importance of their geographical location is far more important than their economies.

Southeast Asia is the only channel and the shortest ship route from Northeast Asia to Europe and Africa. This area connects the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean and is very important for maritime trade. This is why China and America are both focused on the relations with Southeast Asian countries. China has implemented the Good Neighbor Policy for several years and the new foreign minister of China, Wang Yi, visited southeastern countries during his first visit as foreign minister. Through those actions, it is obvious that China is more active in its foreign affairs.

However, it does not mean that China wants to replace America as the world leader. Some who view China as a threat have long argued that China desires regional hegemony. Others paint a picture of China returning to the glory days of the Middle Kingdom in the Tang Dynasty. In this view, China uses its economic power to establish an empire with tentacles reaching throughout most of Asia and transforming its neighbors into little more than vassal states. Both arguments, however, ignore a fundamental reality: China is not an empire any longer.

It is childish to think that Southeast Asian countries will become China’s allies in the near future. International relations are based on national interests. As former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said, “A country does not have permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that competition between the United States and China is inevitable, but conflict is not. This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting the United States for global supremacy. China is acting purely in its own national interests; there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and China, who has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.