US-China Competition Futures and Southeast Asia: Where Next?
Beyond Taiwan tensions and economic decoupling fears, a closer look at future scenarios for ties and regional implications.
A new volume by leading scholars examines the current and future trajectory of a “new era of U.S.-China strategic competition,” with implications for Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
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Southeast Asia and US-China Competition Futures: What’s Next?
“We hope there will be guard-rails to manage that competition, but we have to be prepared for unpredictable or even dangerous outcomes emerging,” Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting Lawrence Wong warned on U.S.-China competition recently during a conference commemorating the centennial year of the country’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s birth1. Wong’s comments are part of a diverse set of responses emerging in regions including Southeast Asia with respect to U.S.-China competition, amid the more diverse power balance at play (see our recent FuturePoints forecast for 2024). We have covered this extensively in ASEAN Wonk, with recent examples including Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s first-ever high-speed railway in Indonesia, the embattled China-Thailand submarine deal, sprawling Mekong scam networks, evolving South China Sea dynamics amid Sino-Philippine tensions and BRICS expansion dynamics. It is also a subject explored in a series of new books over the past couple of years, including ones we’ve reviewed over at ASEAN Wonk in recent months2. These emerging responses also raise the broader question of how to think through scenarios on how U.S.-China competition may evolve in the coming years and the implications for the world and specific regions.
A new book edited by scholar and former White House official Evan Medeiros examines the current and future trajectory of strategic competition, with contributions from U.S. and Chinese experts including Elizabeth Economy, Li Chen, Phillip Saunders, David Shambaugh, Paul Triolo and Wang Jisi. The book, titled Cold Rivals: The New Era of US-China Strategic Competition, runs just over 400 pages and has fifteen chapters (see snapshot table below)3. Chapters 1-7 trace the complex origins of competition in U.S.-China relations, which Medeiros defines as a state of perceived contention between actors short of conflict with an effort to maximize advantage amid scarcity4. This builds on an earlier RAND report on the subject5. Chapters 8-12 look at components of multifaceted competition across realms such as the military and technology; while Chapters 13-15 try to forecast the future of the relationship (though most of the chapters do touch on projections as well).
Select Cold Rivals Book Chapters and Areas Examined
The book reinforces the contingent and multifaceted nature of U.S.-China competition. Medeiros’ chapter notes that competition arose through a nonlinear process where developments, capabilities, leaders and domestic politics all had important roles6. Authors frame this evolution differently, be it Wang Jisi’s “three historical stages” from “reluctant cooperation” to assertive competition” concretizing from 2009-2022; or Elizabeth Economy’s sense that efforts to “rethink, reset, recalibrate” by U.S. policymakers over the past decade were accelerated by the rise of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump as leaders in the 2010s. This applies to chapters on sectors too. On military ties, Saunders notes that U.S. rhetorical attention to the China challenge was already visible in the late 2000s, as seen in spikes in China mentions in annual testimony by the U.S. Pacific Command commander which went from roughly 20 in 2007 to around 70 in 2010 (and about 190 by 2018)7. In what Triolo calls a “technology cold war,” U.S. moves to curb China’s rise as a tech power have reinforced Beijing’s emphasis on self reliance, even if it still lacks a realistic long-term strategy8.
Cold Rivals also provides several useful frameworks to help make sense of how U.S.-China competition may evolve in the coming years. Some recent books have offered a window into this9. Cold Rivals adds value to this mix, with some chapters offering specific insights on aggregate and sectoral aspects of competition. For those with an interest in forecasting, the last three chapters in particular lay out specific variables and scenarios with varying degrees of likelihood (see table below for a brief snapshot, and the rest of the analysis section and the implications section for deeper insights into what ties might hold and the significance for regions like Southeast Asia).