Caught in the Middle: How Asian Nations Are Navigating the U.S.-China Competition

This fall, APARC brought together scholars and policy experts to examine the security competition that has come to define an era from the perspectives of Asian nations.
Speaker portraits superimposed on an image of the flags of China and the United States

Amid escalating tensions between the world’s two great powers, Asian nations have found themselves in increasingly difficult positions, having to make policy decisions that might tilt political equilibrium toward one hegemon or the other. “Even at Stanford, we feel the growing tension between Washington and Beijing,” said APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin at the opening of the Center’s fall 2022 webinar series, Asian Perspectives on the U.S.-China Competition.

The series convened scholars, policy experts, and practitioners who explored the contours of great power competition from Asian nations’ viewpoints. In considering how these nations perceive and shape their futures beyond the efforts by Washington and Beijing to define a zero-sum vision for the region, the speakers covered a broad spectrum of topics, including security and military affairs, trade, infrastructure, technology, and development aid. Each event in the series was led by one of APARC’s five area programs.

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The Korea Program kicked off the series with a discussion about South Korea’s position on the rippling effects of the U.S.-China competition, featuring Myung Hwan Yu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of South Korea.

Ambassador Yu noted that, while China remains South Korea’s largest trading partner, the United States is its key security ally in Asia, and the Yoon administration has sought to strengthen its relationship with the United States by attending the NATO summit and joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Rising anti-China sentiments in South Korea have added an additional layer of complexity to the equation of defining the nation’s strategy. 

The series continued with a conversation about India’s role in the U.S-China competition, hosted by APARC’s South Asia Initiative. Suhasini Haidar, diplomatic editor of The Hindu, and Arvind Subramanian, the Meera & Vikram Gandhi Fellow at the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, examined India’s prospects as a strategic competitor to China, and specifically if India has the intent and capacity to be an effective player in the Indo-Pacific’s strategic competition.

China’s border incursions in 2020 have changed India’s strategic calculations when it comes to how many resources it will need to put into its continental boundaries, versus plans for cooperation with the United States when it comes to the Indo-Pacific.
Suhasini Haidar
Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu

According to Haidar, the Modi era has increased India’s assertiveness in the region and its tendency to “get away with risks it takes.” Yet, since 2020, India has insisted that its relationship cannot progress unless “peace and tranquility” are restored to its unsettled border, even though in recent months India has also engaged diplomatically with China. 

Continental boundaries have indeed become a pressing point for the India-China relationship. “[India has] a 3500 km boundary with China, and incursions can occur at any of those points, if one or the other side decides to become more assertive, this becomes a very tricky slope. China’s border incursions in 2020 have changed India’s strategic calculations when it comes to how many resources it will need to put into its continental boundaries, versus plans for cooperation with the United States when it comes to the Indo-Pacific,” said Haidar. 

APARC’s China Program enlisted APARC's inaugural China Policy Fellow Laura Stone to provide a glimpse into Washington’s understanding of Asian perspectives on the U.S.-China competition and what it means for the Asia-Pacific region. Stone, a veteran of the State Department and the Pentagon, discussed how U.S. policymakers’ understanding of Asian nations’ grasp of the competition has shifted and evolved. Stone outlined the complex, iterative process, in which Chinese and U.S. actions — and the reactions from the countries and entities in Asia — shape a dynamic policy process within the region.

The Japan Program hosted Chisako T. Masuo, a professor at the Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies at Kyushu University, and Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, who considered Japanese perspectives on the U.S.-China competition.”

Many Japanese experts understand that the U.S.-China competition is a systemic competition between democracies and autocracies.
Chisako T. Masuo
Professor, Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies, Kyushu University

Like South Korea, Japan faces a delicate balancing act in its foreign policy. Given its cornerstone security alliance with the United States and its trade partnership with China, Japan, as Masuo asserts, is indeed caught in the middle. The primary concern, though, is “a fear of abandonment by the United States. Japan is located very close to China, but from a security perspective, Japan relies on the United States.” 

Japan’s own security perception is closely linked to territorial disputes in the region, like the one over the Senkaku Islands, and Japan aims to promote closer collaboration with the United States to tackle regional instability. According to Masuo, “Many Japanese experts understand that the U.S.-China competition is a systemic competition between democracies and autocracies.” However, Japan also has worries about the United States, she said, and concerns over developing countries’ reactions to a deeper partnership with the United States.

Japan also represents a critical variable in a Taiwan contingency. According to Professor Sahashi, it is unlikely that Japan would deploy its Self-Defense Forces, despite expectations from the United States. More likely would be a focus on non-combatant evacuation operations and work to support the Taiwanese people in the defense of their territory. 

The Southeast Asia Program concluded the series with a focus on the extent to which Southeast Asian nations are “choosing not to choose” sides between the world’s two great powers. Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based scholar and columnist serving as a senior lecturer at the Asian Center at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and Huong Le Thu, a principal policy fellow at the University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Centre, explored what the prospect of a “New Cold War” might mean for Southeast Asians and the role that regional security groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) might play in balancing the tensions of the great power competition.

When it comes to the Indo-Pacific, and to the great power competition, the idea of ASEAN centrality is clearly more aspirational than a geopolitical reality.
Richard Heydarian
Senior Lecturer, University of the Philippines Diliman

Huong Le Thu emphasized the critical role that Southeast Asia plays in the broader geopolitical landscape and suggested that its importance will only grow. The relative power gap and the disparity between the major powers and Southeast Asia will narrow in the future, she said, and there will not be as much asymmetry between them. She went on to argue that “Southeast Asian nations, as they grow economically more powerful, […] are seen as an epicenter of economic growth, and are likely to have more agency and more say in global politics.”

Heydarian considered the implications of the U.S.-China competition for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the pillar principle of Asian Centrality. “When it comes to the Indo-Pacific and to the great power competition,” he said, “the idea of ASEAN centrality is clearly more aspirational than a geopolitical reality.” Heydarian emphasized that one major contribution ASEAN has made is the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, in reference to an underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo–Pacific cooperation, while preserving their formats.

The study of the U.S.-China great power competition is still evolving, but APARC’s webinar series helps scholars and policymakers better understand what the U.S.-China competition means for Asian nations and consider innovative approaches to avoid disaster in U.S.-China relations and ultimately reduce tensions. Watch the series on APARC’s YouTube channel.

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