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The growing antagonism between China and the US is causing considerable unease to the rest of the world. The underlying reason of this heightened tension is the American anxiety over China’s economic ascendancy, which threatens American primacy in the world. History tells us that no primary power gives way easily to another power.

The China-US coupling of economies during the last four decades has ushered an era of unprecedented economic accomplishments the world over. And China has been the driver of this prosperity accounting for “40 per cent of all the growth in the world since 2007.” (Graham Allison — Destined for War, page 217).

In process China has become the ‘factory of the world,’ the world’s biggest mercantile nation that is already the largest trading partner of nearly 125 countries in the world.

Nowhere is the China — US competition more visible and the countries under pressure than in Southeast Asia. The US has maintained a strong military presence in this region since the Spanish—American war of 1898. The American presence and interests increased manifold following the end of WWII after which the US set up permanent military bases in Korea, Japan, Guam and later supplemented by the American military presence in the Philippines, Singapore and Australia.

The Southeast Asian countries understand that their remarkable economic growth has occurred on the coattails of the Chinese economic miracle and the security provided by the American military presence in the region.

This engagement has benefited the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tremendously, has bolstered their connectivity and economic growth. In 1990 only two ASEAN economies were in top 20 and by 2020 the number had increased to six.

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Big power competition

The Sino-American friction since the beginning of Trump presidency is therefore a source of considerable concern to them all. They understand that confrontation between the two largest economies would choke the engine that drives the world’s manufacturing and trading system and thus jeopardise their own economic development.

They have therefore, decided to maintain their neutrality and continue to benefit from consequent prosperity through security and economic partnership provided by the two big powers.

China’s economic power “just absorbs countries without having to use force” said Lee Kuan Yew the founding prime minster of Singapore. The US is unable to match China’s deep pockets and is busy forging coalitions of ‘like-minded’ countries in the shape of Quad and AUKUS, which are military alliances. Together with American military bases in Korea, Japan and its navy the US hopes to maintain its supremacy and contain China.

The ASEAN have drawn strength anchored in their unity. They have usually been able to foster ties with both the US and China on their terms. In fact, the ASEAN has learnt how to use the big power competition to its advantage. In process these states have reaped benefits of improved economic performance and prosperity.

Moving closer to Beijing and Washington?

Southeast Asia has had its periods of division but have teamed up well following the end of Cold War. The initial founding members of ASEAN invited and welcomed former reclusive countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The ASEAN now aims at multiple areas of economic cooperation, technical and human resources and even in the field of defence. It is a security forum also and holds regular summits with different stakeholders like China, Japan, Korea, Oceania, US, EU, India and some others. These exchanges build trust and prevent conflicts.

It is quite possible that some countries in ASEAN, may for practical reasons, move closer to Beijing and Washington. While no two big powers have used a totally different route to domination, ASEAN could face a possible dilemma if circumstances compel at least some of the members to take a side. Such an eventuality will be bad for ASEAN.

How ASEAN is able to steer clear of calls for partisanship in the big power contest will have an effect on whether the region can pursue peace in the interest of larger good.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan’s Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries