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

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 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.

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.

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