The US has stepped up efforts to boost ties with Southeast Asian countries even as a new survey lays bare a growing sense that China has already won the strategic struggle there.
Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, hosted officials from 10 countries to follow up on a flurry of calls by President Donald Trump to Asian leaders amid heightened tensions over North Korea and Beijing’s sea territory claims.
The meetings came as new research from a leading Southeast Asian think-tank highlighted how some observers already regard China as the most significant power in the region and expect it to extend its reach over the next decade.
Almost three-quarters of the respondents from government, business, academia, the media and civil society in the survey by Singapore’s Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute think-tank saw China as the most influential country or organisation in Southeast Asia now and during the next 10 years.
Tang Siew Mun, head of the think-tank’s Asean Studies Centre, said Beijing had projected its power in the region more effectively than Washington. But he also pointed out that the US was still a bigger source of foreign direct investment in the region, even if episodes such as Mr Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal gave the impression of US “fickle-mindedness and ambivalence” towards Southeast Asia.
“China appears to have won the strategic battle with the US, emerging as the most influential power in the region,” Mr Tang said. “But China has not won over Southeast Asia yet. The perception of Chinese power is real but its dominance is not clear-cut.”
Mr Tillerson “reaffirmed” US engagement with Southeast Asia in meetings in Washington this week with foreign ministers and other officials from the region’s 10 countries, according to the state department. The secretary of state “underscored that the region remains a very important partner for the United States, in fact a strategic partner”, said W Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary in the state department’s bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“There were deep discussions on opportunities, such as trade and co-operation on a whole host of issues, as well as efforts to address challenges, specifically the case of North Korea and the disputed South China Sea,” he said.
US policy in the region has been in flux after the change of administration in Washington ended President Barack Obama’s signature “pivot to Asia” and initiatives such as the TPP. Relations with historical US allies including the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia have cooled for varying reasons over the past few years, while China has raised the pressure with a programme of building artificial islands and military facilities across disputed seas in the region.
The Washington meetings came after Mr Trump called the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore last week and invited them to the White House. Mr Obama had last year held a summit in California for leaders of those three countries and the other seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute stressed its online survey of 318 people last month “did not purport to represent the views of the whole of Southeast Asia”, although its findings are consistent with some other commentaries on the rise of China in the region.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington