SOUTHEAST ASIA’S EMERGING GEOPOLITICAL ORDER:CHINA’S STRUCTURAL INFLUENCE
Focus on Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is of core strategic importance to both the West and China, in its geographical position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, for its central role in the world’s supply chains, as a source of raw materials and components critical to national security, and as a large and growing market.
The rapid growth of China’s influence in Southeast Asia should be of pressing concern to Western nations; a region of core importance to the West is increasingly under the influence of a major strategic competitor.
China’s influence is a significant contributor to regional geopolitical realignments, with policy implications for the West and ASEAN
The full report published by The Evenstar Institute quantifies and explains the evolution of China’s influence in Southeast Asia through the analysis of all ten ASEAN member states over the period 2011-2020. Based on tens of thousands of quantitative data points and layered with countryspecific qualitative assessments, this allows us to measure China’s influence in terms of its capacity to compromise a country’s autonomy, on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 5 (fully compromised).
Southeast Asia is strategically important to the West and its allies, in terms of its commodities, political and defence ties, and location at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
However, China’s influence has increased rapidly over the last decade in every Southeast Asian country assessed. The greatest increases were in Technology and Telecoms, Defence and Security, and Economics and Finance.
China has been able to dominate digital infrastructure in many ASEAN states, allowing it to lock in long-term influence. This extends China’s influence to other areas reliant on digital platforms, such as Defence and Security, and excludes foreign competitors.
China has developed economic ties which allow it to rapidly scale up its influence via investment, elite capture, and dominance of digital infrastructure and critical national infrastructure projects.
China’s highly asymmetric economic relationships with many ASEAN nations enables a high degree of influence across sectors.
China has used the opportunities created by the distancing of the USA following the 2014 coup to rapidly increase its influence in Thailand, and attempt to “flip” a US treaty ally. The diplomatic isolation of Myanmar similarly means it is now highly dependent on China.
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam have proven more resilient to China’s influence due to their diverse economic relations, allowing them to better balance engagement with China and the US.
China’s evolving influence is driving the emergence of a new geopolitical order in Southeast Asia, with Cambodia and Laos effectively client states; Brunei, Myanmar, and Thailand susceptible to realignment; the Philippines and Vietnam remaining resistant to China’s influence; and Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore having the potential to act as a regional economic counterweight.
Competitive alternative offerings for digital infrastructure provision are critical to preventing the establishment of disproportionate long-term Structural Influence. For ASEAN nations themselves, using a diverse range of providers and avoiding reliance on Chinese technical standards presents a means of maintaining autonomy.
Competitive alternative providers in the green technology, energy, and space sectors should be encouraged by Western and allied countries and ASEAN member states. In the absence of such alternatives, China’s influence is highly likely to increase in these areas due to its ability to readily provide cheap offerings. Countries such as the UK should strengthen existing commitments to the region to support mitigation and adaptation to climate change through measures including renewables, sustainable clean growth, and clean transportation.
Strengthening intra-regional economic networks and promoting and facilitating the diversification of economic partners should be prioritised by ASEAN member states and the US and its allies to mitigate disproportionate extra-regional Structural Influence.
The US and its allies should prioritise a multilateral, multi-domain engagement strategy with a regional and subregional focus beyond bilateral relations, including but not limited to ASEAN itself. This should be receptive to the needs of Southeast Asia as a whole in addition to the strategic priorities of individual ASEAN member states.
The US and its allies should maintain and strengthen assurances to the region regarding international norms such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, in a way which is sensitive to the desire of ASEAN members to avoid being forced to take sides with the US or China.
Countries within and beyond ASEAN should maintain international cultural engagement as an effective means of countering disproportionate influence, particularly in democratic countries and those with high levels of civic engagement.