China’s Influence Surges in Southeast Asia, Challenging US Dominance

The Lowy Institute study, titled “Asia Power Snapshot: China and the United States in Southeast Asia,” analyzed indicators of economic, defense, diplomatic, and cultural influence. It concludes that China has surpassed the US in all four categories, with the majority of Southeast Asian nations perceiving China as the most dominant economic and political-strategic power in the region.

Despite concerns among Southeast Asian countries about China’s aggressive military actions, China’s economic dominance has compelled many nations to align themselves with Beijing. The study reveals that China’s economic relationships in Southeast Asia have outperformed those of the US in every country, leading to an increasing dependence on China as a lender of last resort during economic crises. Even countries previously aligned with the US, such as Malaysia, have shifted their focus towards China due to its significant aid and investment. Furthermore, China’s military and economic rise are becoming intertwined, as Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and Thailand, are increasingly procuring Chinese arms.

The US’s waning influence can be attributed to its withdrawal from regional trade deals and disengagement from the region’s economic integration efforts. Washington’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is viewed by Southeast Asian nations as inadequate compared to the binding trade agreements they are signing with China and other Asian states. Additionally, the US’s emphasis on rights and democracy has had limited impact in a region largely governed by autocratic or semi-autocratic regimes. As China’s cultural influence expands through soft power initiatives, the US faces a crucial decision on whether to maintain its current approach or rethink its engagement in Southeast Asia.

By failing to address this trend, the US risks further loss of influence, potentially impacting its ability to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or impose economic costs on Beijing. The Lowy and ISEAS reports underscore the urgent need for the US to reevaluate its strategies in Southeast Asia and prevent a costly and potentially dangerous trend from escalating further.