Expressing concern at China's rapidly growing global footprint, various experts have highlighted that South and Southeast Asia are the areas of Beijing's key strategic interest, with the goal of "weakening the US and its allies".
In a seminar hosted by The Democracy Forum titled "China's battle for influence in South & Southeast Asia: Can it succeed?", various panelists discussed how regional governments have responded to Chinese engagements in South and Southeast Asia and other key issues.
In his introduction to the speakers and topic, moderator Humphrey Hawksley, a former BBC Asia correspondent, said that the debate marked 50 years to the month since US President Richard Nixon's visit to China in a step towards winning the Cold War and ushering China into the international rules-based order. According to the Former United States Secretary of States Henry Kissinger's prediction, when China no longer needed the US it would be very difficult to deal with, which has proved prescient.
"The authoritarian bond between Beijing and Moscow appears to be strengthening daily, with the goal of weakening America and its allies, and the tentacles of influence extend everywhere. Beijing views Asia as its own backyard, with the countries of South and Southeast Asia - most not developed democracies - rich pickings for China," he said.
Offering an overview of China's economic engagement with the region as a key point of influence, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute said that while China's economic dominance is a geo-economic reality in the region -- this was not always accompanied by high political trust, which has weakened over tensions in the South China Sea and China's handling of the global pandemic.
"Public opinion across the region is uneven, with some nations more pro-US and others more pro-China - though the region is reluctant to be pushed into a position of being forced to choose between the two," the Associate Professor said.
Greitens also discussed the largely overlooked area of Chinese activity and influence.
"A new approach, including the use of international organisations, is effective in a region inclined towards multilateralism, and China is also providing police training as it speaks of 'sharing the experience of a safe China'. Law-enforcement and police diplomacy often takes place side by side with the export of surveillance technology to a number of Southeast Asian countries, and geography is no barrier to Chinese law enforcement," Greitens said in the statement.
"We are not necessarily seeing China impose a single model of Chinese-style Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism," Greitens said, adding "but we do see a willingness to supply some of the tools that could then be used to make more capable authoritarian states in the recipient countries.
While Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute said: "The Indo-Pacific feels the brunt of Chinese coercion but also competition, and the US and a few western countries are standing in the way of Xi Jinping's global vision, which includes a vast global platform. It is clear, then, that China poses the main challenge to harmony in the Indo-Pacific." "This is a global struggle, more intense around the periphery of China in South and Southeast Asia. He (Xi) saw the Biden administration's evolving Indo-Pacific strategy as having a lot of continuity with Trump and Obama's, in that it tries to push peace, prosperity and pluralism," Cronin said in the statement.
Cronin also said that China is embracing the junta in Myanmar, thereby dismissing democratic inroads made there, even as it hedges its bets with the National Unity Government.
Derek Grossman, a Senior Defence Analyst at the RAND Corporation, considered how the US is faring in Southeast Asia, a region critical to winning the strategic competition against China in the Indo-Pacific.
Grossman highlighted points such as Biden's visible goal of placing allies and partners at the centre of his foreign policy in Southeast Asia, his focus on upholding international law in the South China Sea, and the dialling back of some of America's tougher language on competition with China, which was welcomed throughout Southeast Asia.
Grossman said that another positive trend is that US-Southeast Asian relations under Biden have a broader agenda than just the divisive China issue, including climate change, Myanmar, and pandemic recovery.
Dr Michael Reiterer, EU-Ambassador (ret'd) and Distinguished Professor at the Brussels School of Governance, shared Heiduk's non-binary view, arguing that it is crucial for the EU to strengthen cooperation with countries in Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific and beyond, to make them more resilient and help them avoid making choices they do not want to make in the great power competition.
"Strengthening partnerships can be done through sectoral cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as keeping regional trade open, ocean governance and cyber security, while multilateral cooperation includes working with ASEAN and ASEAN centrality, ASEM (Asia Europe Meeting) and support for the Mekong River Commission. In pursuing effective multilateralism, Reiterer said, China remains part of the political process, thus avoiding the 'encirclement syndrome'.
Looking at China's successes in the region, the final panelist, Robert Sutter, Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University, said China is making advances in many ways in South Asia.
"China has sustained good relations with the Myanmar junta, putting it in a much better position than the US to deal with the crisis, and its military is strong in defending its maritime claims against weaker countries," Robert Sutter said.