Robert G. Sutter
Robert G. Sutter is professor of practice of international affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University. His earlier fulltime position was visiting professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University (2001-2011). A Ph.D. graduate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, Sutter has published 21 books, over 200 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is U.S.-China Relations: Perilous Past, Uncertain Present (third edition: Rowman & Littlefield 2018). Sutter’s government career (1968-2001) saw service as the director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service, the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council, and the China division director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Articles by Robert G. Sutter
Beijing’s extraordinary high-level attention to Southeast Asia since last year continued in the current reporting period. It culminated in President Xi Jinping presiding over a special summit he convened to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue on Nov. 22, which featured an array of Chinese advances. Keenly attentive to US efforts to reverse its recent decline and compete more effectively with China in Southeast Asia, Beijing has relied on ever-expanding Chinese influence in Southeast Asia to eclipse and offset US initiatives. Beijing faced a setback when Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte sharply rebuked Chinese coercion in the disputed South China Sea during the November summit. Similarly, China’s role in the political turmoil in Myanmar got noticeable pushback from ASEAN leaders as the humanitarian situation in Myanmar remains unstable.
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.
ROUNDTABLEJune 14, 2021
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.
China faced a less forceful US posture in the South China Sea in this reporting period compared with earlier in 2020. Beijing took advantage of President Trump’s failure to participate in the East Asian Summit (EAS) and other ASEAN-led meetings in November. Chinese leaders depicted the United States as disruptive and out of step with what Beijing saw as an overriding trend toward regional economic integration and cooperation. They highlighted the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement and ASEAN’s new prominence as China’s top trading partner, forecasting stronger regional economic growth led by China’s rapid rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing remained on guard against US challenges, and it resorted to unprecedented trade retaliation and related diplomatic pressures to compel Canberra to change its recent moves to check Chinese interference in domestic Australian affairs, expansionism in the South China Sea, repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and malfeasance in the initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Some experts were optimistic that the Philippines and China were on the verge of agreeing on joint exploitation of oil and gas in South China Sea areas claimed by both countries, but others remained skeptical.
Beijing responded methodically to a major escalation in US challenges to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Officials from Xi Jinping on down reached out to Southeast Asian countries with emphasis on growing economic relations and cooperation in countering COVID-19. Top-level officials generally eschewed public criticism of the United States on South China Sea issues, while government ministries and official and unofficial media used sometimes tough language in criticizing Washington. Overall, Beijing registered satisfaction that ASEAN adopted a neutral stance and most other states showed little sign of leaning toward the US against China.
For most of the first four months of 2020, China’s generally low priority treatment of Southeast Asia featured cooperation on the coronavirus, standard treatment of South China Sea issues, and a visit by Xi Jinping to Myanmar. However, April saw tensions rise in the South China Sea, with an increase in US criticism of Chinese actions and US military moves against Chinese challenges as well as Chinese initiatives and ongoing provocations.
The annual heads of government regional meetings convened by ASEAN leaders in Bangkok, topped by the 14th East Asian summit on Nov. 4, saw Beijing’s leaders set the pace for slow-moving negotiations on a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. They also celebrated the conclusion of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade accord that excludes the United States.
Chinese officials and authoritative commentary continued their positive portrayal of China-Southeast Asia relations. Routine public assessments avowed confidence that differences over the South China Sea and challenges posed by the United States were manageable while China’s economic attraction for the region would grow. Against this favorable background, Chinese maritime forces, in moves Beijing did not publicize, challenged Vietnam and Malaysia over oil and gas drilling rights in the South China Sea. They also continued to use maritime force to challenge Manila’s efforts to construct modest infrastructure upgrades at Philippine-occupied Thitu Island.
In the first third of 2019, senior Chinese leaders devoted little attention to the South China Sea and China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries. Infrequent comments depicted slow progress in negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea and steady advances with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offering strong economic incentives for closer regional cooperation with China. ASEAN and Southeast Asian claimants adhered to Beijing’s demands to avoid reference to the 2016 UNCLOS tribunal ruling against China’s South China Sea claims and to handle disputes through negotiations without outside interference. Routine complaints about more frequent US freedom of navigation exercises and other US and allied military operations in the South China Sea came from lower-level ministry spokespersons. Little attention was given to growing angst in Southeast Asia that intensified US-China competition compels countries to take sides, a choice undermining strategies that seek benefits from close ties with both the US and China.