Robert G. Sutter

George Washington University
Photo of 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
China’s New Foreign Policy Moderation—Mixed Regional Implications

Incorporating major foreign policy initiatives of leader Xi Jinping, Beijing completed its effort from the past two years with instructions in January on China’s new approach to foreign affairs to Chinese foreign policy officials and others concerned. The new approach added authority and momentum to Beijing’s emphasis since Xi’s summit with US President Joe Biden last November on greater Chinese moderation and restraint as a “responsible” great power pursuing peace and development in dealing with Southeast Asian neighbors and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Beijing remains selective in how it applies moderation, and the record of the past two years shows great swings between moderation and truculence in its approach to foreign affairs, depending on circumstances which remain subject to change. The success of China’s regional importance showed in Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies annual survey of regional elites with China viewed as both the leading economic and political-security power, overshadowing the United States, and the judgment that if forced to choose between them, more respondents would select China than the United States.

Beijing Moderates Criticisms Selectively

Beijing in this reporting period moderated often shrill rhetoric of the past two years criticizing Joseph Biden administration advances and regional governments cooperating with the US. Emphasizing China’s positive contributions to regional economic growth, Beijing stressed its flexibility, said to be different from Washington in not pressing regional states to choose between the US and China, even as it demonstrated ambitions to develop a new regional and global order favorable to itself. Nevertheless, glaring exceptions included egregious pressures to compel deference to China’s claims in the South China Sea, harsh criticism of the Philippines and Japan cooperating closely with the United States, as well as authoritative foreign policy statements giving regional governments little choice between two paths forward: cooperation with an avowedly beneficial China or America’s purported exploitative, divisive and destructive initiatives. Regarding the Philippines, an unprecedented show of support by the US for the territorial claims of its treaty ally resulted in an equally unprecedented pushback from Beijing.

China-US Rivalry Very Much “in Play”: Outcome Uncertain

China’s recently recognized position as Southeast Asia’s leading power faces growing challenges from efforts of the Biden administration to counter Chinese ambitions and advance US regional influence. Beijing has stuck to practices of strong diplomatic engagement, economic enticement, and a range of coercive measures that have been broadly successful in the past but seem to have failed badly in the Philippines, now moving into the US orbit.

China Strengthens Regional Leadership Countering US Challenges

Southeast Asia featured prominently in Beijing’s increasingly strong international efforts to portray China as a source of strategic stability and economic growth with comprehensive global governance plans supportive of interests of developing countries and opposing the United States. These efforts intensified after the landmark 20th Party Congress in October and the 14th National People’s Congress in March. They were reinforced as Xi Jinping emerged from COVID restrictions and preoccupation with domestic matters to engage actively in summitry with leaders of Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. China’s economic importance for regional countries grew as did its dominance over the contested South China Sea. Its show of force against Taiwan in April had little discernible impact on China-Southeast Asia relations, while notable US advances in military cooperation with the Philippines warranted Chinese warnings that escalated during the reporting period.

Xi Moderates to US and Others Amid Continued Competition

Southeast Asia was the center of international attention in November as regional and global leaders gathered at the G20 conference in Indonesia, which took place between the annual ASEAN-hosted summit meetings in Cambodia and the yearly APEC leaders meeting in Thailand. Acute China-US rivalry loomed large in media and other forecasts, warning of a clash of US-Chinese leaders with negative implications feared in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The positive outcome of the Biden-Xi summit at the G20 conference and related actions eased tensions, which was welcomed, particularly in Southeast Asia, but the implications for the US and allies’ competition with China remain to be seen. Tensions over disputes in the South China Sea continued unabated. President Xi Jinping made his first trip to a major international gathering at the G20 conference followed by the APEC meeting after more than two years of self-imposed isolation in line with his government’s strict COVID-19 restrictions.

Countering US Initiatives, Taiwan Crisis Complications

Chinese enhanced activism in Southeast Asia in this reporting period focused on countering Biden administration efforts to enhance influence in the Indo-Pacific. The Chinese government intensified its depiction of the United States as disrupting regional order and portraying itself as the regional stabilizer. Beijing’s effort faced complications and uncertain prospects as Chinese military forces in August launched large-scale provocative shows of force amid strident media warnings targeting the United States over Taiwan.

Diminished Priority As Ukraine Distracts America

Southeast Asia stopped being China’s high priority as Beijing viewed US initiatives to compete with China in the region as flagging amid preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. Chinese diplomacy added to the reasons Southeast Asian governments generally eschewed support for US-backed sanctions against Russia and carefully avoided major controversy in UN votes on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A Chinese-Solomon Islands security deal resulted in more US and allied attention to the Pacific Islands than ever before, surpassing rare past instances of concern over interventions by the Soviet Union, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and others in an area usually considered of low strategic importance.

China’s Growing Influence Overshadows US Initiatives

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.

Pushing Regional Advantages Amid Heightened US Rivalry

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.

ASEAN Centrality after the Myanmar Coup


June 14, 2021

ASEAN Centrality after the Myanmar Coup

On June 14 the Pacific Forum hosted its first Comparative Connections Roundtable on the subject of ASEAN Centrality after the Myanmar Coup. The session was the first in a series of events in which authors from Comparative Connections: A Triannual Journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific, meet to discuss timely matters of importance to the region as a whole.