RSIS Seminar by Associate Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director, Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University
China's Superpower Pragmatism in Southeast Asia
The US-China rivalry is becoming a non-military war. It is no longer just about tariffs and trade or technology and Huawei but involves the gamut of statecraft instruments to overcome an adversary. Tariff hikes are alarmingly becoming a sideshow to a broader struggle between two giants with opposed worldviews. This conflict may be reminiscent of the Cold War between the US and USSR but it is fundamentally different. The US and Soviet Union took their ideological battle into third countries without direct confrontation. The US-China fight is direct, a geopolitical competition in milder terms but an escalating rivalry in the longer run. The theatre of this competition is China’s Belt and Road Initiative on one hand and the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy on the other. BRI may be seen as China’s ‘manifest resurgence’ in reclaiming a glorious past from the old Silk Road and maritime expeditions, whereas the Indo-Pacific is a counter strategy to contain and constrain China’s inevitable superpower ambition. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has blended its totalitarian state with market capitalism, resulting in a formidable hybrid of centralized control and market-consistent economic dynamism. Because the US-China tussle is non-military, China is a much more effective foe than the USSR ever was. At issue will be how long the conflict remains non-military. China knows that economic prowess is not enough and that military might will be necessary, and hence its unprecedented arms build-up. The US is aware of the same and will likely turn to military means as its toolbox of economic statecraft cannot impede China’s growth momentum enough to satisfy the Trump White House. For Southeast Asia, a key battleground in this titanic tussle, China is winning by being pragmatic. The global pushback against BRI and the US trade/technology offensive has led Beijing to rethink. At the same time, Trump’s go-it-alone approach has left Japan more insecure. Last October, Abe went to Beijing and signed some 52 MOCs, including the China-Japan-Thailand smart city project in Amata City. Now more such third-country cooperation is planned, including China-Singapore in Myanmar and China-Thailand in Laos. This is becoming a kind of ‘backdoor’ BRI strategy, no longer bilateral and direct but using conduits. In addition, the ‘Kra Canal’ (or Thai Canal) geostrategic project is being revived in Thailand, with mixed reception, but its realisation would be a game changer for mainland Southeast Asia and broader Asia. The upshot is that BRI is very much intact and on track, despite early headwinds. The US under Trump is at risk of a trade and tech war that will not deter China’s global ambition and may lead China to circumvent the US.
About the Speaker
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) and Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He has authored a wide range of articles, books and book chapters on Thailand’s politics, political economy, and foreign policy, as well as ASEAN and East Asian geopolitics and geo-economics. He is frequently quoted and his many opinion articles have appeared in international and local media, including CNN, BBC, Financial Times, The International New York Times, Nikkei Asian Review, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, among others, as well as a regular column in The Bangkok Post and The Straits Times. Following a journalism stint, Dr Thitinan’s worked at The BBC World Service and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and has since provided consultations on projects related to ASEAN, mainland Southeast Asia, and Thailand’s macro-economy and politics.
He received his BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara, MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and PhD from the London School of Economics where his work on the political economy of the 1997 Thai economic crisis was awarded the United Kingdom’s Best Dissertation Prize in Comparative and International Politics. In June 2015, he received an award for excellence in opinion writing from the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA). In March 2018, he was chosen as an [email protected] Fellow sponsored by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In May 2019, he was picked as Australia-ASEAN Fellow based at Sydney’s Lowy Institute.
Dr Thitinan has held visiting positions at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Stanford University in the United States, Yangon University in Myanmar, Victoria University in New Zealand, and Tubingen University in Germany, having lectured at many local and overseas universities. He currently serves on the editorial boards of International Relations of Southeast Asia, South East Asia Research, Asian Politics & Policy, and Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs.
His publications include: “All quiet on the Thai-Cambodian front: Drivers, dynamics, directions”, South East Asia Research, Vol 26, No 4, 2018; “Locating ASEAN in East Asia’s Regional Order” in Asia Policy, April 2018; “Southeast Asia and the Trump Administration: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2017); “Where ASEAN Meets Southeast Asia” in The Asia Foundation’s Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia”, 2016; “An Unaligned Alliance: Thailand-United States Relations,“ Asian Politics & Policy, October 2015; “The Mekong Region: A River Runs Through It”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014; “Thailand’s Uneasy Passage”, Journal of Democracy, April-June 2012.