China aims to displace the United States in Southeast Asia and has been busily building up its influence in that region while America remains preoccupied with the Middle East and terrorism, experts told a congressional panel on July 22.
Southeast Asia is the stage for a modern version of the “Great Game” — the 19th century Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, said Marvin Ott of the National War College.
“One player in the game has already made several moves, they’ve been very carefully thought through, they’ve already gathered a number of chips,” he told a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“The other player is distracted, focused elsewhere, hardly aware that the game has even started,” Ott said.
Other expert witnesses told the commission, which advises Congress on China policy, that Beijing’s strategy aims to restore the historic supremacy of China in a region where the United States has had strong alliances since the 1950s.
Former Pentagon official Dan Blumenthal said China sought to “break and fray” those alliances through arrangements with Southeast Asians that exclude the United States — most notably an East Asian summit to be held in Malaysia in December.
The Chinese military buildup documented in a recent Pentagon report showed an emphasis on missiles, destroyers and advanced aircraft that also supported these aims, he said.
“The idea here is to put doubts in the minds of allies and friends that the U.S. has the will and ability over time to continue to be the provider of regional security,” said Blumenthal, now at the American Enterprise Institute.
The United States had moved to counter that strategy by strengthening relations with Vietnam, India, Singapore, Japan and Australia, he added.
Bronson Percival, a retired U.S. diplomat who is a senior adviser to the CNA Corp. think tank, said close U.S. ties with Southeast Asia suffered from perceptions that America “has no discernible policy for Southeast Asia beyond counterterrorism.”
“We’ve built up such an overwhelming position, there’s certainly a whiff of complacency on the part of the United States,” Percival told the commission.