One of the topics covered in depth at ASPI’s War in 2025 conference was the geo-political realities of great power competition between China and the US in Southeast Asia. As the alliance system stretches, the cracks between Chinese and US influence are expanding.
The notion that nations have to pick and choose their team is simple. Yet Australia is entering a dangerous period of a prospective cold (possibly hot) war between major powers, and could face a hard choice between China and the US.
Global relations between China and the US are changing, according to Dr Willy Lam, Adjunct Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The imbalance of regional alliances and the closing trade gap between the two great powers has lead to much uncertainty on both sides which has flowed into the geopolitics of the region.
“China [will close] the gap with the US [as soon as] 2021,” Dr Lam said in respect to their economic size and power. “China is driving a wedge in the Western alliance via trade and alliances.”
Dr Lam explained the implications of China’s 13th five-year plan of economic and social development, which was released in 2017. The plan is seen as a shared vision amongst the people of China.
“The five-year plan involves integrating the Chinese military with civilian sectors, including universities,” Dr Lam said. “Uniform standards will be placed in civilian institutes. All Chinese citizens are potential soldiers.”
Chancellor of the University of Queensland Peter Varghese spoke about the unlikelihood of China and the US forming any form of alliance. Speaking from his experience as a High Commissioner to Malaysia and India, secretary of DFAT and Director General of the Office of National Assessments, Varghese brought unique perspective.
“The US may not remain the most influential power on the globe,” Varghese said. “China will become a stakeholder and have more influence on old and new institutions. The US is entering a dangerous period, and they have no sensible alternatives to engaging with China. China’s rise needs to be managed, and a balance of power needs to be shaped.”
Many countries aren’t happy as this battle for dominance affects smaller regional players. Senior ASPI analyst Dr Huong Le Thu spoke about Asia’s struggle to deal with great power games between China and the US.
“India will be guided by its own interests while building ties,” Dr Le Thu said. “If Japan cuts ties with the US it’s because they’ve lost faith in their security.”
“Southeast Asia doesn’t want to chose between the US and China, but some nations have,” Dr Le Thu continued. “We have to bet on one, resist and self-strengthen, and navigate between the two. It’s about making alliances and laws.
“Southeast Asia wants to benefit from both sides without any of the downsides. The choice narrative is not simple. But Southeast Asia likes to think of themselves as victims of great power competition.”
In the post-Trump era, many predict that international relations with the US will once again become less isolationist. Yet domestic issues within American political parties are causing permanent tensions and divides. It will also take time for policy positions to be reversed and not all policies will change, even if the US government does.
“Polls in the wake of the 2016 election found that politicians thought that the greatest threat to their democracy was sitting on the other side of the aisle,” ANU’s Dr Jennifer Hunt said. “Their greatest issue is internal rather than external.”