Cultural and Area Studies Office Panel discusses key issues in Southeast Asia and China-U.S. relations

By Sarah Hauck, The Army University Public Affairs OfficeFebruary 29, 2024

Latest Cultural and Area Studies Office panel discussing key issues in China-U.S. relations in Southeast Asia Feb. 23, 2024, at Fort Leavenworth.
Soldiers and Army Civilian Professionals gather in Arnold Conference Room Feb. 23, 2024, to listen to panelists discuss China-U.S. relations in Southeast Asia in the latest Cultural and Area Studies Office panel on Fort Leavenworth. (Photo Credit: Dan Neal, The Army University Public Affairs Office ) VIEW ORIGINAL

THE ARMY UNIVERSITY, FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kansas – With recent attention on conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, Command and General Staff College has shifted its focus from CENTCOM and EUCOM back to examine issues in the INDOPACOM area of responsibility. In the era of strategic competition China, China’s influence in Southeast Asia was the focus of the latest Cultural and Area Studies Office panel Feb. 23, 2024.

The CGSC’s CASO panel continued its series of discussions on the Asian-Pacific discussions on challenges, opportunities, and strategic importance of the Southeast Asia region and U.S national security.

“To address the national security challenges posed by China as a ‘pacing threat’, the United States is partnered with many nations in the region and deals with them bilaterally, multilaterally, and through international organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] The [Quad] — India, Japan, Australia, and the United States; The [AUKUS]- the Trilateral Security Partnership Between Australia, U.K. and U.S.; and the [Shangri-La Dialogue]. These are examples of the multi-dimensional approach of the U.S. efforts in the Indo-Pacific, given the complexity of the region…,” Dr. Mahir J. Ibrahimov (Dr. I.), director of CASO and moderator of the panel said, while setting the stage for the session.

The panel included three subject matter experts who provided Chinese, regional Southeast Asia, and Indonesian perspectives towards the opportunities and challenges facing the United States in the INDOPACOM AOR.

Chinese Strategic Blueprint: Carrot and Stick

From its early dynasties to current leadership, China has maintained a self-determined on-high mentality.

Lt. Col. David McCaughrin, Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations, CGSC, explained the perspective of how Chinese have historically viewed their country’s role.

He explained the translation of ‘China’ is “central country” or “middle kingdom”.

“This has long been the theme of how China thinks of itself of it’s relation to East Asia and, to a lesser extent, globally,” McCaughrin said.

In early China dynasties, neighboring countries were expected to pay respect through presentation of gifts to the China’s emperors, , who were seen as being divinely guided in their leadership and decision making, McCaughrin said, in exchange for gifts.

While Chinese history has seen the country faced with military losses and challenges to its government systems, it has not deterred China from continued attempts to dangle a carrot of alliance in front of countries in Southeast Asia.

McCaughrin highlighted the modern One Belt, One Road initiative that simultaneously promotes China’s soft power and infrastructure development.

“This hasn’t always been a smooth road. They have been able to attract a lot of investment and make some deals with governments, however, there’s been backlash when seen as too hand-in-glove with China,” McCaughrin said.

China’s continued challenge to bilateral relations like ASEAN creates issues with organizations attempting to stifle China’s influence, McCaughrin explained.

To cut the string on China’s carrot to countries in southeast Asia, McCaughrin emphasized the need for the U.S. to not force countries to choose one side of the fence but to lean into understanding their interconnectedness with China.

Panelists and moderator participate in the latest Cultural and Area Studies Office panel focused on China-U.S. relations in Southeast Asia Feb. 23, 2024, On Fort Leavenworth, KS.
Army panelists Maj. Petrus Prabowo, Indonesia Army, Command and General Staff College student; Lt. Col. Phil Kerber, Department of Joint, Interagency, and Multinational Operations, CGSC; Lt. Col. David McCaughrin, DJIMO, CGSC; and moderator and Cultural and Area Studies Office Director Dr. Mahir J. Ibrahimov participate in the latest CASO panel focusing on China-U.S. relations in Southeast Asia Feb. 23, 2024, in Arnold Conference Room on Fort Leavenworth, KS. (Photo Credit: Dan Neal, The Army University Public Affairs Office ) VIEW ORIGINAL

Three D’s of Southeast Asia: Dynamic, Diverse, Difficult

“It is a very strategic locations; between two continents, a place where we absolutely need to be in context of our allies and partners,” Lt. Col. Phil Kerber, DJIMO, CGSC, said.

The diversity of the region spans religion, government, and culture. Southeast Asia includes one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, alongside Buddhist influences, to the range of governments of democracies to communist regimes and monarchies.

Kerber noted the dynamics of the region lay mostly with the economic growth, population changes, and stability challenges, citing Singapore specifically, that’s GDP has quadrupled in the last 20 years.

“The future of the U.S. has been made very clear and is included in various strategic documents, and it is intertwined with Indo-PACOM, with a good piece of that being right here [in Southeast Asia,” Kerber said.

The diversity and dynamics that make up the region’s intrigue can be seen as foundational reasons for its difficult nature but are not the only reasons.

The difficulties of the region Kerber discussed included low intensity conflicts and civil wars, along with those of ecological nature due to reclamation and other resource-related challenges.

The U.S. currently does not have any military basis within this region, but their allies and partner presence is seen and known thanks to long-standing strategic partnerships with countries like Thailand and the Philippines.

These countries and others are all committed to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” which requires involvement in Southeast Asia, Kerber explained.

This commitment and partnership with the region’s countries can be limited, Kerber explained, because, while the U.S. believes in a rules-based system, forced strategic alliances is not beneficial.

“The National Security Strategy makes it very clear that we need to out compete PRC. We are not asked to be in conflict with the PRC or asking anyone to choose the PRC, but we are dictated to out-compete PRC across all fields. Not just in Southeast Asia but, really around the world,” Kerber said.  “Why? We see the world differently and we believe in the rules-based system that has reinforced the decades and decades of economic progress around the world.”

Indonesia’s Perspective

Much like Southeast Asia, Indonesia is a diverse and dynamic country with more than 1,300 ethnic groups inhabiting more than 6,000 of its 18,000 islands.

The geographic diversity allows Indonesia to be a robust exporter of a large variety of natural resources. However, this export-dependent economy makes Indonesia reliant on their regional neighbors.

Despite this regional reliance Indonesia has a Free-Active policy, MAJ Petrus Prabowo, Indonesian Army, CGSC student, explained, meaning there are no active alliances with Indonesia.

“We consider all countries as partners so we can maintain good relationships and try to find something to benefit one another,” he said.

The Free-Active policy allows Indonesia to be part of many strategic organizations, but makes it difficult to create mutually beneficial policies, Prabowo said.

Due to its strategic location across shipping lanes within the South China Sea, Indonesia can position themselves with many of the region’s nations.

“Indonesia’s strengths can also pose a threat if the government made a wrong decision,” Prabowo said. “Our Constitution dictates us to maintain good relationships and partnerships with other countries around the world.”

The discussion included a question-and-answer session that covered topics of building strategic relationships with regional players, support of Russia and China to Indonesia, and how the U.S. should be looking to outcompete China’s sphere of influence.

This panel is part of a seminar series discussing issues of operational and strategic importance to the U.S., which CASO in coordination with CGSC, universities, think tanks, interagency and other partners conduct every two to three months, which is also live streamed on CGSC's Facebook page.

The full recording of this panel (and other CASO panels) can be viewed on the CASO website, the CGSC Facebook or YouTube.

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