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Southeast Asia (154)
Many observers cast Southeast Asia as a crucial arena of Sino-U.S. competition. The United States has deep security, trade and investment relations with the region, and many believe that Southeast Asian nations deeply value the longstanding U.S. "security umbrella" against a potentially expansive China. Southeast Asia's proximity to China historically has cut two ways--creating cultural and regional affinities, but also breeding an existential Southeast Asian fear of potential PRC domination. But the PRC has spent over a decade actively courting Southeast Asian states with new diplomatic initiatives, trade and investment, and foreign aid.
In fact, both China and the United States have strong ties to Southeast Asia, and both draw upon considerable strengths in projecting soft power in the region. Despite widespread improvements in public perceptions of China and parallel declines in perceptions of the United States, the United States draws upon considerable security and diplomatic assets in Southeast Asia, and neither side can really claim to be the dominant power in the region.
Some analysts argue that China seeks to create a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia and to erode U.S. dominance, while others contend that the PRC has not the will, capability, nor acquiescence of countries in the region to carry out such a goal, at least in the short- to medium-term. (155) According to many analysts, Southeast Asian countries generally welcome PRC aid, investment, and friendship, but do not want China to dominate the region militarily. Many citizens in the region support or accept the U.S. military presence, but feel that the United States has often neglected to engage them diplomatically or hear their concerns. This void has been filled in part by China's growing soft power.
China's growing influence derives mainly from its role as a market for the region's natural resources, the economic benefits that it bestows through aid (mostly loans for infrastructure projects) and investment, gestures of friendship expressed through its diplomacy and foreign assistance, the PRC's standing as an economic development model, and economic and cultural integration stemming from proximity and migration. The United States maintains its influence based upon its military presence, foreign direct investment, its market for the region's manufactured goods, military and development assistance, and educational opportunities. Many Southeast Asians continue to view the United States as a model of democracy and free market economics, aspire to its middle class lifestyle, and are attracted to its popular culture.
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Other research emphasizes the overarching principles that inform China's soft power activities and make it a powerful alternative to U.S. soft power. The PRC's official embrace of Southeast Asia--what some refer to as its "charm offensive"--has nurtured China's rising influence. (156) By contrast, perceptions of U.S. aloofness and narrow security interests in the region and of Washington's demanding conditions for diplomatic and financial support have contributed to Southeast Asian disillusionment with the United States. In the past decade, China has cultivated goodwill in Southeast Asia by refraining from devaluing its currency and by contributing to the International Monetary Fund "support package" to Thailand during the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis; (157) downplaying territorial disputes and agreeing to strive for peaceful resolutions to such conflicts; (158) developing a very active diplomatic agenda; promoting free trade agreements; and providing economic assistance without conditions.
Overseas Chinese communities have long played important parts in the economies, societies, and cultures of Southeast Asian states, although their relations with China, the home of their ancestors, in many instances have been ambivalent. Ethnic Chinese, who for over two centuries have migrated to Southeast Asia from southern China with little apparent acknowledgment from the Chinese government, have long dominated the economies of the region. Recent Chinese immigrants to Southeast Asia have both exploited contacts with older Chinese communities and engendered resentment within these communities as well as among indigenous peoples. (159) Many overseas Chinese in the region have downplayed their ties to China in order to help avoid ethnic discrimination against them or to improve their economic, social, and political opportunities in their adopted countries; however, as China has gained …