US-China rivalry and public diplomacy in Southeast Asia

US-China rivalry and public diplomacy in Southeast Asia

'President Biden told President Xi that we share a profound responsibility to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared during a visit to Jakarta in December.

"Diplomacy will continue to be our tool of first resort in meeting that responsibility -- ensuring the potential for conflict in the region is minimised, managed and ultimately deterred," he added in a speech about the US vision for a "free and open Indo-Pacific".

The Indo-Pacific region, Mr Blinken said, "will shape the trajectory of the world in the 21st century".

The United States' growing interest in the region is clear, one obvious reason being its desire to counter the influence of an increasingly confident and economically powerful China.

The expansion of Chinese influence can be seen mainly in Southeast Asia. With its Belt and Road initiative, China has various things to offer, ranging from infrastructure to investment and loans. Moreover, during the pandemic, China extended its vaccine diplomacy and Covid-19 assistance to all Asean countries.

The US has also increased its presence and assistance in Southeast Asia. In 2021 alone, numerous high-ranking officials visited Southeast Asian countries. They included Vice President Kamala Harris; Mr Blinken; Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; and Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

In all these visits, the key message from Washington has been that Southeast Asia is an important part of a strategic alliance; therefore, the US is committed to increasing further cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.

While both the US and China have increased assistance and cooperation in Southeast Asia, it focuses mainly on economic dimensions such as trade, investment and infrastructure, and security cooperation such as military exercises and assistance. It seems that neither one has focused much on public diplomacy aspects, which may have direct implications in terms of how the Southeast Asian public views and perceives the US or China.

Today, where social media and online information have become increasingly important for citizens, more and more people are interested in foreign policy and their governments' positions amid the US-China rivalry. For instance, in some countries such as Indonesia, citizens have often criticised their government when it appears to be leaning more toward China despite ongoing escalation in the South China Sea.

In light of this trend, public diplomacy from both the US and China in Southeast Asia could play a bigger role in shaping how the public views the role of these two major powers in the region.

There have been several surveys by think tanks in the region on public perceptions of the US-China rivalry. In its survey titled The State of Southeast Asia 2021, ISEAS said: "Southeast Asians' trust in China continues to trend downward, in contrast to the United States' improved trust ratings."

The Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), in its Asean-China Survey, noted that he current relationship between Asean and China benefits both sides. These surveys also showed the how the public in Southeast Asia perceived their countries' relations with US and China. Therefore, it is becoming crucial to educate the public further regarding their countries' relations with the two big powers.

Public diplomacy can take many forms, but the first and most important is through academic or educational cooperation. Soft power diplomacy through education tends to be more far-reaching and effective. This is because through their writings and publications, academic communities often shape the policy discourse and perceptions toward either the US or China in the media and academic literature. It is not uncommon for them to also influence the policymaking of their governments through consultancy and advisory roles.

Furthermore, student exchange programmes and scholarships tend to create more positive perceptions among the beneficiaries. Exchanges of ideas also provide them with perspectives to understand each other.

For example, during the Cold War, the US government provided scholarships to many Southeast Asian students to study in US universities, such as Cornell University and the University of California Berkeley. The students who enrolled at those universities returned to their respective countries and assumed strategic positions in their governments. With their US academic background, they have an understanding about bilateral relations with numerous countries.

Currently, there are almost 60,000 Southeast Asian students enrolled in the United States, with an increasing number coming from Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam in recent years. However, the figure is still below the number of Southeast Asians at universities in China, most of them on scholarships provided by the Chinese government. Moreover, Chinese universities have been making gains in international rankings, showing that the quality of higher education in China is being recognised internationally.

Another important form of public diplomacy is through the media. While academics' works are mainly read by their academic peers, public media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions toward either the US or China. Newspapers, online news and television are very effective channels for educating the general public.

That being said, even though US-China competition in Southeast Asia is still mostly focused on traditional economic and political security matters, both sides should also start focusing more on people-to-people interaction to effectively shape how the general public perceives foreign relations.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer in International Law at Universitas Indonesia, and Young Leader at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Foreign Policy Research Institute. He holds a master's in international law from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

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