Sustainable Development instead of Great Power Competition

Wing Thye Woo

About the author

Wing Thye Woo is Research Professor at Sunway University, Kuala Lumpur; Vice-President for Asia at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, New York City; and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California Davis.


In “How America Can Shore up Asian Order”, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi identify the United States as “the original architect and longtime sponsor of the present system” and attribute its 40-year life to the balance of power, acceptance of its legitimacy by countries within the region, and America’s “long-standing commitment to forward-deployed military forces”. They essentially recommend linking the military power of the Quad with Southeast Asian states to deter China from changing the status quo.

Yet the “balance” in the system only ever existed in the form of military confrontation between US allies and the communist states in the region, for example on the Korean Peninsula. Within the East Asian capitalist world, order took the form of hegemonic stability based on a power imbalance between the United States and its local partners.

Overwhelming US economic and military force, rather than accepted legitimacy, provides the basis for regional architecture. The United States designed the global institutional architecture and then amended it, selectively and unilaterally. Examples include the US dollar rather than the bancor being being designated the linchpin of the Bretton Woods Monetary System in 1944, and Nixon’s closure of the gold window in 1971, without consulting any US ally.

Campbell and Doshi’s plea for the maintenance of the existing system rests on the proposition that it has generated immense benefits and would continue to do so in the future. This linear projection ignores the dependence of the institutional infrastructure on the economic structure. The latter is changing with the tremendous expansion and transformation of China’s economy and its continued dynamism, likely further technological innovations that promise certain disruption of present supply chains, as well as accelerating climate change and loss of biodiversity.

In this context, the institutional framework that best maximises collective welfare would be guided by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rather than the extreme free market policies which constitute the purported gold standard in recent trade agreements.

The current regional operating system was designed for a hegemonic age rather than the emerging era of multipolarity. A multipolar order is more likely to benefit Southeast Asia than not, especially if China stops enlarging its military footprint in the South China Sea and uses its Belt and Road Initiative to support sustainable development in Southeast Asia.

To avoid bipolar disorder, China should understand that adopting the United States as its great power role model would lead it to establish almost 800 military bases in over 70 countries, an outcome that would increase the probability of an accidental war. For its part, the United States should recognise the growing incompatibility between the global institutional superstructure and the facts (and boots) on the ground, and its consequent ratcheting up of resentment in China.

Southeast Asia wants any new operating system for the Indo-Pacific order to be biased towards solving disputes diplomatically rather than militarily. It does not want an expansion of US military alliances from Northeast Asia into Southeast Asia. This would be as provocative to China as the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe was to Russia. That provocation helped precipitate Ukraine’s civil war and the forced return of Crimea to Moscow. Only two Southeast Asian countries were members of SEATO during the Cold War and none would join a revived version of it today.

Southeast Asia wants regional arrangements that address the national security concerns of both China and the Quad without disadvantaging either. Freedom of navigation for aircraft carrier groups in the South China Sea is fine, but none should linger in the area. The United States has military bases in the islands of Northeast Asia, and China has them in the islands of the South China Sea. Southeast Asia demands a freeze on the building and strengthening of military bases.

Southeast Asia wants a regional order based on international laws and not on rules unilaterally set by either world power. The operating system for the Indo-Pacific order must incorporate circuit-breakers for dispute resolution in the form of compulsory dispute arbitration managed by neutral regional/global bodies like the International Court of Justice and UN agencies, and include commitments by China and the Quad to keeping Southeast Asia a nuclear-weapons-free-zone (SEANWFZ) and a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN).

Sadly, Southeast Asia is unlikely to get the regional architecture that is best for its sustainable development because an elephant does not take the interests of grass into account when moving to a more advantageous location in its confrontation or dalliance with another elephant. Many in Southeast Asia have therefore looked to the European Union (EU) to learn how states can overcome obstacles to regional integration and gain more collective agency. The first signs are optimistic, both the United States and China have followed the EU in accelerating the decarbonisation of their societies.

This last observation allows me to end on an optimistic note about regional partnerships and sustainable development goals. If enlightened self-interest succeeds in creating a cohesive ASEAN Union, then perhaps Southeast Asia will in the near future be able to advise the United States on how to formulate a regional operating system for the Americas based on consulting its entire membership about what it wants, and then, by setting an example for US-China engagement, about how to reap mutual economic benefits while addressing national security concerns.

Challenge the expert

Ben Scott, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project, challenges Wing Thye Woo’s key arguments.

Do you disagree with the claim that the rapid economic development of Northeast and Southeast Asia has been enabled by a relatively benign security environment which, in turn, has been underpinned by the US military presence?

The greatest US contribution to the sustained economic development of East Asia has come not from its military deterrence but from the openness of its market to East Asian exports despite the continual upgrading of exports induced by the aggressive industrial policies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. This was sustained because the collective impact of Japan-South Korea-Taiwan trade on the US economy from 1960 to 1990 was small enough to be politically manageable, unlike the large and across-the-board impact of China trade from 2000 onward.

I agree that US military intervention in the Korean War and consequent peace, together with the outward-oriented industrial policies of South Korea and Taiwan, allowed these two economies to reach almost 70 per cent of US living standards today. The war prevented Kim Il-sung from imposing central planning (and therefore economic stagnation) on the entire peninsula. It also persuaded Harry Truman to overcome his distaste for Chiang Kai-shek and order the US Seventh Fleet to prevent China invading Taiwan.

Would the “red horde” have come swarming out of the Russia-China-Korea-Vietnam landmass to impose central planning in Japan and the other East Asian countries if the US-ANZAC alliance had not intervened militarily in Korea and Vietnam? No. Because of the US military presence, China could not invade Taiwan at the time, let alone Japan. And Japanese communists were never strong enough to launch a destabilising insurgency that would have enabled a communist invasion.

Russian-Chinese-Vietnamese imperialism was never a threat to Southeast Asia. The Russia-China alliance started unravelling in 1956 and ended by 1960. China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam suggests that the two would have fallen out much earlier if Vietnam had not needed Chinese support against the Americans until 1976. Furthermore, Russia-China-Vietnam actually ended their support to communist movements in ASEAN after 1976.

It was the incompetence of the US military establishment that toppled the Cambodian and Laotian dominoes. Their communist governments resulted from, respectively, the American-engineered coup against Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia and spillover from the Vietnam War. Intense bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail pushed it westward, deeper into Laos, causing the Vietnamese to actively support Pathet Lao in the Laotian Civil War.

What steps should Southeast Asia take to exert more collective influence in dealing with the great powers?

ASEAN wants to avoid being collateral damage during the transition in global governance from hegemonic stability to multipolar competition-cum-cooperation.

Only a united ASEAN can have the clout to keep China-US tension from escalating to the point where it inflicts collateral damage. To frame a coherent strategy and speak with a single voice, ASEAN must first deepen its political regionalism by drawing upon the European Union experience. Second, ASEAN must increase its economic power through recruitment of trade partners located outside of East Asia. This economic widening could proceed, first, with the merger of the RCEP and CPTPP, then expand to an Asia-Pacific Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and culminate in membership applications by South Asian nations.

ASEAN unity is also necessary to prevent the United States and China from establishing spheres of influence in Southeast Asia. Historically, not every sphere of influence has been an unhappy and exploitative association. Eastern Europe was a politically repressive and economically stagnant sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, but the US sphere of influence of Japan-South Korea-Taiwan was increasingly democratic and economically dynamic. But spheres of influence would divide ASEAN and limit national sovereignty.

A worse scenario for ASEAN would see the United States and China manipulating ASEAN members as client states. This would split ASEAN and cause proxy wars to rage not only among ASEAN states but also within some of them.

How can the Sustainable Development Goals be incorporated into the regional architecture and institutions? How much interest is there in Southeast Asia for doing so?

The absence of any strong green political party in Southeast Asia means that states have only seriously pursued SDGs that are economically or socially oriented. However, ASEAN politicians have started embracing green agendas to defend their constituents’ access to export markets and foreign financial markets following the European Green Deal of 2019 (whereby the European Union would impose tariffs on goods from countries with weak climate policies), and repeated China-US pledges to cooperate on climate change.

Collective ASEAN efforts at decarbonisation would proceed faster and be cheaper. Two large regional infrastructure projects that could demonstrate these qualities are a regional electricity grid, and a regional network of high-speed railways (HSR). The regional grid would ensure a reliable supply of cheap green energy by linking up sources of intermittent (solar and wind) energy and complementing them with the hydropower and geothermal power of some ASEAN members. The HSR network would reduce the carbon footprint of the transport sector by displacing air travel and trucks.

A united ASEAN could finance these projects more cheaply by seeking aid and technology transfers from competing wooers: China and the United States. This political jiu-jitsu could convert the New Cold War’s divisive political pressures into large-scale budgetary backing.

Similarly, ASEAN could preserve and restore its tropical forests better by forming a regional forest protection group. A global alliance of forest protection groups in ASEAN, the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin would be markedly more capable of securing the financial support promised by the rich countries at the 2015 Paris climate treaty meeting in return for maintaining their natural carbon sinks.

Clearly, ASEAN has every incentive to enhance its unity in order to undertake these growth-enhancing green infrastructure investments on preferential terms, and to protect its natural environment with foreign funding. With growing understanding of the enlightened self-interests of ASEAN, this realisation that “unity is strength” is gathering force among key regional leaders. Hopefully, actions will soon follow.


Five essays from experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.