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Is America Losing the Soft Power Contest in Southeast Asia?

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For 70 years the United States has dominated Southeast Asia with both hard and soft power — the capability to use economic or cultural influence to shape the preferences of others. While its hard power is still dominant and may even grow, its soft power seems to have declined. This decrease is both absolute and relative to that of China — the awakening giant next door to Southeast Asia.

From August 2-8, 2017, ASEAN leaders and their dialogue partners, including China and the United States, held a series of key security meetings in the Philippines. The South China Sea issues were a prominent focus, and the results of these meetings indicated a new low in U.S. diplomatic influence.

The South China Sea issues are important in themselves but one should always be aware of the context in which they are embedded – the contest between China and the United States for dominance in the region. This fundamental security dilemma has now become plain for all to see: an increasingly aggressive China eroding a U.S.-led status quo with an increasingly divided and irrelevant ASEAN. At these meetings, the South China Sea issues were the foil for this titanic geopolitical struggle.

After some delay reflecting sharp disagreement within ASEAN, the resulting joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting strongly favored China’s preferences over its opponents within ASEAN as well as those of the United States. Indeed, according to Philippine analyst Richard Heydarian, “Overall it’s a slam dunk diplomatic victory for China.”

The run up to these annual ASEAN security meetings was marked by heavy diplomatic lobbying by both China and the United States for their preferences. China wanted no discussion or even any reference to its claims or activities in the South China Sea or to the 2016 arbitration ruling against the same. China also did not support any reference to the need for a “legally binding” Code of Conduct (COC) between it, ASEAN, and its members. The United States, meanwhile, strongly supported implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision, as well as a goal of a robust, legally binding COC.

China’s possible legal rationales for its sweeping claims in the South China Sea were rejected by the international arbitration panel last summer. Yet China apparently still........

© The Diplomat