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Southeast Asian Leaders Air Fears Over US-China Rivalry
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As the United Nations General Assembly opened its 75th session this week, two Southeast Asian leaders used their speeches to the global body to voice mounting anxiety about the growing tensions between China and the United States.

In prerecorded speeches submitted to the pandemic-affected U.N. proceeding, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern that the superpower rivalry could drag the Southeast Asian region into conflict.

“War will benefit no one,” Jokowi said in his virtual address. “There is no point of celebrating victory among ruins. There is no point of becoming the largest economic power in the midst of a sinking world.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, both leaders said it was necessary that the world should unite around the common goal of defeating the virus.

“At a time when we ought to unite and work together,” Jokowi said, “what we see, instead, is a deep division and growing rivalries.”

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In his speech the same day, Duterte offered surprisingly robust support for a Hague ruling rejecting most of China’s claims to disputed parts of the South China Sea. But he also implicitly called on both Beijing and Washington to resolve their differences.

“Escalating tensions benefit no one,” he said. “New flashpoints heighten fears and tend to tear peoples apart.”

He added, “Given the size and military might of the contenders, we can only imagine and be aghast at the terrible toll on human life and property that shall be inflicted if the ‘word war’ deteriorates into a real war of nuclear weapons and missiles.”

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As relations between China and the U.S. have deteriorated in recent years, Southeast Asia has found itself in a difficult position: economically enmeshed with China, yet reliant on long-standing American security guarantees.

Both Indonesia and the Philippines have experienced the hard edge of China’s increasing belligerence under President Xi Jinping, especially in the contested South China Sea, where Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim overlaps with the two nations’ Exclusive Economic Zones.

At the same time, both Jokowi and Duterte have leaned heavily on Xi’s government for assistance in developing vial infrastructure under the aegis of Beijing’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is also the leading trade partner of both nations.

Indonesia and the Philippines have welcomed a robust U.S. engagement with the region, as a counterweight to a rising China. But like many Southeast Asian nations, they have grown alarmed by the sudden hostile turn in American attitudes toward China, which has alternated no-shows at major Southeast Asian summits with stinging ideological denunciations of Beijing and clarion calls for a closing of ranks against the Chinese menace.

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Both speeches echoed an address delivered by their Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, who, in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2019 called on both superpowers to deescalate their tensions.

Prime Minister Lee called on the Chinese leadership to resolve maritime disputes “through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force.” He also said American policymakers had to accept that China would continue to grow, “and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening.”

So far, neither superpower has shown much sign of compromise. The two leaders’ speeches are just the latest sign that the Southeast Asian balancing act is becoming ever-more difficult.

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