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Asean Research
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US-China Competition and ASEAN’s Quest for Strategic Autonomy

Caught between two superpowers, ASEAN nations strive to maintain strategic autonomy in the face of the escalating rivalry between the United States and China. With the region being of significant geopolitical and economic importance, navigating these complexities is paramount for the future stability and prosperity of ASEAN countries. This article will explore the various strategies adopted by ASEAN in pursuit of strategic autonomy and the challenges they face in the evolving global landscape.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has traditionally adopted a policy of non-alignment and regional integration, in an effort to prevent external powers from exerting undue influence over its member states (Acharya, 2017). Nonetheless, the intensifying US-China competition has placed considerable pressure on ASEAN’s ability to maintain a balanced approach.

One of the key challenges for ASEAN countries is striking a balance between economic dependence on China and security partnerships with the United States. While ASEAN member states have benefitted significantly from China’s economic growth, the United States remains a vital security partner for many nations in the region (Narine, 2019). Consequently, ASEAN countries are developing diverse strategies to ensure their economic and security interests are met, without sacrificing their strategic autonomy (Leong & Pitsuwan, 2021).

ASEAN has also sought to enhance its institutional capacity and intra-regional cooperation, in order to minimize the risk of being divided by external powers. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) is one such example, providing a framework for regional cooperation that is more inclusive and less confrontational than the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy (Egreteau, 2020). This approach reflects ASEAN’s commitment to maintaining its centrality in the regional architecture, while avoiding overt alignment with either superpower (Chachavalpongpun, 2021).

Another avenue for ASEAN to maintain strategic autonomy is through economic diversification, by engaging with a broader range of trade partners beyond China and the US. The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020 was a significant step towards this goal, as it fosters economic integration among ASEAN countries and other major economies in the Asia-Pacific region (Petri & Plummer, 2021).

Despite these efforts, the US-China competition poses significant challenges for ASEAN’s quest for strategic autonomy. As the rivalry deepens, there is a risk that ASEAN countries may be forced to choose sides, which could undermine regional unity and stability (Storey, 2020). Furthermore, the potential for proxy conflicts or incidents involving US and Chinese military assets in the South China Sea remains a significant concern for the region (Kuik, 2021).

In conclusion, ASEAN’s pursuit of strategic autonomy is increasingly challenged by the intensifying US-China competition. However, through a combination of institutional strengthening, economic diversification, and careful balancing, ASEAN countries are seeking to navigate this complex environment and maintain their independence in the face of great power rivalries.


Acharya, A. (2017). East of India, South of China: Sino-Indian Encounters in Southeast Asia. International Affairs, 93(1), 1-19.

Chachavalpongpun, P. (2021). Navigating the Geopolitical Storm: ASEAN’s Role in the US-China Competition. The Pacific Review, 34(2), 231-246.

Egreteau, R. (2020). The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific: Rationales, Objectives, and Limits. Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 7(1), 3-21.

Kuik, C.-C. (2021). US-China Strategic Competition in Southeast Asia: How ASEAN Balances the Great Powers. Asian Survey, 61(1), 122-145.

Leong, R., & Pitsuwan, S. (2021). ASEAN Centrality and US-China Rivalry: From the South China Sea to the Mekong Basin. The Pacific Review, 34(3), 360-378.

Narine, S. (2019). ASEAN, China, and the United States: The Dilemmas of Hedging and Balancing. Asian Politics & Policy, 11(2), 312-329.

Petri, P. A., & Plummer, M. G. (2021). ASEAN’s Role in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, 38(2), 151-168.

Storey, I. (2020). The Impact of US-China Rivalry on ASEAN. East Asia Policy, 12(3), 3-13.