In a talks on the topic of national sovereignty, PhD. Le Hong Hiep, a guest research fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) told VietNamNet that world politics has always been a playing field of competition for influence between the great powers. Southeast Asia is the place where the interests of these great powers, especially the United States and China, is shown so their involvement and influence in the region is inevitable.
Competition for influence on the one hand helps ASEAN enhance its position and its bargaining power. They can take advantage of this competition to obtain the economic or strategic benefits. But on the other hand, they can also face the possibility of being drawn into a confrontation between the major powers, in which where autonomy will be weakened and they become victims of competition for power between the giants.
To maintain policy balance and to not fall into the trap of competitive spiral of power between the major powers, ASEAN in general and Vietnam in particular must keep a balance, independence, and initiative in their policies with the US and China.
In addition, these countries also need to be involved with both powers through the mechanisms that take ASEAN to the center. ASEAN countries have stressed repeatedly that they do not want to choose one of the two sides, because they need both. The outside powers themselves also understand this, and despite the efforts, they could hardly force the countries in this region to lean heavily on their side.
However, the balance of influence can still move more or less in the given range, depending on the national perception of the benefits and threats that each power can bring to them. In this respect, the United States appears to have advantages over China at present.
China now uses the economic carrots to buy political influence, while the US does not have such available tools to offer to the countries of the region.
So far, China has achieved certain success with this policy when there are a few countries in the region tend to be in favor of China. These countries are very practical, they want to take advantage of the "generosity" of China to serve the purpose of development. No one can blame them, because that is how they define national interests.
However, this approach of China may not be sustainable. Firstly, the financial resources of China will be stretched and depleted gradually, especially if they do not solve the economic problems inside the country. Secondly, the economic benefits can be important, but it will not be as important as the strategic interests.
While financial measures can bring to China temporarily influence, then in the long term, these impacts can be eliminated if these countries perceive China as a threat in terms of strategy. The increasing suspicion of other countries over China due to this country’s actions in the East Sea is a good example.
Recently, a few countries in the region that used to under China’s orbit have adjusted their policy gradually in order to get rid of the dependence on Beijing, even inclining to America.
Meanwhile, the United States, although having no available money to generously endow to others, it has its own appeal in other aspects. That's the huge market and huge private investment resources (for example, US investment in ASEAN is a dozen times more than that of China), or the source of modern, advanced technology, the things that all countries in the region need.
Moreover, the US has maintained its "moral stance" as a country helps ensure peace, stability and order in the region for decades, and the US itself is not regarded as a threat for the sovereignty and security of countries in the region. In other words, the US tries to build the image of a "benevolent hegemony" and this has helped it get soft power, a natural attraction, thereby balancing the "hard power" of China in the area.
But unlike the former Soviet Union, a country which "stopped" itself when pursuing a closed and centrally controlled economic model, China is an open economy, with a deep integration into the world. So, despite the availability of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China could continue to grow if they can solve its own problems.
Indeed, the TPP is just one tool in the US’ tool bag. The US will use it wisely, in conjunction with other tools, especially in terms of military and strategy, to be able to deal with the ambitions of China.
From these characteristics, we can say the competition between the US and China is long and interesting, with many special features that have never been seen in the history of confrontation between the great powers. This competition deserves attention and close monitoring of the policy makers in the region and Vietnam, at present and in the future.