The saga of the giant Chinese balloon—downed by a U.S. F-22 fighter jet over the Atlantic near Myrtle Beach, S.C, on Feb. 4—continues to bob and weave. Washington insists it was a nefarious spying vessel, part of a fleet conducting covert surveillance operations over five continents and several years; Beijing maintains it was an innocent meteorology device blown off-course. On Tuesday, the U.S. announced that “significant debris” had been recovered from the craft, including “all of the priority sensor and electronics pieces,” which are now being examined by the FBI. In recent days, three more unidentified flying objects have been downed over North America.
Reactions in the U.S. and China have been as spiky as they are predictable. Democrats and Republicans have vied to appear the more outraged, with U.S. President Joe Biden proclaiming during last week’s State of the Union address that “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” Beijing has lurched from protestations of innocence to fiery indignation, accusing the U.S. of trying to “smear and instigate a confrontation,” while alleging that American balloons had been spotted in Chinese airspace more than ten times in the last year. (No evidence was provided).
But reactions across the Asia-Pacific have been more muted, and thus more telling. The few Southeast Asian leaders to have addressed the issue have called for calm and appear to point the finger at the U.S. for escalating tensions. Speaking after a meeting of regional bloc ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it was “a pity” that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had canceled a planned visit to Beijing over the spat. “Speaking from a Southeast Asian perspective, the more they engage, the more they meet, the more open lines of communications, the better,” said Balakrishnan. “It reduces misunderstanding.” Likewise, Vietnam expressed hope that both sides would “continue resolving disagreements via dialogue.”
Southeast Asia isn’t a region that takes sovereignty issues lightly. Thailand and Cambodia periodically scrap over their shared jungle frontier. Indonesia has decades-long land and maritime boundary disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, while the latter also regularly bickers with Singapore over air and sea incursions into each other’s territory.
So why isn’t a region peppered with American military bases and where the U.S. remains the single largest source of foreign direct investment more overtly taking Washington’s side?
Primarily, American indignation over a balloon receives eyerolls when set against the gross violations perpetrated by China here on an almost daily basis. Chief among them is Beijing’s militarization of rocks and reefs in the disputed South China Sea, where China’s ships have sunk at least 98 Vietnamese fishing vessels since 2014. In 2021, Malaysia complained that 16 Chinese jets had flown into its airspace. And just on Monday, the Philippines accused a Chinese coast guard ship of shining a “military-grade laser light” at its Philippine equivalent, temporarily blinding the crew onboard. Even Taiwan—one of the few regional governments, alongside staunch U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, to unequivocally back the U.S. position on the balloon—has been at pains to point out that Chinese cyberattacks are a more potent threat. For Southeast Asian countries, says Oriana Skylar Mastro, an Asia specialist at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, “it’s like, ‘Welcome to how China’s been treating us for the past 15 years!’”
That regional powers are so inured to China’s bad behavior is a problem for American efforts to counter and constrain its rival superpower. On Sunday, the U.S. blacklisted six Chinese companies for “supporting the PRC’s military modernization efforts, specifically those related to aerospace programs, including airships and balloons,” building on a concerted effort to block transfer of sensitive technology to China, especially related to semiconductors, AI, and quantum computing. However, to have any success, the U.S. needs buy-in from regional partners that could serve as witting or unwitting conduits. “Export controls must be as robust as possible, which includes making them multilateral, because China will use openings in the international system to acquire technology that’s being restricted,” says Emily de La Bruyère, a senior visiting fellow at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University.
But getting regional partners to sign on is extremely tough given the stakes. Firstly, Southeast Asian nations, which have benefited in the short term from off-shoring to circumvent Trump-era trade tariffs, stand to suffer directly from export controls, since they are increasingly intertwined in the supply chains by manufacturing components of products finally assembled in China. Beijing has also been quick to wage economic warfare in response to perceived affronts, whether with Norway over the Nobel Peace Prize award to Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, South Korea over its hosting of the U.S. THAAD missile system, or Australia over its call for an independent probe into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Southeast Asian nations are eager to avoid that sort of outcome and looking to avoid any conduct that might upset Beijing,” says Chong Ja Ian, an expert on China’s diplomacy and professor at the National University of Singapore.
Huge doubts also hang over U.S. engagement in the region. Under Biden, the U.S. has beefed up regional alliances such as the Quad and AUKUS, inked greater military cooperation with Japan, opened a new $8 billion base on Guam, and agreed enhanced access to Philippines military bases. But, ultimately, China’s outsized role in Asia is here to stay, and a year before the U.S. presidential election, the specter of Donald Trump’s disengagement and alienation of regional allies looms large. While a corresponding lack of vocal support for China’s position shows the region’s determination to maintain friendly ties with both sides, there’s an overwhelming appreciation that if you back the U.S. today, there’s no guarantee you won’t be cut adrift come Jan. 20, 2025.
“Some of this [reticence] is driven by a continued lack of confidence in the United States,” says Chong. Regional powers, he adds, are “not sure whether there might be a return of Trump or a Trump-like figure.”
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