William Choong

Senior fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

William Choong is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and is the Editor of the ISEAS Commentaries series. From 2013 to 2020, he was a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). At the IISS, he helped to run the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and contributed to research on regional security issues such as the South China Sea territorial disputes and Japan’s evolution into a ‘normal’ power. He was formerly a Senior Writer at The Straits Times, where he wrote columns on defence and security issues.

A television screen shows a news programme about a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden at a restaurant in Beijing on 16 November 2021. (Jade GaoAFP)

US-China relations: Taiwan could be the most dangerous trigger point

ISEAS academic William Choong notes that amid intense China-US competition in domains such as trade, technology, security and values, there is much virtue for smaller states, particularly those in Southeast Asia, in upholding high principles and expressing a desire for a rules-based regional order. These elements, however, are premised on continued stability in Sino-US relations, which is not guaranteed, particularly given the increasingly entrenched positions of China and the US on the Taiwan issue.
Australia's Collins-class submarines at sea, undated. (SPH)

AUKUS: A reflection of ASEAN's inability to cope with China's rising assertiveness?

Southeast Asian responses to the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) technology-sharing agreement, which aims to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, have varied considerably, from warnings that the agreement could trigger an arms race or undermine regional stability to implicit support. While concerns over arms racing and nuclear proliferation are seen by some as being overblown, AUKUS is a response to China’s rapid military modernisation and assertive behaviour in the maritime domain. Thus, AUKUS can be seen as a wake-up call to ASEAN that it needs to be more proactive on security issues and cannot take its centrality for granted.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a "Quad nations" meeting at the Leaders' Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework hosted by US President Joe Biden with Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the East Room at the White House in Washington, US, 24 September 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Be present but don't fight with China: Can the Quad fulfill this tall order from ASEAN?

In recent years, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and the "free and open" Indo-Pacific concept that underpins it, have enjoyed forward momentum in response to growing Chinese assertiveness. However, the Quad faces problems gaining support in the region as China remains adamantly opposed to any configuration perceived to curb its emergence while ASEAN fears that its centrality will be undermined by a minilateral arrangement helmed by external powers. What does ASEAN want from the Quad and can these be delivered?
This picture taken and released by the Vietnam News Agency on 29 July 2021 shows US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin (centre) inspecting a guard of honour along with Vietnam's Defence Minister Phan Van Giang (left) during a welcoming ceremony in Hanoi. (STR/Vietnam News Agency/AFP)

US defence chief Lloyd Austin in Southeast Asia: Did the US strike the right notes?

Lloyd Austin’s visit to three Southeast Asian countries in July 2021 was aimed at reaffirming America’s commitment to regional alliances and partnerships amid concerns of US neglect of the region in the first six months of the Biden administration. The messages delivered during his trip, particularly in his Fullerton Lecture in Singapore, outlined the broad contours of the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia policy that goes beyond the dynamics of US-China strategic rivalry and seeks to provide a more holistic and positive agenda of US engagement with the region.
US President Joe Biden speaks as Antony Blinken, US secretary of state (left), and Lloyd Austin, US secretary of defense (right), listen during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington DC, US, on 20 July 2021. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

'Mini' Shangri-La Dialogue: The US needs to provide tangible deliverables in Southeast Asia

When Lloyd Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, speaks at the 40th Fullerton Lecture in Singapore tonight, he will need to go beyond speaking about esoteric concepts such as the “rules-based international order” and promise that Washington will provide tangible deliverables in the form of pandemic assistance, economic growth and trade.
A man wearing a face mask amid Covid-19 concerns waits on his scooter near a billboard of the late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, 4 May 2021. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

Feisty and delicate: Vietnam's approach to handling great power rivalry

Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy structures held up well in 2020 in the face of significant challenges involving Covid-19, chairing ASEAN, and relations with China and the US. Vietnam continued to maintain a delicate balance between China and the US, while at the same time retaining a strategic option to pursue deeper defence and military relations with the US. Its ability to maintain and enhance agency, in particular in its relations with Beijing, offers lessons for other Southeast Asian countries facing the same dilemma.
A street vendor walks past a billboard for a photo studio featuring an image of US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, 24 November 2020. (Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

America's coming back — but ASEAN will cope, with or without her

Since President Donald Trump yanked the US out of the TPP as part of his “America First” doctrine in 2017, Southeast Asia has been more without Trump than with. In fact, America is increasingly seen as a declining power in Southeast Asia and countries in the region are adjusting to this reality. ISEAS academic William Choong explains what this means for the US, China and ASEAN.
In this file photo tourists wearing facemasks walk on the reopened Liberty Island in front of the Statue of Liberty on 20 July 2020 in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Setting the rules: 'Non-negotiables' in a US-Southeast Asia relationship

Since 2016, China has presented itself as a strategic competitor to the US. In turn, the Trump administration has been accused of incoherence in its policies toward China and its approach to the Indo-Pacific has led to concerns in regional states. Whether Trump or Biden wins in November, Washington needs to recognise some non-negotiables with regards to Southeast Asia: the avoidance of presenting binary choices for regional states to make amid Sino-US rivalry; the need for a looser cooperative approach in pushing back China’s assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea; and the need to build regional connectivity networks and infrastructure.  
The skyline of Singapore's central business district, 27 May 2016. (Edgar Su/REUTERS)

Can small states continue to avoid choosing between China and the US?

With the jostling between China and the US, one country that seems to have found a balance between these two powers is Singapore. In fact, other ASEAN countries are also seeking not to take sides, which appears to be the most prudent strategy. However, ISEAS academic William Choong thinks that the choice of not making a choice may not be feasible in the near future.