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.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they meet on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders' Summit in Bali, Indonesia, 14 November 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A Xi-Biden handshake does not bridge the Sino-US schism, but it's a start

The handshakes and smiles in Bali have triggered some optimism about Sino-US relations going forward. Yet the slight uptick in Sino-US relations post-Bali might well be short-lived, given the superpowers’ underlying structural competition and deep mutual distrust.
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during his first Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on 26 October 2022. (Jessica Taylor/AFP)

The UK's 'tilt' towards the Indo-Pacific may not be sustainable

The UK has launched a robust “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific. To its credit, it has executed a series of high-profile diplomatic engagements and military deployments to the region. The question, however, is not about London’s desire to engage with the dynamic region but whether this tilt can be sustained.
A Taiwanese military outpost on Shihyu islet is seen past anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Lieyu islet on Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just 3.2 kms (two miles) from the mainland China coast, on 10 August 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

When a lack of US-China dialogue on Taiwan might lead to war

Washington and Beijing’s refusal to talk calmly to each other about the ongoing Taiwan crisis raises the stakes for Southeast Asia, which is already dealing with the repercussions of the chill between the great powers.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong with the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives at the ASEAN Secretariat, 6 June 2022. (Twitter/@SenatorWong)

'Hard yakka' ahead for Australia and ASEAN relations

Australia has made significant inroads in its engagement with ASEAN. But Canberra’s relationship with the grouping will be a hard slog, given their differences in approaching China and ensuring that China-US rivalry does not derail regional aspirations. In the meantime, Australia remains involved with the US in groupings including AUKUS and the Quad, maintaining relations with Japan and India.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo shows Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a souvenir following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Bogor, Indonesia, 29 April 2022. (Muchlis Jr./Indonesia's Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters)

Kishida’s charm diplomacy in Southeast Asia: Moral suasion does the trick

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visits to Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have burnished Japan’s regional credentials, particularly on contentious issues such as the war in Ukraine, the South China Sea disputes and the evolving order in the Indo-Pacific.
US President Joe Biden (centre) with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on 12 May 2022. (Michael Reynolds/Bloomberg)

US-ASEAN summit: Washington still has an uphill climb

The US hit all the right notes when it hosted ASEAN leaders in Washington last week. The fact remains, however, that Washington has an uphill climb if it wants to catch up with Beijing’s economic momentum in Southeast Asia. Not only that, Southeast Asian countries understand that in the end, it would be every man for himself.
US President Joe Biden meets with Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister (left), in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on 29 March 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Singapore and the US: Speaking hard truths as a good friend

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to the US highlights a unique dynamic in the bilateral relationship: Singapore’s ability to speak frankly and candidly to its superpower partner. During the visit, Singapore also reiterated that it does not take sides but stands up for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty.
People file across a makeshift river crossing below a destroyed bridge as they flee from advancing Russian troops whose attack on Ukraine continues in the town of Irpin outside Kyiv, Ukraine, 8 March 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Ukraine war: Southeast Asian responses and why the conflict matters to the region

Southeast Asia’s initial responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine varied considerably, with Singapore taking the strongest stance and Myanmar supporting the Kremlin’s actions. As the conflict intensified, regional responses strengthened somewhat: eight ASEAN members voted for a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion; Vietnam and Laos, Russia’s two closest partners in the region, abstained. The Russia-Ukraine war is likely to have varying degrees of economic, political and security impacts on the region. A key concern is if China takes a leaf from Russia's playbook in terms of using manufactured histories and grey zone/hybrid warfare tactics, and disregarding international law.
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.