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Southeast Asia's New-Old Cold War

The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, but China is now giving the West a run for its money in the sequel. And, as with the twentieth century's decades-long superpower conflict, Southeast Asia is once again emerging as a major theater.

BANGKOK – Few parts of the world paid as high a cost during the Cold War as Southeast Asia. The superpower conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union divided the region into pro- and anti-communist camps, spawning five wars in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam over four decades. Today, US-China competition is fueling a so-called “new cold war” with familiar structural characteristics.

In fact, the Sino-American great-power confrontation is a continuation of an unfinished ideological struggle, this time pitting the US-led and Western-based alliance system against a China-centric global network of client states, many of them with various shades of authoritarian governance. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, but China is now giving the West a run for its money in the sequel. And Southeast Asia will once again be a major theater.

For about two decades following the end of the Cold War, America seemed to enjoy a “unipolar” moment enabling it to reshape the global order, and free markets and democratization spread around the world. But liberal democracy and market capitalism were subsequently weakened from within, particularly following the 2008 global financial crisis, enabling a growing challenge by alternative models of authoritarianism and state-directed economic development.

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