12 February 2019

How China and the U.S. Are Competing for Young Minds in Southeast Asia

Kristine Lee

Business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month warned that China has overtaken the United States in the development of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, such as fifth-generation wireless or 5G. “There’s almost an endless stream of people who are showing up and developing new companies,” Blackstone’s CEO Stephen Schwarzman told one panel of his frequent trips to China. “The venture business there in AI-oriented companies is really exploding with growth.” 

The attention on China’s rapidly evolving tech sector has overshadowed another area of competition between Beijing and Washington, which may be moving more slowly but is just as consequential: the battle for young minds. Nowhere is this competition to educate and attract younger generations more pronounced than in Southeast Asia, with its youthful demographics, fast-growing economies and array of geopolitical flashpoints.

Countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, where the median age hovers at around 30, are looking to harness their young and well-educated workforces for economic growth and become innovation hubs in their own right. In the aftermath of their country’s tightly contested 2014 presidential election, young Indonesian entrepreneurs developed a crowdsourcing platform to tally votes and safeguard against electoral fraud. For the past two years, talented Vietnamese university students have been vying for Samsung-sponsored science and technology scholarships. 

But with this entrepreneurial push comes a need for investment, while the infusion of Chinese capital into the region is increasingly seen as perpetuating high-level corruption without strengthening local capacity. This is where the United States and its key allies, notably Japan, can step in—developing human resources to expand trade and investment in order to maintain a significant but narrowing competitive advantage in the region, where the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects 5.4 percent annual economic growth over the next four years. Japan is at the forefront of the movement to build partnerships across government, private industry and local universities that not only expand technical know-how in Southeast Asia, but also provide Japanese companies with a ready-made workforce to feed into their supply chains. The governments of Vietnam and Japan, for example, recently established postgraduate programs at Vietnam National University in Hanoi through which Vietnamese students can earn master’s degrees in public policy, environmental sciences, nanotechnology, and other technical subjects under the auspices of the Vietnam-Japan University project

Although American universities retain an enduring allure in the region, U.S. efforts have been more halting and under-resourced, with a few exceptions. In 2017, Carnegie Mellon University and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, a leading engineering university in Thailand, announced a long-term collaboration for joint research and education programs in information technology, computing and autonomous technologies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Global Startup Workshop—which brought entrepreneurs, students, investors and other stakeholders from around the world to Bangkok last year—is also a leading example of a prestigious American university using its convening power to elevate the work of Southeast Asian entrepreneurs. 

While the U.S. remains popular among Southeast Asians, Washington has been punching below its weight in the region.

But if the growing presence of Chinese universities in Southeast Asia is any indication, Beijing is quickly trying to rebrand itself as a top-tier source of higher education. As China deepens its ties with the region, including through the infrastructure and development projects of its marquee Belt and Road Initiative, it will increasingly use education as a policy tool to win over younger generations. Beyond a commitment to raising standards of education within its own borders, China has initiated a multidimensional campaign to export its model of education across Southeast Asia. China’s Ministry of Education has pledged to set up 10 science and research centers in countries across the region by 2022, and has already established three university campuses in Laos, Malaysia and Thailand. In April 2017, Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University launched the Asian Universities Alliance with an initial membership of 15 universities across Northeast and Southeast Asia. Pooling resources and strengthening scientific research cooperation across Asian universities in this way could incentivize students to stay in the region, rather than apply for scholarships in the United States. Beijing has also actively tried to curb U.S. influence in Chinese universities, including barring visits by American officials and cultural groups. 

While the United States remains popular among Southeast Asians—particularly in Vietnam, where a recent Pew survey indicates that 84 percent of the population views America favorably—Washington has been punching below its weight in the region. The U.S. government, private industry and universities are all well-positioned to partner with local universities to offer business and public administration, engineering and other technical and vocational training programs. The State Department’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative and other consortium-based initiatives, such as Fulbright University in Vietnam, have been successful models, but the U.S. needs to expand its investments in these types of programs. These initiatives should be part of a sustained, concerted effort to educate and train the next generation of leaders from Indonesia to Vietnam who are committed to good governance and maintaining democratic institutions.

Pushing regional allies and partners to pick sides between the U.S. and China is counterproductive, given the potential costs. Most Southeast Asian countries are focused on sustaining their economic growth, and they can’t afford to cut off China, which remains the No. 1 trading partner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the main regional bloc. Instead, the United States should develop a whole-of-government strategy—involving educational initiatives, business outreach, and coordination with close allies like Japan and South Korea—that focuses on deepening relationships with key Southeast Asian countries over the course of the next decade. Building domestic support, particularly among the growing constituency of young students and entrepreneurs, could help determine the long-term success of U.S. strategy in Southeast Asia.

Kristine Lee is a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She is a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University.

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