IN an article I wrote, titled “Rise of the Rest” (ISIS Focus, 2017), I argued that the changing international order in the Asia Pacific could see middle powers play a greater role in the region. The increasingly competitive United States-China dynamic would be one of its main catalysts.

This relationship between the dominant and the fast rising powers has since deteriorated to one that is primarily adversarial in nature. Disputes over trade, communication technology, data security, international rules, norms and intellectual property have worsened.

Public sentiment in both countries about the other is increasingly negative. Recent developments in the South China Sea involving the Petronas-contracted West Capella indicate the prospect of more major power divergence spilling over into regional disputes.

Covid-19 has further disrupted the increasingly rudderless international order. Instead of setting disputes aside and cooperating in the face of a pandemic that recognises neither borders nor nationality, the US-China relationship continues to free-fall. Both are engaged in a war of narratives on the spread and management of the pandemic. Worryingly, this adversity is spilling into both major powers’ pandemic diplomacy with other stakeholders.

Washington, DC, is doubling down on accusations that China deliberately played down the extent of the pandemic. It has been urging countries around the world, especially in the Asia Pacific, to join this narrative to compound pressure on China. The World Health Organisation, for all its faults, found itself dragged into the spat, going so far as to lose funding from the US, its biggest donor.

Beijing is reportedly using its capacity to deliver aid and economic clout that many countries will need to get out of a recession, and to not so subtly elicit positive comments about its success in managing the pandemic. In Europe, China’s diplomats have been accused of overtly trying to influence inquiries into the origin of the novel coronavirus and how the European Union has managed its response.

This state of affairs has complicated matters for the rest of us who prioritise regional peace, multilateral cooperation and adherence to international norms. It is more essential than ever for middle powers to be proactively engaged to ensure the above priorities continue to be central in the evolving regional order.

Many of these middle powers — Australia, Japan, South Korea and perhaps even India and Indonesia — are at different stages of managing the pandemic, which will take up much of their attention and resources. Nevertheless, each of them has an important stake in the international system and the rules and norms that govern it. Ignoring the latter, while major powers continue to shape it along the lines of great power politics, will be to their detriment.

While most of the aforementioned countries may have more in common with the US, it is important to note that the behaviour of both major powers are a cause for concern for different reasons. The divergent interests of both are leaving the rest of the Asia Pacific at a disadvantage.

Middle powers, therefore, need to not only work with each other, but also with smaller countries and regional organisations like Asean to chart a middle, inclusive path. Asean, too, has an important role to play. Conceived at the height of the Cold War, its members are aware of the perils of major power competition and dominance. Some bear the scars of the former, while others are living with the latter.

Here, Asean needs to reassert its centrality and control over the multilateral forums and mechanisms under its stable. If it is able to do so, taken as a whole, the regional organisation’s influence is not inconsiderable.

It needs to start having important conversations with these middle powers, many of which recognise the value of Asean as a neutral, multilateral regional organisation that is both literally and figuratively at the centre of the Asia Pacific. This is already happening at multiple levels involving leaders, senior officials, academics and think tankers, but it should be further broadened.

While major powers will always have a degree of influence, it would be a mistake for them to hijack these mechanisms and undermine Asean to serve their own ends. For Asean, and other middle powers, it would be remiss if they were to allow this to happen.

Should some Asean member states still opt to dither, or worse, disrupt this process, then other forward-looking member states should seriously consider proceeding without them.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on 12 May 2020

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