This article was first published in the Valdai Discussion Club
Managing major power competition is nothing new for member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). One of the reasons the organisation came into being was to provide the then mainly non-communist Southeast Asian states an avenue to have a greater say over geopolitical matters in their own region. As ASEAN expanded in membership, prosperity and geostrategic footprint through the 1990s and 2000s, its prospects as a neutral, inclusive anchor for wider regional multilateral mechanisms, norms and architectures seemed promising.
This has soured somewhat over the course of the decade, thanks to the deteriorating relationship between the United States (US) and China, which is now a strategic rivalry defined more by adversity than competition. The nature and impact of this strategic rivalry is a concern for ASEAN, its external partners and other regional external stakeholders.
Despite the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ASEAN’s agenda for 2020, concern on US-China tensions still weighed heavy in its discussions. While not explicitly addressed like in previous years, the Chairman’s statement still hinted at these concerns, expressed through remarks on the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the South China Sea dispute.
Given China’s tremendous influence with ASEAN, its geographic location and a variety of disputes with different member states, ASEAN has found its centrality under stress when it comes to issues like the South China Sea dispute or the impact of China’s activities on the lower Mekong region. Decision making by consensus, one of ASEAN’s foundations that has been both a boon and a bane for the regional organisation, has been skilfully exploited. The long term repercussions of this on the unity and viability of ASEAN as a neutral regional organisation could be severe.
Yet growing concerns of China has not done anything to improve the standing of the US either. Southeast Asian perception of role of the US in response to growing Chinese influence has been mixed. Many regional watchers decried the lack of interest, focus and zero-sum way in which the Trump administration engaged ASEAN in relation to China when compared to the Obama administration. Yet others have expressed concerns that the tougher stance taken on China will be reversed by the incoming Biden administration, to the detriment of Southeast Asia.
With as a backdrop, the following are three factors that will have a significant impact on ASEAN amidst ongoing US-China tensions.
First, how both the US and China, as major powers, choose to engage with, and use their influence in ASEAN, and with its member states.
Much has been made about ASEAN being in the driver’s seat of major regional strategic-focused mechanisms – namely the East Asian Summit, ASEAN Plus-3 and ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus among others. To be fair, whether by design or fait acompli, ASEAN has managed to ingrain itself as a key stakeholder in various key security and economic architectures of the Asia Pacific, and also the more recent geographical construct – the Indo Pacific.
The reality however is that the ability of ASEAN to do so was always dependent to how much it was allowed to do by the major powers. During the Cold War, when ASEAN was a much smaller grouping, it meant largely the United States which leveraged on the groups shared concerns about communist insurgencies and expansions, and close relations with key member states. While the US still has some influence, it has had to compete with, and unwillingly yielded ground to China – which now has advantage of more leverage because of its geographic position and economic heft in the region.
During the peace dividend immediately following the end of the Cold War, ASEAN enjoyed the confidence, or acquiesce, of both major powers to take the lead in forming regional multilateral institutions and mechanisms. This was no mere act of charity or magnanimity, both the US and China benefited from it. Neither committed more than they wanted to, or lost any real leverage. That calculation has now changed given the more adversarial nature of strategic rivalry between the US and China.
The stakes are higher, with Southeast Asia and ASEAN being key tracts in the strategic chessboard, where the game just isn’t about influence but broader norms and values that will ultimately shape regional architectures.
Should both major powers decide that they need to secure their influence in ASEAN or its member states at all costs, the regional organisation is set for a rocky foreseeable future, even the risk of a permanent fracture. Would ASEAN’s external partners want to engage with a regional organisation that is deemed a mere tool for major powers? Would ASEAN member states themselves want to invest in an organisation that could compromise their own national and regional interests? For ASEAN, the uncomfortable question it now has to ask itself is that while it might be in the driver’s seat, is it the owner of the vehicle, or a mere chauffeur?
The second factor is the approach that will be taken by the US, more specifically the incoming Biden administration, on how it engages ASEAN on China.
The overwhelming breadth and scope of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia creates a real desire for a more active US involvement in the region to provide much desired strategic options. Hence, how the US proceeds to engage ASEAN, and manage its relationship with China, will have significant influence on the future of ASEAN, perhaps more than the influence of China, at this stage.
While some in Southeast Asia appreciated the more robust approach against China undertaken by the Trump administration, many others were concerned, seeing it as too confrontational, executed crassly without any duty of care toward, or understanding of, the wider region. Not how a responsible major power, which the US is keen on distinguishing itself from China as, is expected to behave.
In fact there is a sense among some ASEAN member states that the confrontational “you’re with us or against us” approach that Trump adopted when it came to longstanding US treaty allies in the Asia Pacific, extended to Southeast Asia. This only reinforced ASEAN’s fear of being asked to choose between major powers. This will ultimately backfire on the US. ASEAN nations might be small, disunited and easy to influence, but they are practical – something China recognises as it strategises its engagement with ASEAN.
There is also the need for the US to engage ASEAN for ASEAN’s sake and value, rather than for the express purpose of containing China.
The Biden administration looks set to assume office come January 2021 and while the specifics of its policies on China or ASEAN have yet to be set in stone, some things are clear at least. The bipartisanship on concerns of China means that it will continue to be treated as a major strategic rival, although the approach to China could see some changes with more emphasis given to multilateral approaches and more inclusive alliance building. The greater emphasis on multilateralism and key foreign policy and national security nominations could see a more proactive US in Southeast Asia, especially at the leader’s level.
The Biden administration should seek to understand ASEAN, through ASEAN lenses and craft its engagement accordingly. If it can successfully do this, it will give the US a significant leg up in Southeast Asia. President Trump’s defeat in the 2020 US Presidential elections is an opportunity for much needed recalibration. The ball is very much in the US’ court.
Finally, the third factor is how ASEAN chooses to move forward with the AOIP.
Despite being initially heralded by external observers, the rollout and subsequent traction of the AOIP has been somewhat muted since. It didn’t take much scrutiny for the AOIP to come under criticism for being just another generic ASEAN document, which provided the organisation and its member states with equally staid, safe talking points when addressing the Indo-Pacific related matters. The AOIP took no concrete positions or commitment on the meaning and values of the Indo Pacific. It neither endorsed other conceptualisations of the Indo Pacific, not did it indirectly criticise what some Indo-Pacific strategies see as China’s revisionist and hegemonic tendencies.
Legitimate brickbats aside, there the AOIP also represents ASEAN’s nuances at work. The fact that ASEAN was forced to come up with an official position on the Indo Pacific after years of trying to ignore the concept means that ASEAN has finally recognised that the Indo Pacific is here to stay. And while the AOIP was indeed generic, it was also carefully crafted to call for an open and inclusive Indo Pacific, which gives ASEAN the opportunity to navigate through contested regional narratives and initiatives, within the scope of US-China competition. This can be done through cooperation with its Dialogue Partners, other legitimate stakeholders.
The list of countries with their own strategies, iterations or approaches to the Indo Pacific is only growing. The US, Japan, Australia, India, France, the United Kingdom and most recently – Germany and the Netherlands. The last two have made the prospect of a formalised EU view and strategy on the Indo Pacific even more likely. All share common values – an inclusive multilateral regional order, international norms based on adherence to international law and a repudiation of might makes right – which are expressed in the AOIP. Only the US and Japan have explicitly portrayed their respective Indo-Pacific strategies as a regional alternative to China and strategic regional initiatives.
ASEAN should be cognisant of these developments and proactively work to engage other stakeholders, both in the Asia Pacific and Europe, on joint moving forward with a truly inclusive Indo Pacific, one not dominated by major powers but by equitable and legal regional norms. ASEAN should not make the mistake of again taking its time with the next step on the AOIP. With a rules based international order at stake, the reasons for cooperation ought to outweigh national concerns.