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Foreign Policy

ASEAN Diplomacy: Managing Rising Sino-American Tensions in Asian Waters

Jun 29, 2023

Amid rising superpower rivalry in the region, Indonesia hosted the 2023 Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo (MNEK) off the coast of Makassar, South Sulawesi. As many as 40 warships and vessels from 36 countries took part in the event, including South Asia arch-rivals India and Pakistan. What made this year’s naval exercises particularly notable was the participation of the world’s two reigning superpowers, namely the United States and China. 

The exercises came just days after the diplomatic showdown between the American and Chinese defense chiefs at the Shangri-La Dialogue in neighboring Singapore. Although the global confab saw Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shaking hands and sharing the same table, there was no substantive meeting between the two. Not only did the two superpowers effectively talk past each other, but they also blamed each other, albeit via thinly-veiled rhetoric, for any geopolitical instability or uncertainty in the region. 

What has particularly troubled members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) such as Singapore and Indonesia is the escalating military tensions in the region. In fact, there were at least two close-call incidents between the two superpowers shortly before the Shangri-La Dialogue: first came the U.S. claim that a Chinese fighter jet carried out an “unnecessarily aggressive” interception maneuver in the South China Sea, then, just days after, the U.S. blamed a Chinese warship for an “unsafe interaction with a U.S. destroyer during a transit through the nearby Taiwan Strait. 

The troubling trajectory of Sino-American relations, especially the dearth of military-to-military diplomacy, has undermined the positive momentum for great power détente in the wake of the G20 Summit in Bali last year. In response, Indonesia, the current chairman of ASEAN, is redoubling its efforts, most notably through the MNEK exercises, to engage both superpowers and create platforms for defense dialogue. Meanwhile, ASEAN nations such as the Philippines have also welcomed a ‘goodwill’ visit by a Chinese naval contingent, which is scheduled to visit multiple Southeast Asian destinations throughout June and July this year. 

Great Power Un-Diplomacy 

Even at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, the two sides maintained relatively robust communication channels, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By all indications, however, the U.S. and China, the current reigning superpowers, are yet to fully restore institutionalized dialogue, which has been torpedoed by several crises earlier this year. 

This is particularly troubling since in the past month alone, there were two near-encounters between the U.S. and Chinese military forces in the seas (Taiwan Straits) and the skies (South China Sea) right in ASEAN’s own backyard. Thus, there are growing fears of direct clashes with potentially devastating consequences for Asian peace and prosperity. 

Alarm bells were set off after Beijing turned down a proposed meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.China’s Defense Ministry, however, has insisted that it “attaches importance” to direct dialogue, but it blamed Washington for any recent troubles. 

A major sticking point is China’s concern over the United States’’ imposition of unilateral sanctions, including on the Chinese defense chief, who was earlier sanctioned by Washington for alleged involvement in high-stakes defense deals with Moscow. 

China’s defense spokesperson Tan Kefei has blamed the U.S. by declaring, “[Any] [r]esponsibility for the current difficulties faced by the two militaries in their exchanges lies entirely with the U.S. side.” 

Although polite and seemingly cordial during their direct encounter, the U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs pulled no punches during their plenary speeches at the global confab in Singapore. In a thinly-veiled jab at U.S.-led security alliances in the region, most notably the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) maritime grouping, the Chinese defense minister warned against “attempts to push for NATO-like [alliances] in the Asia-Pacific”, which is tantamount to “kidnapping regional countries and exaggerating conflicts and confrontations.” 

He warned of a “whirlpool of disputes and conflicts” due to American policies while maintaining an uncompromising position on China’s plans to “reunify” with Taiwan in the future. In turn, Austin implied that it’s instead Beijing that is the source of regional troubles and accused the Asian powerhouse of being “unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries,” thus risking “misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict.” 

Meanwhile, the U.S. held its first-ever quadrilateral meeting with its three main regional treaty allies. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met Japan’s Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, and former Philippine Acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, where the four allies discussed, among others, potential joint patrols in the South China Sea later this year. 

Resistance and Engagement 

The Philippines, Japan, and the U.S. also conducted their first-ever joint coast guard drills in Manila Bay in June amid tightening cooperation in recent months. Buoyed by the backing of its allies, the Philippines has taken a more assertive stance in the South China Sea. In recent months, it has accused China’s coast guard of engaging in “dangerous maneuvers” and “aggressive tactics” in Philippine-claimed waters. 

Meanwhile, Indonesia, the current ASEAN chairman, has also been scrambling to create greater ‘unity’ among member states amid deepening crises in the region. Back in 2015, the Southeast Asian nation proposed joint patrols in the disputed water to prevent any single power from “build[ing] up strength or threaten[ing] anyone” in the South China Sea. Indonesia reiterated a similar position during the Australia-ASEAN Summit in  2017, calling on non-claimant states to conduct joint patrols in order to prevent unilateral action by any claimant state. 

Although none of its proposals were adopted, Indonesia pressed ahead in the succeeding years. In 2021, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, known as Bakamla, proposed institutionalized cooperation among ASEAN coast guard nations, including claimant states in the South China Sea. And this year, as ASEAN’s chairman, Indonesia is set to host the inaugural ASEAN joint naval drills in the so-called “North Natuna Sea” area, which refers to the energy-rick waters off the coast of Natuna Islands, where China claims ‘traditional fishing rights’

According to the Commander of the Indonesian National Armed ForcesYudo Margono, the exercises are meant to reinforce “ASEAN centrality” in shaping and managing regional tensions. The Indonesia military spokesperson Julius Widjojono went even further by emphasizing the need for preventing “high risk of disaster in Asia, especially Southeast Asia”. 

ASEAN states are scrambling to build a united front to more effectively protect their interests as well as deal with the troubling turn in Sino-American tensions. Accordingly, both Indonesia and the Philippines have also welcomed military-to-military diplomacy with Chinar to diffuse tensions. 

During the Komodo drills in Indonesia, the Southeast Asian nation managed to bring representatives from both the U.S. and Chinese navies to cooperate on non-traditional security issues such as disaster relief and humanitarian operations. On its part, the Chinese navy said that the drills were crucial to “further deepen[ing] mutual understanding and practical cooperation” with regional states, while a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer made it clear that his country is interested in “showcase[ing] a new open and confident image of the PLA Navy.” 

Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy announced that it will be hosting a Chinese naval training ship, for the first time since 2019, for a “goodwill visit” in mid-June to enhance military-to-military diplomacy. “The Philippine Navy will host the visiting contingent with the customary and usual accommodation it renders to all visiting navies which fulfills its diplomatic role and promotes naval cooperation,” the Philippine Navy said in a statement

The Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar, in turn, endorsed the exercises as crucial since it allows Manila to show that, “By nature, Filipinos are friendly and hospitable. Let this be known to all.” In short, ASEAN nations are, at once, hedging their bets by strengthening their defensive position, often by expanding cooperation among each other and also with external powers such as the U.S., while also reaching out to China to diffuse tensions and promote military-to-military diplomacy. 

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