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Foreign Policy

ASEAN States Should not be Forced to Choose Between China and the United States.

Dec 02, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    DPhil in Politics candidate and Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford

At the 1955 Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia, a congregation of Asian and African states arrived at the conclusion that they would be bound by principles of respect for political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, the maintenance of non-aggression and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries, and equality. These were tenets that subsequently morphed into the foundation of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM). 

Sixty-seven years later, in Bali, heads of states of the G20 countries (ex Russia, which sent its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov) met – for the first time in three years, both the leaders of the United States of America and China were present. In this cradle of the Non-Alignment Movement – a bloc that has persisted till this very day, with 120 countries that are aligned with no major power bloc – talks were mooted over the prospects for a future where America and China could co-exist. Whilst the prospects for such a modus vivendi remain slim – it is vital for the world that Beijing and Washington could get along.  

Indeed, as Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan astutely noted, there is a potent case for a new “non-aligned movement” for science, technology, and supply chains. We live in an era where great power competition is no longer a distant concept. It is in face of the threats of polarisation, bifurcation, and balkanisation, that Balakrishnan’s warning and recommendations should be taken very seriously. 

More specifically, it is in ASEAN states’ interests to not be forced to choose between the two parties. This is for three core reasons. 

First, ASEAN economies remain deeply economically intertwined to both powers, and the ties fostering such dependence are due only to deepen for the years to come. All ASEAN states have apparent trade deficits with China – in 2019, the deficit stood at $102.9bn USD, with bilateral trade having nearly doubled from $235.5bn USD in 2010, to $507.9bn USD in 2019. The Chinese capital markets present a substantial source of lucrative investment for ASEAN start-ups and firms, as well as governments seeking to raise funds through bond issuance. Additionally, the robust nature of Sino-ASEAN relations has spilled over from the economic domain, into areas of cultural and education exchanges, as well as technological and innovation synergy. 

On the other hand, America remains the primary security partner to many members of ASEAN – including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore. The deep intellectual and values-based ties between Washington and these many states, speak to the enduring nature of American presence in the region, but also the need on the part of these states to remain within the orbit of American protection and military support. To ask Southeast Asia to pick between a gargantuan economic partner and its foremost security guarantor, then, is akin to forcing a doctor to choose between saving two patients: one dying from hunger, another dying from cancer. There is no easy win in this scenario. 

Second, a further reason for ASEAN states to remain non-aligned (note: not necessarily neutral), consists of the innate benefits of being able to draw upon and count on support from either side, should the other prove to be unreliable. The capricious, if not downright damaging foreign policy of Trump frustrated many amongst ASEAN; with an eye set on courting greater support from ASEAN, China became the go-to market, technology and innovation, and capital engine for regional growth. On the flipside, in a state where both powers are available, ASEAN states that may be less enthralled by China’s regional agenda may turn to the United States for a balanced approach to their investors.  Hedging and flexing – where appropriate – are key to the survival of the roster of medium and small states in the region. 

To be forced to side with one power or the other, would strip ASEAN countries of the right to choose; indeed, it would leave their peoples fundamentally worse-off. Picture Southeast Asia divided into balkanised spheres of influence that prevent infra-regional cooperation on vital issues such as energy and food security, climate change and sustainability, containing and tackling public health disasters, and regulations of nascent and advanced technologies. All such initiatives require a reasonable level of trust and mutual cohesion across Southeast Asia – otherwise, little could be realistically achieved. A Cold War’s occurrence would put an end to any and all hopes for collaboration of such kind. 

Third and finally, Southeast Asia should serve as a buffer between Beijing and Washington. It can, as Indonesian President Widodo has outlined in his remarks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in July 2022, serve to “ensure peace and stability through dialogue and diplomacy”. 

Should ASEAN find itself split asunder by forces driving member states in favour of defending or aligning with one power or another, and if great power competition continually escalates, Southeast Asia would find itself a highly combustible geopolitical flashpoint. The spillover effects here could be substantial – whether it be in the form of internal, civil strife; military skirmishes and conflicts, or, indeed, potential proxy wars that eventually invoke the two nuclear powers. None of these should be what we’d like to see. 

To prevent the region from embarking upon the path of no return, ASEAN states must be willing to say “No” to pressures – artificially engineered or otherwise – for them to choose. Improving infra-ASEAN solidarity and unity is thus a core step to improving its resilience; though this is obviously easier said than done. A potential angle here would be for regional leaders to press China and America alike to recognising, at least on a large number of issues and strategically sensitive issues, that non-alignment is an acceptable response. This may not be palatable to those who seek that “Winners take all,” yet should be a reasonably attractive proposition for those who are wary of being dragged into foreign wars. Both China and the U.S. ought to take this note most seriously.  

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