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Foreign Policy

ASEAN’s Delicate Balancing Act

Jul 27, 2023
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations plays a prominent role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy as the most integrated regional organization. It has even been referred to as the “pivot” or “fulcrum” of the Indo-Pacific Strategy by certain U.S. think tank experts. Maintaining ties with the United States allows ASEAN to counterbalance China’s influence while also maximizing its ability to prosper economically and raise its profile.

Increased U.S. involvement in the Indo-Pacific as a result of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is welcomed by ASEAN. The relationship between the U.S. and ASEAN has been upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership, which marks the beginning of a new phase in U.S.-ASEAN cooperation, according to U.S. President Joe Biden.

Yet ASEAN only occasionally supports America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. There are four reasons for this:

First is the question whether or not American foreign policy will continue to prioritize ASEAN. In the past, the U.S. has not prioritized ASEAN in actual practice, despite its policy declarations. For instance, under Donald Trump the U.S. exited the East Asia Summit early in 2017 and skipped it altogether in 2018 and 2019. The Biden administration has improved ties with ASEAN, showing that it values the organization’s significant role in both policy discourse and implementation. The sustainability of this recognition, however, is still up for debate.

Second, there are worries that by backing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, ASEAN may run the risk of damaging its relationship with China, which could present a challenge for balanced diplomacy. ASEAN’s best course of action from a strategic standpoint is to maintain balance in its relations with both the U.S. and China. However, it faces a significant risk of being compelled to choose sides, which would be an unacceptable burden, as competition intensifies between China and the United States in the Asia-Pacific, and even in the Indo-Pacific. “We need to safeguard the peace, security, and prosperity in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean,” said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in January 2019. “We must ensure that the Indian and Pacific Oceans do not become a competitive arena for natural resources, territory or maritime supremacy.”

I just had a conversation at a seminar in China with Deborah Chang, a researcher from Singapore. She said that maintaining balance between China and the U.S./Japan is the foundation of Singapore’s “small state, big diplomacy” policy. The escalating rivalry between China and the U.S., however, threatens to destabilize this equilibrium. It is clear that both political and intellectual elites prioritize maintaining balance between great powers and preventing ASEAN diplomacy from turning into a venue for great power games.

The third worry is that the U.S. effort to fortify regional institutions will reduce ASEAN’s importance. Although the U.S. government has stated that it respects and supports ASEAN’s centrality, the various steps it has taken to improve the connectivity of the Indo-Pacific region may have an impact on ASEAN’s dominant regional multilateral mechanisms and its centrality — which may in turn affect its solidarity. Under the Indo-Pacific Strategy, U.S.-led multilateral governance systems — from the Five Eyes Alliance to the Quad and AUKUS (the three-way security alliance between the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia) — to some extent marginalizes or sidelines ASEAN procedures. The U.S. attempt to make ASEAN the centerpiece of its Indo-Pacific Strategy has really had the opposite effect and made ASEAN less strategically significant.

The fourth worry is that ASEAN’s development environment may worsen as a result of the challenging regional security situation. Long-term ASEAN strategic objectives include the creation of the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality and the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, but numerous U.S. policies under the Indo-Pacific Strategy pose significant barriers to the fulfillment of these objectives. For instance, the AUKUS heightens Southeast Asia’s risk of nuclear proliferation and an arms race.

In the East Asia Summit Declaration of 2021, ASEAN made clear its commitment to upholding Southeast Asia’s status as a region free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and to supporting international efforts for disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy in accordance with existing treaties. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have released statements expressing their great worry over the nuclear submarine pact between the U.S., UK and Australia, as well as the regional arms race in general.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy has undoubtedly complicated the security situation in the region, which has a substantial impact on the development environments of ASEAN countries and is at odds with the regional vision to which ASEAN is committed. As a result, ASEAN will neither fully support nor completely oppose the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Instead, it will work to protect its unity and central role in regional cooperation mechanisms, while attempting to maintain as much neutrality and flexibility as feasible. It will also work to promote regional economic success and maximize its strategic interests.

This ASEAN stance merits significant consideration given the competition between China and the United States. Regardless of which party attempts to pressure ASEAN to obtain a competitive edge, the outcome is likely to be a loss that outweighs the benefit.

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