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Foreign Policy

Drumbeats of Friction in Asia–Pacific

Mar 15, 2022
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

The United States released its “Indo-Pacific Strategy document” in February, reiterating the area’s importance for the U.S. and signifying why Washington is now leaning towards the term “Indo-Pacific.” It is pretty obvious that the U.S. is focused on the Southeast Asian region. 

China is blamed for “coercion and aggression [that] spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.” China is singled out for aggressive behavior threatening neighbors in the South and East China seas, leading the U.S. to declare it will assist allies and friends in the region, according to the Lowy Institute. 

The U.S. intends to generate a collective effort from its partners in the region to change the strategic environment in which China operates. Such a course will enable America’s regional allies like Australia, Japan, New Zealand or even India additional maneuverability to challenge China. 

The policy also aims at bringing in non-regional actors like Britain, France, European Union into the fold to do the U.S.’ bidding. This would be a dangerous move and will not be supported by ASEAN.  Against the backdrop of the reactivation of the Quad and launch of AUKUS, the U.S. means to position itself as enforcing “support regional peace, security, stability, and prosperity.”  Most notably, the strategy underscores the importance of freedom of navigation in the region without even mentioning America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations Program (FONOPS) in the area, an act that allegedly violates China’s sovereignty and irks them considerably. 

The U.S. has turned its eyes toward ASEAN nations, located right in China’s backyard, in the hopes that Washington can generate goodwill there and distance ASEAN from China. However, with China as their next-door neighbor, this may just be a fantasy dreamt up by American diplomats. ASEAN has emphasized its ‘centrality and neutrality’ and as a group, have adopted an official Outlook on the Indo-Pacific - endorsed by China itself. China on their part, has worked diligently to create close economic ties with ASEAN states.      

Never to be discouraged, the U.S. seeks to offer ASEAN nations an alternative option to the BRI by promising to facilitate more trade, investments, digital connectivity and infrastructure development. Every ASEAN nation is currently part of a BRI project in some capacity. 

The text the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy endorses ASEAN’s centrality and supports ASEAN in its efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges, and yet when it comes to accomplishing the goals it states that the strategy goals are to “support India’s continued rise and regional leadership” and “deliver on the Quad.” This contradicts the centrality concept of ASEAN, which is likely to bother its leadership. 

The Biden administration, like its predecessors, lacks an economic strategy to match China’s economic prowess. China is a founding member of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and has formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The U.S. has turned protectionist whereas China has not, which means China can accelerate engagement with ASEAN. The ASEAN states will therefore, resist American overtures or pressure to kowtow its agenda against China. 

The reaffirmation of ASEAN ‘centrality’ is clearly meant to mollify ASEAN’s core belief of its existence - the region’s premier economic alliance. And yet, the release of the strategy is an indication of the American belief that the ASEAN as an institution is either unwilling or unable to take on the Chinese. This belief is reinforced by the fact that the U.S. “will strengthen the Quad as a premier regional grouping.” The U.S., claiming shared values among the states, only invited Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines from the ten members of ASEAN for the democracy summit, leaving remainder of the ASEAN nations out on the grounds of being autocratic. 

In fact, instead of letting the regional states and relationships evolve, the declaration of such strategies will actually stoke rivalries and partisanship when ASEAN wishes to be neutral and keep military buildup out of their region.  The ASEAN is unwilling to buy that arrangement. Together they feel strong and confident and will resist attempts to make them take sides.

Given the nature and extent of China’s engagement with the region the U.S. will enter into an impossible territory of displacing China’s economic clout in its own neighborhood. The U.S. is likely to push its move with its emerging military alliances for which the ASEAN has no appetite.

Behind all these palliatives for ASEAN lies the reality that the entire purpose of the strategy is the formal launch of a “system competition” between western defined democracy and autocracy. Competition with China thus becomes the ideological basis of American foreign policy. 

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