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Foreign Policy

How Southeast Asian Countries Are Navigating the Era of Sino-American Strategic Competition.

Nov 03, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The era of Sino-American great power competition, as pundits and commentators often remind us, is before us. 

Yet what is oft overlooked in convoluted squabbles over China’s ascent – for some, seemingly inexorable; for others, stymied by an increasingly unfavourable external environment and domestic economic vulnerabilities; over the U.S.’s purported demise – again, for some irrevocable, to others way overstated, is the agency of third parties. 

Where certain ‘third parties’ do crop up in the discussion, they are usually powers or countries that are closely aligned with one of the two powers, such as Russia (with its “partnership” with China, which has posed a significant liability to Sino-European relations, China’s soft power abroad, yet arguably enriched China from an economic and energy perspective), or Japan and Australia (in relation to the U.S.-led Quad, a thinly veiled attempt at re-asserting American dominance in the Indo-Pacific). India, as I have pointed out previously, is a power that will serve itself, and itself alone. 

A region that must feature more prominently in the discussion is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Not only does ASEAN demonstrate that strategic neutrality, however fragile and tenuous, can and should be embraced as a feasible option amidst deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations, it also provides for a series of exemplary case studies on how regional, medium powers, and small powers, can seek to preserve agency over domestic affairs through a delicately maintained approach to external relationship. 

On the surface it appears that Southeast Asian nations don’t choose sides – that they are dis-positionally neutral. Yet further unpacking would reveal that there is more complexity than meets the eyes. There are three points that are worthy of particular discussion. 

Firstly, most ASEAN states adopt what I term ‘multi-aligned with critical caveats’ – aligned increasingly with China on economic and development-financial terms, yet with caveats concerning strategically sensitive sectors (e.g. Indonesia, in relation to nickel); aligned broadly with the U.S. on military-defence terms (especially amongst countries with an active stake in the South China Sea dispute, where Beijing’s all-or-nothing theoretical claims and practical bartering tactics have rendered fellow claimants suspicious of Chinese intentions, as scholar M. Taylor Fravel has previously noted), and aligned rhetorically and strategically increasingly with one another within ASEAN, albeit with vestiges of the ‘Asian values’ discourse spearheaded by Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Tun Mahathir of Malaysia. 

Secondly, ASEAN states are internally divided over their foreign policies. Laos and Cambodia, and Myanmar under the Tatmadaw, have trended increasingly closer to China – though with the new Prime Minister Hun Manet’s distinct emphasis upon rehabilitating Cambodia’s image in the West, some adjustments could well be in order. Vietnam and the Philippines, despite the former’s sharing large swathes of governmental and bureaucratic logic with China and sophisticated rhetoric in China, have long maintained a relatively sceptical stance towards China in light of territorial disputes. Malaysia under Anwar has adopted an affable approach to Beijing that has surprised many. Countries such as Indonesia under Jokowi, Thailand under the newly elected Srettha Thavisin, Singapore, and Brunei, have opted to stay relatively equi-proximate and equi-distant to both great powers. The above landscape could well change rapidly over the years ahead, in light of the 2024 Presidential Elections in Indonesia, East Timor’s prospective accession to ASEAN, and Thailand’s looking to play a greater role in mediating the crisis in Myanmar. 

Thirdly, and fundamentally, such differences across ASEAN member-states should not be over-stated, and a resilient feature in the foreign policies of many amongst them, is the recognition that inter-ASEAN mutual interdependence is here to stay, and can be harnessed to the advantage of their people. The dominant priorities for most leaders in the region concern securing economic development, expanding market access and entry, strengthening labour and talent cultivation and immigration, and – ultimately – preserving the right not to choose. A core pillar of this process of acquired neutrality is the maintenance of robust bonds between the 10 (soon 11) member-states within this region of 670 million people. 

Yet the above does not suffice in establishing a clear path forward. 

If ASEAN is to weather the geopolitical headwinds emanating from Sino-American rivalry, the region – as a whole – must embrace complex hedging, strengthen value-based cooperation between members, and resolve regional tensions and flashpoints. 

Firstly, hedging is the only path that is both feasible and desirable for a vast majority of ASEAN states. This is an observation raised emphatically by one of the foremost international relations scholars studying hedging, Professor Kuik Cheng-Chwee at the National University of Malaysia. Hedging, as he writes in an East Asian Forum piece in July this year, “is fundamentally about the human instinct of mitigating multiple perceived risks under uncertain conditions.” Risks internal to China or the U.S., such as macroeconomic policy unpredictability, the return of Donald Trump in the 2024 elections, or significant political polarisation leading to hyper-protectionism of which we have seen early signs in America today, are obviously high up on the list of risks to be managed. Yet interactional risks – risks that are created and compounded jointly by the actions of disparate actors – lie not only in Sino-American clashes over the Taiwan Straits or South China Sea, but also potential confrontations between China and India, the U.S. and Russia, or the EU and China across Southeast Asia. In opting to render themselves useful and amenable to all sides, ASEAN countries must recognise the complexity of players with skin in the game (including the oft-overlooked Japan, India, and Russia, as aforementioned), as well as sizeable influence in Southeast Asia. 

Secondly, consolidating inter-ASEAN interdependence and transforming into a source of strength, requires a true sense of solidarity across ASEAN citizens. Solidarity arises in turn from value-based cooperation and a genuine respect for the regional ties and bonds between economies. To resist and outlive the acrimonious turn towards bipolarity in East Asian geopolitics, ASEAN governments must prove to their citizens that the concept of Southeast Asian unity – as espoused by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) – can and will deliver for citizens public goods and developmental progress, and can manifest through material improvements to their quality of life. Short of that, the ethos of ASEAN unity would forever remain consigned to the realm of ivory tower talk and jovial after-dinner conversations between political luminaries. ASEAN can only be systemically and externally non-aligned, if it is internally aligned across all of its disparate members on certain basic stances and value propositions. This is by no means easy, as former Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr. Marty Natalegawa noted in an interview I conducted with him a few months ago. 

Thirdly and finally, ASEAN states must come together to resolve regional tensions and crises. The ongoing civil strife between the Tatmadaw-controlled Myanmar government and the slew of loosely connected, mutually antipathic opposition rebels, is testament to the urgency and case for pragmatic mediation. With the previous, unilateralist government now voted out, the newly established government in Thailand, with its foreign ministry helmed by Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, a seasoned political advisor and known advocate of Thailand’s taking a more proactive role in multilateral institutions such as ASEAN, is due to step up to playing a greater role in pressuring Naypidaw into taking seriously a potential ceasefire and institutional solutions to the unfolding crisis on the ground. Elsewhere, in face of the economic volatility induced by the ongoing war in Ukraine, ASEAN member states must deepen their coordination and collaboration in optimising for food and energy output, thereby enabling food and energy security through capacity-building and inter-exchange of resources. 

The era of Sino-American strategic competition need not be a net negative for many of the regions around the world. ASEAN, for one, could well be a prime beneficiary from the ‘China+1’ diversification efforts as firms seek to move parts of their supply chains out of China. The future is complex, murky, and uncertain, but Southeast Asian countries can and shall persevere, provided they keep to a path forward that is cognizant of the needs and interests of all, and not the few, within the bloc.

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