The Biden administration has been attempting to rope more countries into the ranks of those wanting to contain China. Naturally ASEAN countries are its targets. By standing up to overt or covert pressure from the U.S., however, ASEAN countries have made clear their stance: They don’t want to join the anti-China chorus or choose between the major powers.
Singapore maintains close ties with the U.S. and is deemed a quasi-ally. The U.S. has sold advanced F-35 fighters to Singapore and established a military base at Changi. U.S. aircraft carriers frequently make port calls in Singapore, and the two countries regularly conduct joint military exercises.
Still, when it comes to taking sides and choosing between Beijing and Washington, the repeated statements of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are obviously not what the U.S. had wished for. In an interview broadcast by the BBC on March 13. Lee stated expressly that Singapore would not take sides.
“It is not possible for us to choose one or the other because we have very intense and extensive ties with both the U.S. and China, economic as well as in other areas, and so do many other countries in the world,” he said.
In the past few years, the U.S. has favored Vietnam by selling weapons to and relocating some American companies from China to Vietnam. In return it wants some paybacks, but the U.S. has failed to get what it expected. On April 26, while meeting the visiting Chinese defense minister, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated clearly that Vietnam firmly upholds the one-China principle and opposes any forces’ interference in China’s internal affairs. Vietnam will stay on guard against, and firmly resist, any schemes to undermine Vietnam-China relations, and will never follow other countries in opposing China.
In a speech on June 4, a Malaysian leader said Asian nations should not take sides, but instead should strengthen cooperation with the two big powers.
“China is our partner, and so is the U.S. This should not be a question of taking sides between the two,” he said.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines once said at a public event: “The Philippines does not see the need to take sides in the ongoing geoeconomic competition of big powers.”
Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng also declared that Cambodia will resolutely uphold its foreign policy of neutrality and nonalignment, and will not take sides. Responding to a claim in Western media about Cambodia’s overreliance on China for infrastructure, Prime Minister Hun Sen stressed explicitly: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?” He said China’s infrastructure investment is indispensable to Cambodia’s economic growth.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said on October 20 that Indonesia did not want to choose between China and the U.S., and was very much concerned about the rising tensions in China-U.S. relations. The U.S. has repeatedly asked Indonesia to grant it approval for Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel in Indonesia, but the requests have been rejected.
Why don’t ASEAN countries take sides? There has long been a consensus that Southeast Asian countries rely on the U.S. for security and on China for their economy. Whether they rely on the U.S. for security or not, it is substantially true that they benefit from cooperation with China under the principle of mutual benefit and reciprocity.
China has been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner for 10 consecutive years. Last year, ASEAN overtook the European Union and the U.S. to become China’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade of 4.74 trillion yuan that year, accounting for 14.7 percent of China’s total annual foreign trade. The total GDP of the 10 ASEAN countries in 2019 was $3.14 trillion, which declined to about $3 trillion in 2020, when the GDP of the U.S. stood at $20.95 trillion, and that of the EU was $15.19 trillion.
Given these figures, some may ask: How could it be possible for ASEAN to overtake the U.S. and the EU to become China’s biggest trading partner? The fundamental reason is the high economic complementarity between the two sides, with ASEAN in need of Chinese capital and technologies, and China in need of the ASEAN market and energy. Further, China and ASEAN countries are close neighbors. With preferable geographical locations, when the transportation costs of exports to the U.S. and European markets get high, China and ASEAN can easily reach one another’s markets.
Most ASEAN countries are also active participants in the Belt and Road Initiative, and some have already benefited from it. For example, Vietnam has been active in aligning its “Two Corridors, One Belt” strategy with the BRI, and the two countries are cooperating closely to connect China-Vietnam international transport with China-Europe freight trains. Laos now has its first expressway linking its capital, Vientiane, with a town at the Laos-China border. And several infrastructure projects are now under construction in ASEAN countries.
ASEAN is deepening economic cooperation with China. In November, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was officially signed. The free trade agreement, initiated by the 10 ASEAN countries, covers 30 percent of the global population, 30 percent of the world economy and 30 percent of global trade and is to date the largest free trade zone in the world. Most RCEP members are cooperative partners of the BRI, and the platform established under this agreement will help facilitate and promote the high-quality development of the BRI.
Another factor might be that some ASEAN countries are in the circle of Chinese culture, while some are not. But all have felt its influence. Against a profound historical background, including intricate bonds and common suffering from brutal Western colonial rule, China and ASEAN countries share solid and deep-seated foundations for friendly cooperation.