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ASEAN Members Speak Up on Taiwan

Sep 07, 2022
  • Li Jianwei

    Director and Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies
  • Ramses Amer

    Associated Fellow, Institute for Security & Development Policy, Sweden

Tensions increased across the Taiwan Strait, as well as between China and the U.S., as a result off the visit to Taiwan by U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. To protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty, China responded with a series of measures, including military exercises, stopping or suspending several China-U.S. bilateral dialogue mechanisms and imposing sanctions targeting Pelosi.

The crisis happened during the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia. For the first time, ASEAN foreign ministers made a statement relating to the developments. ASEAN member states also stated their official positions through statements or press releases by their respective foreign ministries. Several implications can be read from these responses.

There are two major issues surrounding Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (the Taiwan issue) and the China-U.S. relationship or rivalry. How these two issues are handled by the parties concerned — the Chinese mainland, Taiwan island and the United States — will have a strong impact on the security of the region and beyond.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the Taiwan issue concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He further elaborated, saying that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory” and “the one-China principle has become a basic norm governing international relations and an integral part of the post-Second World War international order.” As for China’s response, including military exercises, he said “it is lawful and justified that China upholds territorial integrity and opposes secession.”

For the Chinese government and people, the U.S. speaker’s visit was a major event that seriously violated the one-China principle and the provisions in the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques. Such irresponsible behavior infringes on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and negatively impacts the political foundation of China-U.S. relations. Pelosi’s visit during her tenure is a politically sensitive matter.

Regionally, ASEAN issued its foreign ministers’ statement on Aug. 3, two days after Pelosi arrived in Taiwan and China had announced military exercises in six sea areas around Taiwan from Aug. 4 to 7. The four paragraphs in the statement expressed the following:

First, ASEAN members expressed “concern” with the development, particularly with the potential for “miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences” between major powers, obviously referring to China and the United States.

Second, following a call for maximum restraint and respect for the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, ASEAN reiterated its support for the “one-China” policy. By referring to the UN Charter and the TAC, the principles emphasized in dealing with interstate relations are non-interference in  the internal affairs of other countries, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, settlement of disputes by peaceful means and no threat or use of force.

As clearly expressed in their support for their respective one-China policies, the Taiwan issue is considered an internal affair of China. These principles can be interpreted as referring to what China and the U.S. are called to follow in matters involving the Taiwan issue.

Third, the statement emphasizes the importance of “peace, stability, security and inclusive and sustainable development” by means of “multilateralism and partnership, cooperation, peaceful-coexistence and healthy competition.”

Fourth, ASEAN offers to play a constructive role in facilitating a peaceful dialogue between all parties, including using ASEAN-led mechanisms to de-escalate tension, and to safeguard peace and security.

Ten ASEAN member states (not Brunei) followed a couple of days later, stating their official positions through their respective foreign ministries. The statements from individual ASEAN countries follow the principles in ASEAN’s statement but with some variation. From all these responses from ASEAN and its members, several implications can be read.

All statements reiterated their support for the one-China policy — a position closely linked with past history when all members of ASEAN were once under the colonial thumb of Western countries and disastrous loss of lives and impoverishment resulted from conflicts due to external interference. Therefore, they attach importance to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Through the formative years of ASEAN from 1967 to 1976, key ASEAN documents — the ASEAN Declaration, the Declaration of ASEAN Concord and the TAC — call for adherence to the principles of the UN Charter. In particular, the TAC lays down the fundamental principles to guide the signatories:

• Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;

• The right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion of coercion;

• Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries;

• Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means;

• Renunciation of the threat or use of force;

• Effective cooperation.

China and the U.S. acceded to the TAC in 2003 and 2009, respectively.

Deep concern is shown from all ASEAN countries that the recent developments across the Taiwan strait may escalate into military conflict between the major powers — China and the U.S. — which will negatively impact regional peace and stability.

All ASEAN countries experience economic difficulties, affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the global economic slowdown and the Ukraine crisis. They all hope for a continuous peaceful and stable environment for internal economic development. Further, ASEAN countries enjoy active economic relations with both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

The mainland has overtaken the U.S. and Europe to become the largest trade partner of ASEAN since 2009. Bilateral trade value rose to $516.9 billion, accounting for 25 percent of total ASEAN foreign trade. Chinese investors from the mainland have become the leading investors in the region in recent years. Taiwan maintains strong economic ties with many ASEAN members. Last year, its exports to ASEAN totaled $70 billion. Integrated circuits manufactured in Taiwan account for 39.8 percent of imports to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines combined. Stability across the Taiwan strait is conducive to their continuous economic relationship with both parties.

The statements of the 10 ASEAN countries vary in emphasis, which might be due to their individual domestic concerns or different relations with China and the U.S. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar emphasized support for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. Cambodia considers “the issues related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang [as] internal affairs and under the sovereign rights” of China. Laos opposes “any intention aiming at creating a situation for ‘two China’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan.’” Myanmar opposes “any provocative … attempts that aim to interfere in the internal affairs of other states.” Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam pay attention to the balance between China and the U.S. Indonesia shows deep concern with “the increasing rivalry among major powers” and calls on “wisdom and responsibilit[y] of all leaders to ensure peace and stability.”  Singapore hopes that the U.S. and China can work out a modus vivendi. While Malaysia’s foreign minister emphasizes that “we want to be friends with both China and the U.S.,” Vietnam considers the U.S. and China as “leading important partners of Vietnam.” Both Thailand and the Philippines are formal allies of the U.S., and reports have shown their concern of being dragged into open conflict with China due to their duty as allies of the U.S.. Thailand traditionally has good relations with China, and the Philippines’ new president, Bongbong Marcos, has indicated a desire for balance between China and the U.S.

ASEAN can play an active role in regional peace and stability. Principles enshrined in the UN Charter, which are reflected in the TAC, are a basic code of conduct for governing the behavior of states in dealing with interstate relations. In light of current developments, ASEAN immediately issued a statement in a strong call for upholding these principles. At the same time, ASEAN can act as a facilitator in dispute management among signatories. Key major powers are ASEAN partners. They either support, at least in words, ASEAN’s central role in regional affairs or by acceding to the TAC are bound by the principles therein.  ASEAN not only has a voice but can also act when necessary.

In short, facing a potential crisis that may affect regional peace and stability, ASEAN and its 10 member states has chosen to make its voice heard. It wants the region to remain peaceful and achieve prosperity for all by upholding the basic principles of governing interstate relations. Members are cautious not to choose sides in a major power rivalry. 

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