Can ASEAN centrality weather the US–China storm?

Asia World

Author: Mark J Valencia, National Institute for South China Sea Studies

The US–China contest for regional domination was front and centre at the September round of ASEAN-hosted talks. In the run up to and at the meetings, China and the United States sharply criticised each other and appealed to Southeast Asian countries for support. In response, the ASEAN Regional Forum Chair bravely reaffirmed ASEAN’s centrality in regional security affairs.

Lightning flashes over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) as it transits the South China Sea, 4 July, 2020. (Reuters/John Philip Wagner, Jr.).

Lightning flashes over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) as it transits the South China Sea, 4 July, 2020. (Reuters/John Philip Wagner, Jr.).

But to some, this was whistling by the graveyard of high aspirations. Without unity, ASEAN is unlikely to achieve centrality — particularly in the face of burgeoning US–China confrontation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN ‘centrality’ in the maintainence of peace and stability between great powers in its region has always been aspirational. Its failures to manage intraregional conflict during the Cold War as well as out-of-control situations in Cambodia, Myanmar and now the South China Sea have demonstrated as much. As for maintaining unity, it is already split. Cambodia supports its economic benefactor China and others are similarly linked economically and leaning that direction. The United States has a military alliance with the Philippines and Thailand. They and Singapore and Malaysia facilitate US military operations including intelligence probes on China. Besides, ASEAN’s consensus-driven and non-confrontational culture limit its agency.

But ASEAN members do not want to choose between the two. They want to ‘remain the masters of their own destiny’. They do not want to become puppets or surrogates and risk great power interference in their domestic affairs, as during the Cold War.

A choice is also difficult because of competing individual national interests. While many may be more ideologically aligned with the United States and prefer its security protection, there are longer term economic and geopolitical reasons to avoid confrontation with China. Most states want to be neutral and benefit from both.

But the situation is dire and the opportunities for ASEAN to influence it are limited. The United States believes that it and China are engaged in ‘a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order’ in the Indo–Pacific. It has even framed their conflict in existential terms, saying ‘the world cannot be safe until China changes’.

China believes that the United States wants to contain its rightful rise to maintain regional hegemony. For China, the South China Sea is a ‘natural shield for its national security’. It hosts vital sea lanes of communication that China believes the United States could and would disrupt in any conflict. Even more importantly, it provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second-strike nuclear submarines. These are China’s insurance against a potential first strike — something the United States, unlike China, has not disavowed.

The ASEAN states recognise the situation may be beyond their control. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is particularly concerned that the China–US struggle could split ASEAN. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi urged her fellow ASEAN foreign ministers to remain ‘steadfastly neutral and united’.

But the recent ramped-up pressure is only a prelude of what is to come. So far China and the United States have been playing relatively ‘nice’. But this contest for regional domination may get nastier and more overt — especially in the run-up to the US presidential election. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on 13 June confronting China and its increasing military presence in the South China Sea are indicators of that.

The United States expected that its political, social and economic systems, and — more importantly — its values, will be enough to keep much of Asia in its camp. This is proving to be a false hope. So the United States is falling back on its tried and true advantage — military power and the threat of its use. With the mounting tension between the two big powers, it is not likely that ASEAN unity and centrality regarding the US–China contest to dominate the South China Sea will survive or be effective unless it changes its approach.

The ASEAN foreign ministers responded to Pompeo’s statement by repeating their oft-expressed intent to maintain Southeast Asia as ‘a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability’.But ASEAN can and must do more to prevent an adverse outcome. It could increase the tone, tenor and volume of its ‘unified’ voice urging China and the United States to show diplomatic restraint and cease their military posturing. Some pundits are suggesting that ASEAN states should appeal to third parties to assist them in this task. But a third party would have to be acceptable to both China and the United States, lest they be seen by one as a surrogate for the other. That leaves few, if any, acceptable candidates.

To achieve centrality in this situation, ASEAN must act with uncharacteristic dispatch, gusto and bluntness. It needs to find common ground and tell both the United States and China what it wants them to do and not to do. It should unequivocally state that it opposes the military posturing of both in the South China Sea, and — if necessary — appeal to the international community for assistance in restraining the two. But this is not ‘the ASEAN way’.

Perhaps it could encourage China’s rival claimants to form an ASEAN committee to deal with China while it fends off the United States.

Whatever it does, ASEAN needs to change its ‘culture’ or the situation will worsen and spiral beyond its control. Where it goes from there will be up to China and the United States — not it.

Mark J Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.