ASEAN: between China and America

Author: Heng Sarith, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace

Where is ASEAN going right now? Cambodia had a difficult year as ASEAN Chair in 2012,  struggling with unfortunate regional tension on the issue of South China Sea, which resulted in ASEAN’s disunity for the first time in 45 years.

US Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Brunei Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Australia

Yet Brunei, ASEAN Chair for 2013, managed to issue a joint communiqué easily at the 46th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) on 30 June without much pressure from its members. This despite the fact that ASEAN is still facing serious challenges, including disputes in the South China Sea, the conflict over Sabah in Northern Malaysia, ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar, and trans-border haze pollution affecting Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. It seems like ASEAN has double standards among its members. The reason why ASEAN has chosen to stay quiet so far in 2013 is the fact that it has learned a hard lesson from the failure to issue a joint communiqué at the 45th AMM in 2012. The rise of China and US strategic rebalancing present challenges for the organisation, and it can respond in four very different ways.

First, ASEAN may exercise balance of power and could become an object of great power competition. In 2011, the United States announced its pivot to Asia and began deploying most of its naval power back to the Asia Pacific region. This has resulted in an escalating rivalry with China. Some countries in ASEAN, especially Myanmar and Vietnam, have actively engaged in strategic balancing between China and America. These countries are seeking more robust economic and strategic relationships with the United States as an option to hedge against China’s threat. But being closer to a great power is considered harmful to ASEAN unity and centrality. The game of balance of power would have adverse consequence, such as rifts in ASEAN’s solidarity, if it is exercised carelessly. ASEAN has long been considered neutral — it is not dominated by a great power. Since its establishment in 1967, ASEAN’s neutrality has given it strategic success.

Second, the sceptics of East Asian regionalism fear that China will eventually dominate East Asia through a China-led ‘East Asian Community’, even though Japan originally proposed this initiative. ASEAN recognises that ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) is the main mechanism for building an East Asian Community. In this scenario, ASEAN countries would move closer to China with regional economic integration and mega-regional infrastructure projects, such as the Singapore–Kunming Rail Link, bilateral assistance packages, FTA frameworks, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). An ASEAN–China FTA would provide great economic benefits to ASEAN because of China’s strong economic growth and its big middle-class consumption market. But ASEAN countries discount China’s military threat on the issue of the South China Sea. Since the United States would not be involved in any of these institutions, most analysts believe that ASEAN would fall under Chinese hegemony in East Asia.

In contrast, the third scenario would see the United States extend its security umbrella and lead the region economically through multilateral forums. In this particular scenario, ASEAN nations would sign up to US-led multilateral forums, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) initiatives, in order to diversify their export markets and increase US FDI flow to the region. Currently, four members of ASEAN (Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam) are participating in TPP negotiations. Since America needs strategic balance with China, ASEAN can benefit more from these initiatives. ASEAN countries, too, need closer strategic relations with United States in order to counter China’s influence, especially on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Some countries are already making this choice — Vietnam and the Philippines are co-operating politically and militarily with the United States and Japan, through high-level visits and joint military exercises. ASEAN could use an alliance with the United States as an economic and military shield against threats from China. In the case of armed conflict in the South China Sea, America would be expected to help ASEAN countries, whatever the circumstances.

Fourth, ASEAN enthusiasts would prefer to safeguard ‘ASEAN centrality’ in order to balance itself between China and the United States. ASEAN knows that being too close to China or the United States is harmful to its unity. It can maintain centrality by using the ‘ASEAN way’ of consultation and consensus to accommodate all the voices and needs of its members. Fear of domination by major powers may prompt ASEAN to strengthen itself and maintain unity, safeguard the consensus principle, and engage more carefully with regional powers. ASEAN’s importance to East Asian regionalism is mostly due to its neutrality — China and Japan might not trust each other, but ASEAN is believed to be impartial. With this priceless asset and the ‘ASEAN way’, ASEAN can take into account the interests and preferences of all parties.

ASEAN should choose this last option. Safeguarding ASEAN centrality is the most acceptable strategic choice. Doing so will advance its strategic position and help maintain regional peace, stability and prosperity. The first step toward achieving this policy is to focus on ASEAN community building and to build a regional initiative on dispute settlements. ASEAN has to strengthen itself and find the right distance between the two great regional powers.

Heng Sarith is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.