Commentary: ASEAN can shape US-China relations in Southeast Asia
The phenomenal rise of China’s economic and military power led the US to conclude that its bilateral alliance system was not enough to balance China without more help from allies and partners, says a researcher.
SINGAPORE: The post Cold War-era for the Asia-Pacific was marked by relatively benign great power relations and the salience of cooperative security. This lasted just over two decades. Since then, significant power shifts have led to the return of great power rivalry, the rise of new security structures and alignments, and much uncertainty.
During the Cold War, the predominant regional security architecture in non-communist Asia-Pacific was the US alliance system comprising bilateral military alliances with Japan and several other countries. These were hard security mechanisms to deter military aggression from communist powers.
By their very nature, they had to be exclusive as members were like-minded countries sharing common security concerns.
After the Cold War an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-centred multilateral architecture emerged with the setting up of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, and, later, the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
These were soft or cooperative security mechanisms, essentially for exchanging views, networking and confidence building. They brought all significant Asia-Pacific players, like-minded or not, friends or potential adversaries, under one tent. By its very nature, this ASEAN-led architecture had to be inclusive.
UNITED STATES ALLIANCE SYSTEM SEEN AS NEEDED FOR SECURITY AND STABILITY
Despite the emergence of these ASEAN-led mechanisms, many Asia-Pacific countries still regarded the US alliance system as the bedrock of security and stability in the region and the ASEAN-based architecture a supplement to it.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, a strong advocate of balance of power, was so concerned that the American withdrawal from military bases in the Philippines could potentially weaken the East Asian regional balance that he offered to host in Singapore the logistics unit of the Seventh Fleet to facilitate the Fleet’s operations.
Indeed, the US, like the other major powers, has always pursued its vital national interests and strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific region outside and independent of the ASEAN-based mechanisms.
Still, much has changed since then. The phenomenal rise of China’s economic and military power led the US to conclude that its bilateral alliance system was not enough to balance China without more help from allies and partners.
While the US spends more on defence than China, its military forces are dispersed around the globe because of its worldwide commitments, and China enjoys geographical advantages in the western Pacific.
Hence the emergence of minilaterals like the Quad comprising three members of the US alliance system — Australia, Japan and the US — and one partner, India; and the AUKUS treaty involving Australia, the US and the United Kingdom. These mechanisms are mostly de facto reinforcements of the US alliance system.
“MINILATERAL” ARRANGEMENTS EXCLUDE CHINA, SIDELINE ASEAN?
Criticisms in Southeast Asia, at least initially, of the Quad and of AUKUS for not being inclusive and for leaving out China, on the surface betrayed a whiff of category confusion, whether real or feigned, because the Quad and even more the AUKUS pact, are balancing mechanisms and hence cannot incorporate those they are balancing against.
However, there have been more weighty factors in play that help to explain the apparent confusion and contradictions. Apart from a genuine concern that ASEAN would be sidelined by these new minilateral security arrangements, there is the need not to offend China, now a powerful economic and military actor, by endorsing new US-sponsored security arrangements.
Further, the long preoccupation with the ASEAN-based architecture had bred a tendency among some to regard it not just as an important supplement to balance of power but as the panacea for regional security. This predisposition is aided by the absence of significant great power tensions for more than two decades after the Cold War.
Unfortunately, the sunlight of cooperative security is diminishing as the shadows of distrust, arms races and military manoeuvres rise. America and China have conflicting, almost mutually exclusive strategic visions, with one fearing eviction from East Asia, and the other dreading encirclement and isolation. Such forebodings are escalating competition and spawning new security mechanisms.
The ‘no limits’ cooperation agreement announced by China and Russia in early February presages closer cooperation to oppose the US-led schemes.
On the other side, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has given a boost to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as Finland and Sweden abandon their neutrality and seek NATO membership.
To partially compensate for its yawning economic and trade gap in its competition with China, the US has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The latest summit in Tokyo of a rapidly institutionalising Quad saw the inauguration of the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, which seeks to track illegal fishing in the region. Both initiatives have geopolitical dimensions related to China.
WILL PIECES OF GEOPOLITICAL JIGSAW COME TOGETHER?
For some time, separate pieces of a geopolitical jigsaw appeared to be floating around. These include US alliances, the Quad, AUKUS, Japan’s re-armament, Indian, British and European security involvement in the Indo-Pacific, and growing links of Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea with NATO. One wonders if they will sooner or later start coming together to form a much broader security arrangement.
China is responding with its own moves. Witness the proposal for multilateral economic and security cooperation with Pacific islands pushed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Suva, Fiji, in May.
It is certainly not the last we will hear of Chinese efforts to secure footholds in the Pacific islands because of their strategic location between the US mainland (and Hawaii) and the US forward defence line on the first island chain in the western part of the Western Pacific. Whatever new cards China may have in mind remain to be seen.
Amidst such developments, while ASEAN will remain indispensable for intra-Southeast Asian peace and stability, its capacity to shape great power relations in the region will face more challenges. The region has the advantages of strategic location on vital sea lanes and great economic potential, prizes that the great powers covet.
But the potential leverage from these endowments can only be realised through greater unity of purpose. While coping with the flux of change, ASEAN and its constituent states must not neglect the crucial importance of a balance of influence and power between the great powers in the region to help secure space for their independence.
Daljit Singh is a Visiting Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Regional Strategic & Political Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in the Institute's blog The Fulcrum.