Commentary: Ukraine war must push Southeast Asia to test US commitment to region
Russia’s invasion might mean the return of “might is right”, and ASEAN nations must consider how they can navigate the new world order, says James Carouso.
SINGAPORE: The new world order may have been born in the embers of Ukraine under Russian fire.
The last 75 years of a largely rules-based global system were a rare exception in the 2,400 years since Thucydides wrote, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."
If the old rules are new again, how should the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries react? What do they do with the fact that the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have pledged blood and treasure if Russia attacks any NATO member; but have committed only financially to Ukraine, not being an allied country?
A critical question is to what degree the US is committed to Asia. Some observers have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “enticed” to war because of signals that the US was disengaging from world affairs.
After all, America’s response was tepid when Russia attacked Georgia in 2008 and took over Crimea in 2014. Former US president Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and the undermining of multilateral structures reflected the American public’s exhaustion with failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Biden administration’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 and a continued focus on China could have further misled Putin into believing US President Joe Biden would not lead an effective response to Russian aggression.
Given the long-standing failure of major NATO partners to invest the promised 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence and their apparent energy dependence on Russia, Putin could well have believed that Europe would be reluctant to respond to his Ukraine gambit and so further limit any response from the US.
MISCALCULATION BY PUTIN BRINGS WEST TOGETHER
But Putin, to put it mildly, miscalculated. A nation of 44 million with borders on European Union member nations was a much different situation from previous Russian aggressions.
The excuses for the invasion were ludicrous and Putin’s refusal to discuss any legitimate security concerns, short of Russia dictating with whom an independent nation could associate, made clear that this was a battle of right versus wrong.
This sort of moral clarity is something that Americans can understand. And it is reflected in the strong bipartisan support for Ukraine now found in the US Congress and among the public.
Europe, too, is coming together far beyond what many expected. Germany, which has long seen itself as the primary middleman between Russia and the West, has overcome its post-World War II military reluctance. It is massively increasing its defence spending to €100 billion (US$111 billion) and permitting German-made weapons to be sent to help the Ukrainians.
Nations that have historically protected their neutrality, such as Sweden and Switzerland, broke with tradition to send arms to Ukraine, recognising that standing alone might bring greater risk to themselves and threatens the global order that allowed smaller nations to be treated more equally with larger nations.
WHAT SHOULD NON-ALLIED ASEAN NATIONS DO?
The non-allied nations of the world; especially those that are not economically or geographically resilient to global geopolitics, must play the new hand they have been dealt.
This includes the members of ASEAN with not one but possibly two challenging neighbours. They must now ask themselves several key questions as they consider what changes, if any, they should make to their foreign and defence policies.
First is whether the US has now, once again, shifted its focus away from the Indo-Pacific. Two US groupings - the Quad (US, Japan, Australia, and India) and AUKUS (US, Australia and United Kingdom) - are both security-focused and include no ASEAN members.
The joint statement from the Feb 11 meeting of Quad foreign ministers made clear that ASEAN is important to all four Quad members: “As unwavering supporters of ASEAN unity and centrality, and the ASEAN-led architecture, we continue to support ASEAN partners to advance the practical implementation of ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.
In Washington’s recently released “Indo-Pacific Strategy” paper, three of the 10 stated goals are “drive resources to the Indo-Pacific”, “reinforce deterrence”, and “strengthen an empowered and unified ASEAN”.
Second, ASEAN states need to test if these promises are real and sufficiently resourced to make a difference. No one wants to have to choose sides – economically or politically – or at least not on an ongoing basis. Whether this is possible or not depends on the continuing fallout and actions of the major powers as the Ukraine catastrophe unfolds.
TESTING US PROMISES ABOUT ASIA
ASEAN members should get the opportunity to test whether the US’ promises will have real resources and commitment behind them if the now-postponed US-ASEAN Special Summit, is rescheduled. From Washington's standpoint, it is meant to demonstrate that the US has not altered its focus on Asia.
ASEAN should ask to have regular consultations with the Quad to ensure that ASEAN concerns and interests are fully considered as the Quad makes decisions.
The US recognises that a more resilient Indo-Pacific will require reducing the region’s dependence on China as a destination for their exports and source of finance. By offering well-financed, well-coordinated and easier access to sources of infrastructure expertise and finance, the US can advance this aim.
It would also help if the US joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) economic arrangement to better integrate its economy with those of other Indo-Pacific nations. But the US walked away from the CPTPP’s precursor in 2017 and has so far ruled out rejoining the trade pact.
While there is considerable speculation that the US will propose a Digital Economy Agreement, it remains to be seen what the US proposals will be and if they will be enough to encourage more economic depth between the US and ASEAN economies.
Asian nations should want the US to become more engaged in the region to provide a counterweight to China, a nation that only last month signed an agreement with Russia promising “cooperation without limits”.
ASEAN must start testing if the US’ words about engagement are serious, especially in a world where might makes right.
James Carouso is a Senior Fellow and Chair of the Australia Advisory Board at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC, and a former Acting US Ambassador to Australia.