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Caught between China and the US, Asean must be louder and brasher about peace

2021-11-04 11:37:08       source:NISCSS

October 5, 2021

US-driven anti-China security partnerships such as the Quad and now Aukus have raised the likelihood of a US-China clash in the South China Sea. China’s reaction is likely to make the situation more dangerous. In the event of conflict, Asean members will be losers, directly and indirectly.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and related summits will be held on October 26 to 28 in Brunei, followed by the East Asia Summit in November. It is not hyperbole to ask if this upcoming round of high-level meetings will be Asean’s last chance as an organisation to assert itself and avert a clash in the South China Sea.


The Quad and Aukus are the United States’ strategic moves to counter what it sees as the “China threat” to its hegemony in Asia. These actions were taken because Asean has been spectacularly ineffective in dealing with regional security issues like the South China Sea dispute.


The US and its allies had wanted to use Asean or some of its members as a bulwark against China. But they would not cooperate to the extent the US wanted. So America and its allies went around them and formed the Quad and Aukus, which effectively weaken Asean.


With regard to the Australia-UK-US security alliance, Rizal Sukma, a former Indonesian ambassador to Britain, noted: “Some are supportive, like Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Some are opposed, like Malaysia, and there are those who are concerned, including Indonesia. Others remain silent, such as Brunei and Laos.”


Although Asean often affirms its aspirations to centrality in regional security affairs, in reality, this would depend on its unity. If it wants to stem the drift into regional instability and conflict, it must find sufficient common ground to tell America and China what it would like them to do and not do.


Asean members are trying to avoid choosing between the two powers. In the words of former Malaysian foreign affairs minister Hishammuddin Hussein, “Southeast Asia intends to remain the master of its own destiny.”


Moreover, a choice is difficult because of competing national interests. While some Asean members may be more ideologically aligned with the US and prefer its security protection, they also have longer-term economic and geopolitical reasons that make them reluctant to confront China – even with US backing. Most want to be neutral and benefit from relationships with both.


However, the choice is no longer between regional hegemons. Rather, it is a choice between protecting themselves and their organisation against collateral damage from a clash between great powers – and doing nothing at all and, in Thucydides’ words, suffering “what they must”.


The contest for regional domination is getting ever more overt, intense and dangerous. Around the time of the two Asean summits last year, China and the US sharply criticised each other and appealed to Southeast Asian countries for support.


In July, then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo made an announcement confronting China about its increasing military presence in the South China Sea. Beijing responded by reiterating its opposition to US meddling, stressing that the South China Sea is not the US’ Hawaii.


In August, Asean foreign ministers reiterated their intent to maintain “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability”. At the end of the Asean summit in November, a chairman’s statement bravely reaffirmed “Asean centrality” in regional security affairs. But the grouping might as well have been whistling past the graveyard. Perhaps “Asean centrality” in maintaining regional peace and stability was always a delusion of grandeur.


One way or another, Southeast Asia’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The current US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, recently reaffirmed Pompeo’s statement. To put it bluntly, Asean’s preferences are being ignored by these great powers.


Southeast Asia can and must do more to prevent an adverse outcome for the region. To achieve centrality in this situation, Asean or a significant part of the bloc has to act with uncharacteristic speed and gusto. It must unequivocally state that it opposes both American and Chinese military posturing in the South China Sea.


It should amp up its tone when admonishing China and the US to show more diplomatic and military restraint. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently appealed to the two powers to restrain themselves and repair their relationship. Asean should formally request help in restraining the two.


While concerns are rising among Asean members like Malaysia and Indonesia, the grouping has so far not been able to find common ground on this potentially existential issue. But former Malaysian deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong thinks there is still a role for Asean in the security situation.


He said he would “like to see some of the Asean member states – seeing the danger of a polarised situation – come together to find a strong common position to hold back the great powers”.


One possibility is for a group of core members to issue a multilateral appeal to the US and China to restrain themselves. If nothing else, it would deprive both – but especially the US – of the excuse that they are acting to help the Southeast Asian countries.


But this has not been “the Asean way”. So far, its consensus-based approach has been limiting. Perhaps China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea could form an Asean subcommittee to deal with Beijing, while the larger organisation tries to fend off the US.


The bottom line is that Asean needs to change its culture or the situation will worsen and spiral beyond its control. As Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”


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