ASEAN and Southeast Asia: The Road Ahead

Joseph Chinyong Liow (Tan Kah Kee Chair Professor of Comparative and International Politics; Professor, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Nanyang Technological University)


Southeast Asian regionalism is at a crossroads, and it is so for at least three reasons.

First, there is greater clarity in the emerging geostrategic picture for the Asian region since the surprise result in the U.S. presidential election in 2016 that ushered into office a mercurial and unpredictable leader; but the picture is not encouraging.

The rivalry between the U.S. and China is likely to be prolonged; and it will deepen. No doubt, the first summit between presidents Trump and Xi ended on a positive note. But developments since then have provided little reason for optimism. In a move to deliver on campaign promises, the Trump administration initiated a trade war with China in July 2018 by launching the first of two rounds of tariffs against Beijing. What began as a trade war to rectify a US$375 billion trade imbalance has gradually morphed into a more wide-ranging contest over technology, unfair trade practices, intellectual property rights, and developmental models. Underlying this is hegemonic rivalry as the U.S. seeks to prevent China from displacing it as the predominant power in Asia.

Given the hyper-polarised nature of American politics today, it is significant to note that the firmer line the Trump administration is taking on China reflects a bipartisan consensus. Indeed, Democrats – for whom a harder line against China has traditionally been a matter of greater policy priority (as compared to traditional Republican policy on China) – have applauded the tariffs. What this bipartisan consensus translates to is less likelihood of an off-ramp for Xi Jinping. This poses major problems for President Xi, for whom several major policies targeted by the Trump administration, namely, “Made in China 2025” and the Belt and Road Initiative, have become signature initiatives.

American pressure has doubtless taken its toll on the Chinese economy, and China has to respond. Having said that, the fact that Xi has waged his legacy on “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, of which these initiatives are an integral expression, means that the political costs of any adjustment of expectations downward could be high. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, introduced soon after he assumed power in 2012, has generated both fear and animosity. Fearful of recrimination, the Chinese bureaucracy has been losing much-needed talent, either through imprisonment or resignations. This in turn has stymied the generation of the creative ideas required to navigate Beijing through current rough economic waters. Conversely, while Xi has populated both the Politburo Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission with allies at the 2017 Party Congress, the anti-corruption campaign has also ensured that he has his fair share of enemies. Any sign of weakness could well render him vulnerable in that regard. Already, there is growing criticism of Xi for how he has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s more gradual approach to China’s role in international affairs. It is especially notable that Xi’s ideologue and propaganda chief, Wang Huning, came under attack for the manner in which he had overplayed China’s achievements.

How to balance the need to scale back on some of these initiatives under pressure from Washington, but without conveying an impression that it is making concessions, or worst, capitulating under pressure, would be a balancing act of utmost importance for Xi Jinping.

Second, ASEAN will find itself increasingly caught in the middle of this crossfire. The immediate impact of the ongoing trade war is instructive. While some Southeast Asian countries might benefit from the reconfiguration and relocation of supply chains as a result of the trade war – Vietnam, for instance, has seen an upsurge in demand for its workforce for the assembly of smartphones previously done in China – the larger picture of disruption spells significant challenges for a region that has collectively contributed up to 50 percent of value-add to Chinese manufactured products.

The challenge posed by the intensification of Sino-U.S. rivalry for ASEAN will also manifest on strategic issues, most prominently, the South China Sea. The U.S. will continue conducting its Freedom of Navigation operations, and indeed, its renamed Indo-Pacific Command has already indicated intension to ramp up these FONOPS, much to the chagrin of China. Most of the states of ASEAN are quietly supportive of this, although they would not acknowledge it publicly so as not to unnecessarily provoke China. Because China cannot be removed from the seven features it occupies, and the U.S. cannot be stopped from conducting FONOPS, activities in the South China Sea will soon settle into a pattern. The concern however, is with these militarised activities, there will be the risk of unplanned encounters.

Another area where ASEAN will find itself vulnerable is in the technology sphere. With the ambitious plan for a Smart Cities Network, ASEAN member states will be looking to build and synchronize their respective ICT platforms. China is already deeply involved in various ASEAN states in this regard, having assisted them in the building of national ICT platforms. The U.S. is however dialling up the pressure on its friends and allies, cautioning against the use of Chinese technology for fear of cyber espionage. While Washington has yet to turn its attention to ASEAN, should they eventually call on ASEAN partners to reconsider collaboration with Chinese tech industrial partners, this would pose problems for Southeast Asia which is an increasingly important recipient of Chinese investments along the “Digital Silk Road”.

American pressure on this score speaks to another pressing challenge – the matter of having to choose sides. Southeast Asian governments are increasingly concerned that the downturn in Sino-U.S. could lead to demands from either Beijing or Washington (or both) for them to take one side against the other. This is at present, a philosophical question, but the reality is that it could soon become a policy one, for reasons beyond the ASEAN states’ control.

Given the severity of this challenge, it is imperative for the small and medium states of Southeast Asia to bear several things in mind when confronted with this matter of choice. First, choosing sides is in itself not necessarily a strategic risk, so long as these states take pains to ensure that other major powers are not alienated as a consequence of the act of choice. For instance, choosing to deepen engagement on economic cooperation with one external power need not be pursued at the expense of relations with another, assuming of course, that matters are within the control of the state making the choice. Second, if a choice is imposed, it would be telling of the intentions and interests of the external powers, and this, in turn, would necessarily call into question their commitment to regional stability. Third, even if small states desist from making a choice, this should not be confused for not taking a stand. All states must necessarily take a stand on the basis of their own national interests, and not the interests of others, least of all, external powers. Hence, for instance, in the case of territorial disputes, it is a matter of choosing international law, rather than the interests (or claims) of any one claimant state.

So, where does all this leave ASEAN?

In the face of more challenging geostrategic and geoeconomic headwinds, ASEAN unity and integration have never been more necessary, nor more vital for the advancement of the national interests of its constituent member states. Indeed, ASEAN needs to integrate not only their economies for obvious reasons (not least of which, to realise the real potential of the 650 million market), but increasingly, their strategic outlooks as well.

To be sure, ASEAN continues to be bedevilled by historical baggage and unresolved differences. These are not going to go away overnight. At the same time, notwithstanding these differences and baggage, it is incumbent on ASEAN leaders to realise that ultimately, they all share a deep interest in the need to manage wider uncertainties that they will struggle (to manage) on their own. In this regard, ASEAN’s survival will depend on its member states’ ability to balance national and regional interests., while remaining central to the regional security and economic architecture. Yet it is precisely because centrality is not a given that ASEAN needs to be proactive, setting aside differences to focus on the larger picture for which there is potentially greater congruence of interests than meets the eye.

In this respect, the time is ripe for ASEAN to embrace the uncertainty by enhancing existing mechanisms, and taking the level of cooperation within their remit to new levels on the basis of an increasing convergence of strategic outlooks.

These are challenging times not just in terms of the external environment but also internally, given the preoccupation of many ASEAN states with domestic affairs. But ASEAN leaders must be able to raise their sights above the parapets of momentary domestic electoral interest. Or else, they risk being overwhelmed – and ASEAN itself risks being rendered irrelevant – by the shifting tides of geostrategic rivalry.

© 2019 MiDAS, All Rights Reserved