According to the Chinese government, the new AUKUS security agreement between the United States, Britain and Australia poses a threat to regional security. Some Southeast Asian states have seen it in the same vein. The Philippines was one voice to publicly support AUKUS, and Singapore gave a tacit boost. But newly installed Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said it could “be a catalyst for a nuclear arms race” and could “spur other powers to act more aggressively in the region, particularly in the region. South China Sea ”. The Indonesian government issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned about the continuing arms race and the projection of power in the region.” (A useful analysis of Jakarta’s position can be found here).
Fears of an escalating arms race are only part of the explanation for Southeast Asia‘s lukewarm response. A potentially more illustrative grievance stems from ASEAN’s sense of its own growing uselessness. Evan Laksmana, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, argued that Indonesia fears that the new AUKUS agreement will leave it as a “strategic spectator”.
The fear of becoming spectators in their own domain is a cautious fear, given the devastation that the “First Cold War” wreaked on the region. But it’s worth asking whether the ASEAN states have allowed themselves to become spectators, watching decisions made in Washington and Beijing alter the future of their region. Indeed, can ASEAN states propose solutions to regional problems that will prevent the involvement of outside powers?
And if the answer is no, it raises the corollary question of whether it makes sense for ASEAN to continue to hope for the status quo to continue.
Writing recently in The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio noted that “it is not difficult to see AUKUS as, at least in part, an expression of American frustration with the region’s perceived strategic position.” Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, told me: “The failure of ASEAN in recent years to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of China’s economic and military boom in the Indo-Pacific encouraged countries outside the region to work together to catch up.
One example is the long-standing code of conduct (CoC) blocked between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea, the key issue of global tensions in the region. First mentioned countless years ago, it has since been postponed, with little progress since early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although discussions resumed quietly in January. And with Cambodia taking over the ASEAN presidency next year, several governments have made it known (but not publicly) that they fear Phnom Penh will push Beijing’s agenda onto the regional bloc, meaning that CoC negotiations tilt in favor of China or stall again.
Admittedly, the CoC is unlikely to settle disputes in the South China Sea. And it likely won’t be legally binding, nor will it cover most disputes, due to the divided opinions of the 10 ASEAN members, some of whom want nothing to do with these disputes as a bold stance could harm their own. relations with China. “Even if ASEAN wanted to step in and help resolve the dispute, with member states economically dependent on China, it would be difficult for the group to take a firm stand against the issue,” Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the Faculty of University of Indonesia Law, argued this week.
Or take the region’s COVID-19 vaccination policy. Instead of organizing a unified plan on vaccine supply and distribution (as the European Union has done), each country in Southeast Asia has gone it alone. This is why we now have the situation where Singapore and Cambodia have fully immunized 79 percent and 66 percent of their populations, respectively, but Vietnam has only reached 11 percent, Laos 28 percent and the Philippines. 22 percent.
To be sure, there are a myriad of reasons for these discrepancies. But by not uniting, Southeast Asian states have left themselves open to “vaccine diplomacy” from outside powers. China has talked a lot about its support for Cambodia’s successful vaccination campaign, for example, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently chanted: “If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask? ‘aid ? The US and the EU have also stepped up their vaccine diplomacy. If Vietnam can quickly vaccinate its people, there is no doubt that the United States and European states will derive great geostrategic capital from it, especially since Hanoi has been very reluctant to accept vaccines made in China. If the ASEAN states had come together, there would no longer be this regional divide in “vaccine diplomacy,” which has only allowed the United States and China to take a more strategic place.
But the most obvious case is arguably ASEAN’s handling of the Myanmar crisis, an occasion on which the international community accepted the bloc’s customary demand that outside powers stay away from the domestic politics of states. members and let the Southeast Asian nations fend for themselves. . Certainly, this was a tacit decision by the international community that wanted nothing to do with the Myanmar crisis, a thorny issue that is likely to rage for years to come.
There are signs of hardening in some countries. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah this week issued a firm statement that junta representatives are potentially unwelcome at the upcoming ASEAN summit. Indonesia has also sought to appear tough. Yet if ASEAN cannot resolve the crisis (and if it continues to worsen until 2022, as it likely will), it will further undermine Southeast Asia’s claims that things look best when left to the region on its own. Not only would ASEAN show that it cannot run its own affairs, but the deteriorating crisis in Myanmar would create another moment when outside powers, primarily China and Russia, could gain even greater foothold in the region. .
The fundamental problem is that ASEAN states don’t really know what they want, an uncertainty that is perpetuated by their own inability to agree on important issues among themselves. Of course, they are aware of what they don’t want: a conflict between the United States and China, as it could be fought like proxy wars in their region. Or the escalating tensions in the South China Sea from which no Southeast Asian country could withdraw but which the United States could seek to combat on their behalf.
An apparent solution of the ASEAN states has been to “take no sides,” as the saying goes. At first glance, it seems in the best interest of Southeast Asian governments to protect themselves between the United States and China. On the one hand, by playing the two sides against each other, they can derive better economic benefits from each other, as well as deny complete hegemony to either of the superpowers. On the other hand, by threatening to align more closely with China, the authoritarian rulers of Southeast Asia (who are in the majority) have been able to dispel American criticism of their domestic politics.
But it’s not that the ASEAN states “don’t want to take sides”. Instead, they want to take both sides, an important distinction. The natural response not to take sides would be to disentangle the two superpowers. But by taking both sides, the Southeast Asian states have entrenched themselves further in the superpower rivalry. Rather than more autonomy, this leaves them less, having to constantly change their positions between the two axes of the American-Chinese spectrum because of decisions made in Washington and Beijing, rather than by decisions made in their own capitals.
And all of this has a snowball effect. Because the ASEAN states cannot agree among themselves on how to respond to the U.S.-China rivalry, nor offer a regional response to regional problems, they have further eroded the bloc’s unity and its ability to assert your own authority. And as regional unity erodes, it is increasingly unlikely that ASEAN can take control of the problems in its own region. This, in turn, convinces Washington and Beijing that they need to intervene more in regional issues.