The real problem with China and US’s competing agenda for ASEAN

Photo: Michel Temer/CC BY 2.0

The US and China have wildly different worldviews. But both are potentially damaging to ASEAN.

 By Loke Hoe Yeong

Relations between China, the US and ASEAN member states come a long way since 2016. The US and its allies continue to protest China’s militarisation of the reefs and islets.  The relationship has entered a new phase. This was evident in the agreement to negotiate Code of Conduct over the South China Sea dispute.

In 2016 things were much worse. The Philippines launched the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) case against China. The case challenged the legality of China’s claim over large swathes of the South China Sea. The tension between China, the US, and ASEAN was palpable.

New leadership ushered in new attitudes

Much of the shift in attitudes has been due to a series of leadership changes. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte took the helm. His foreign policy is more pro-China than that of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. Duterte took office just months before the PCA ruling.

There has also been a change in the US administration. The US has retreated from its preeminent role in global politics and economics. One of Trump’s first acts as president was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It represents a marked shift from President Barack Obama ‘s “pivot to Asia” policy.

The Trump administration is not disinterested in Asia and ASEAN. Trump relished the warm welcome in various Asian countries last November. It was his longest overseas trip so far as president. Nor does the administration seem to harbour any animosity towards China.

 Trump maintains a good relationship with President Xi Jinping

Trump used China-bashing rhetoric on the campaign trail. But his relationship with China and President Xi Jinping is a very warm and personal one. He publicly exudes admiration for “strongmen” like Xi.

The friction between the US and China stems from Trump’s worldview. His worldview contrasted viscerally with Xi’s at the World Economic Forum in 2017. Xi extolled the virtues of globalisation and capitalism. By contrast, Trump promoted protectionist and isolationist policies.

Vacant posts hinder Trumps ability to conduct effective foreign policy

Trump has not even properly staffed his State Department. As of November, 74 of the top posts at the State Department were still vacant. The US cannot conduct effective foreign policy with such an emaciated executive department.

The Trump administration only very recently nominated its candidate for the post of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The post had been vacant since March last year.

On the other hand, China organised a major summit in May for its One Belt One Road initiative. It has dished out loans as part of an extensive lending programme. These loans have won China many friends in ASEAN. They also undermine Trump’s isolationist policies and offer a contrasting agenda.

Sources: China Daily, Reuters, The Guardian, The Diplomat

The Indo-Pacific idea: the end of ASEAN centrality?

During Trump’s tour of Asia in November, he developed an affinity for the phrase “Indo-Pacific”. In doing so, he curtailed the relevance and centrality of ASEAN in Asian affairs.

The Indo-Pacific is not a new idea. Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa promoted the idea. His vision included deeper security ties with India, the US, Australia, and Japan. But unlike Natalegawa, Trump is not committed to ASEAN.

China has also been accused of dividing and conquering ASEAN.  China exerted its influence over Cambodia in 2012. ASEAN failed to issue a chairman’s statement when Cambodia chaired the bloc. Both the US and China represent a threat to ASEAN’s relevance. The Chinese divide and conquer approach seeks to tear ASEAN apart from the inside. Trump’s rhetoric reduces ASEAN to the sidelines.

ASEAN is a way to circumvent great power politics and rivalry in the region. It came at a time, when the US, the USSR, and then China, were competing for influence in Southeast Asia. Seen in this light, ASEAN as an organisation and a vision can be said to be under existential threat.

Yet the raison d’état for ASEAN’s existence is as strong now as before. Going into 2018, ASEAN is playing a more important role in resolving issues within its region and beyond. It is an essential player in the South China Sea dispute. It has also been a key agent in the issue of North Korean aggression.

The beauty of ASEAN lies in its neutrality, having none of the great powers like the US and China part of its ranks. It can fulfil the role as a neutral interlocutor in issues and disputes.

The bloc is fighting to stay relevant and effective in the face of existential threats. Reducing ASEAN to the sidelines deprives the region of a valuable interlocuter. It also reduces Southeast Asia to a theatre on which the US and China act out their competing agendas.