China’s strategic assertion in the South China Sea is causing concern for Southeast Asia. But economic engagements with China have so far made ASEAN respond with caution.
ASEAN is currently caught amid the US-China disputes in the South China Sea, as a series of actions and reactions between the major powers are unsettling the region’s geopolitics.
Recently, China’s air force held live fire drills in mid-July to counter the US presence in the sea, after two US Navy aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, conducted military exercises in the region.
This spat between the US and China comes in the wake of a series of assertive actions by Beijing in the South China Sea, including an increased military presence since the outbreak of COVID-19.
China claims 90% of the territory in the South China Sea, but these claims have caused territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. While the US has opposed China’s claims, it is important to consider ASEAN’s reaction to the US-China dispute.
What is ASEAN’s reaction to the US-China dispute?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on July 13 saying that China’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are unlawful. The US has also lent its support to ASEAN countries against China’s aggression, including through a recent series of op-eds in newspapers around the region.
While the US backs its stand with military posturing in the South China Sea, ASEAN’s reaction has been less pronounced. On June 26, ASEAN released a vision statement that underlined the need for China to fast-track the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN countries are in the process of negotiating the code of conduct with China but have yet to reach an accord.
But in this process, siding with the US entirely may not prove beneficial to ASEAN countries: this would pitch China against ASEAN while the code of conduct and other negotiations are still on the table.
Although the US is now targeting China directly, ASEAN has been cautious in reacting to China’s assertion.
Why is ASEAN being cautious in its reaction?
China’s strategic assertion in the South China Sea has caused concern for Southeast Asia, but most states in the region cannot overlook their economic engagements with Beijing.
In the first quarter of 2020, the region became China’s largest trading partner, overtaking the EU and the US—16% of China’s exports were to ASEAN countries, while 14% were to the US. Though the US is still the largest single-country export destination for Chinese goods, exports to the US have declined. China is also focusing more on ASEAN countries to reduce the negative impact of the trade war with the US on its economy.
Beyond the US-China trade war, US ties with ASEAN have deteriorated under Donald Trump’s presidency. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) had an adverse economic impact on ASEAN countries, as the agreement could have allowed them access to new export markets. The diminishing interest among US leadership in Southeast Asia in the past few years and China’s increasing economic clout in the region are important considerations for ASEAN while choosing sides.
Another factor is the formation of a “Quad” alliance to counter China. The members of this alliance—the US, India, Japan and Australia—are all extra-regional powers, and though they have their own disputes with China, none has territory in the South China Sea. Although the Quad as a group has yet to take a stand on the South China Sea, its members have individually expressed concerns over China’s activities and rejected Beijing’s claims. The Quad as a concept is more than a decade old, but has gained currency only of late. India is planning to invite Australia to participate in a naval exercise, which will be the first military engagement of “the Quad.”
ASEAN’s current stand is a balancing act between China and these powers, though primarily the US. The US and other extra-regional powers must increase their economic engagements with Southeast Asian countries to counter China. The strategic posturing by the US in the South China Sea and the formation of the Quad, which does not include a single Southeast Asian country, may not be enough to gain ASEAN’s support against China.