ASEAN doubles down on non-alignment amid US-China tensions

ASEAN doubles down on non-alignment amid US-China tensions

At the 42nd ASEAN Summit held last week in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, Southeast Asian countries once again reiterated their enduring interests – indifference to great games and focus on economic rebound. 

Regional countries remain averse to taking sides in the US-China schism. They know it is something they cannot stop and have to live with – even gain from if they play their cards right.

Indecision, inaction, and remaining inclusive long served their purpose, although the cross-Strait cauldron is testing these time-honored coping mechanisms. The Philippines’ growing tilt toward the United States may also strain the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ non-alignment and push rival powers to do more to bring other countries into their camps. 

ASEAN continues to double down on its centrality and relevance in the evolving geopolitical and economic architecture. Worries about arms buildups and nuclear proliferation were evident as security minilaterals like AUKUS came into effect. Regional and global hotspots were covered, although ASEAN failed to pick up from its Foreign Ministers’ Statement in February, in which it cited concerns about the situation in the Taiwan Strait. 

On the economic front, the 10-member bloc laid out plans for developing a regional electric-vehicle ecosystem. A regional payment mechanism that promotes the use of local currencies is also in the works, which could boost the digital economy. Such de-dollarization may also be seen as a hedge against the weaponization of financial sanctions and a step toward promoting a more multipolar world economy.

Host Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, is developing its own indigenous payment system to diminish reliance on external financial platforms. Regional countries have been developing their capacity to use local currency to settle accounts since 2017, and the Russia-Ukraine war adds fresh impetus to this thrust.

Protecting migrant workers and fishermen and combating technology-enabled human trafficking were also discussed. 

ASEAN centrality and inclusivity

ASEAN reported more countries joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, a foundational pact for the 55-year-old regional organization. Mexico, Panama, Saudi Arabia and Spain will soon join the 51 countries that had already acceded to the treaty as of November 2022.

The 1976 TAC embodies universal principles like respect for independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; non-interference in internal affairs; peaceful settlement of disputes; renunciation of the threat or use of force; and cooperation. Such principles are in short supply and great demand these days. As the TAC is a cornerstone for inter- and extra-regional relations, ASEAN is likely to welcome more countries signing up. 

ASEAN is also reaching out to other inter-governmental organizations. Secretariat-to-secretariat cooperation will be forged with the 18-nation-member Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the 23-nation-member Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

At the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, ASEAN is flanked by PIF countries to the east and IORA countries to the west. Four ASEAN countries are also members of IORA. Such synergies will benefit all three groups. ASEAN will invite the chairmen of these two organizations to take part in the 18th East Asia Summit this September. 

ASEAN remains open to engaging external partners in maritime exercises, including in the South China Sea hotspot, on a non-exclusive basis. ASEAN navies sailed with their Indian counterpart early this month as they did with China in 2018 and the United States in 2019. This puts on the spot Manila’s proposed joint sailings with Washington on the strategic waterway.

Joint patrols elsewhere in the region, such as in the Strait of Malacca and the Sulu Sea, are between neighboring coastal states and not with extra-regional partners. The Philippines’ move may inadvertently raise tensions in an already edgy flashpoint and undermine Manila’s regional standing.

Not even Brunei, with the smallest navy among the South China Sea disputants, has ventured into joint patrols in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There is no substitute for modernizing one’s coast guard and navy, and this – not joint patrols in contested maritime spaces – provides a less controversial area where allies and partners can play big roles. 

Worries about arms race, flashpoints

As Indo-Pacific militaries ramp up their arsenals, and with Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, regional countries restate their desire to keep nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction out. This is enshrined in the Treaty of Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty) and the ASEAN Charter.

This said, ASEAN leaves the door open to engaging nuclear-weapon states. It is fine with letting such states sign on to the protocol provided there is written assurance that they will sign and ratify the treaty without reservations.

Regional capitals are wary about ballistic-missile and nuclear-powered subs transiting chokepoints and playing cat and mouse in the depths of the South China Sea. 

Regional countries tackled that maritime spat and also expressed concerns about developments in the Korean Peninsula, Ukraine, the Middle East and Myanmar. However, the ASEAN Summit statement was regrettably mum on the simmering cross-Strait strains.

Incendiary rhetoric and actions, drills and counter-drills, and troop and arms buildups absent dialogue and crisis communications raise the specter of accidents. ASEAN should do more. Neighbors need to understand the potential adverse spillovers should a downward action-reaction spiral be allowed to gather more momentum.

Southeast Asian countries should go beyond readying evacuation plans for their nationals or providing military bases for use in a possible emergency. Such actions have the danger of conditioning regional governments to accept fatalistically the worst and leave the rest to divine providence. It is risky and unimaginative.

Turkey, along with the UN, helped broker the Black Sea grain initiative. Iraq and Oman played crucial roles in the early stages of the Iran-Saudi detente before China stepped in. Russia and Iran are working to normalize ties between Syria and Turkey and help end a brutal 12-year-old civil war. 

The Philippines’ temerity to offer the US access to bases close to Taiwan should be matched by a willingness to encourage dialogue and prod ASEAN to exert more diplomacy to dial down tensions.

While the continuing violence in Myanmar may have undercut ASEAN’s reputation, regional countries have proved they can arrange dialogues between opposing sides. The first cross-Strait summit since the end of the Chinese Civil War was hosted by Singapore in 2015. Two US-North Korea summits were held in Singapore and Vietnam in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

As war games, simulations, and talks of enlisting the support of neighboring countries for a potential showdown in Taiwan grow, ASEAN should step up.