ASEAN Must Choose: America or China?

December 18, 2018 Topic: ASEAN Region: Asia-Pacific Tags: ASEANChinaThe QuadAsia-Pacific RegionSouth China Sea

ASEAN Must Choose: America or China?

It is time for Southeast Asian states and ASEAN to think, act and speak consistently and clearly for its own interests—or else court irrelevance and ruin of its own strategic objectives.


THE 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes China as a revisionist power seeking to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an accurate characterization which was resisted by previous American administrations despite there being little evidence that China is content to be a “responsible stakeholder” under a U.S.-led order.

The Chinese desire to gradually exclude the United States and reduce the latter’s role in strategic affairs in the region preceded the current regime of Xi Jinping. However, Xi has intensified China’s use of all the instruments of national power to further its goal of regaining the preponderant position in East Asia. Given explicit U.S. security guarantees offered to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—themselves formidable military powers—Beijing has identified Southeast Asia as a region of immense strategic importance and opportunity. It is in this sub-region consisting of eleven countries and home to over six hundred million people that China has been the most proactive and assertive.


Consider China’s illegal artificial island building program and militarization of features in the South China Sea which have accelerated in the Xi era. This is designed to extend Beijing’s control of those areas and increase its capacity to defend them against “intrusions.” It also enhances China’s ability to inflict heavy and possibly “prohibitive” costs on military assets of other countries including the United States. It also extends Beijing’s capacity to implement its “active defense” approach which states that an effective counter-attack is only possible when the People’s Liberation Army can negate the enemy’s offensive military assets in pre-determined areas.

The purpose of this approach is not simply a one-dimensional one of winning any potential battle with the United States or another adversary. China does not need the capacity to win a “battle” to win the “war.” If it can create the reasonable expectation that the real prospect of military conflict will cause the United States to back away—either because of the “prohibitive” threat of loss of major military assets and personnel or unacceptable economic disruption—the damage to the relevance and reliability of the United States as an alliance partner and security guarantor becomes considerable.

Similarly, China uses its economic role and weight to seduce, trap or else coerce smaller nations to agree with or else remain neutral when it comes to Beijing’s activities in the region, albeit with mixed results. Its covert influence and political interference activities are also designed in large part to reduce enthusiasm for existing alliances and security relationships with the United States, increase support for Chinese policies and silence dissenting voices in target countries.

Chinese strategy is about countering the United States. It seeks to vitiate existing U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the region and restrict the latter’s access to the regional commons needed to secure and extend U.S. power, influence and forward presence. China has moved on from seeking to understand the sources of American power and influence toward increasingly bold attempts to limit, circumvent, bind or otherwise reduce American power and influence. Southeast Asia is the frontline of this strategy.

Moreover, Chinese gains in the South China Sea reinforce the conviction that Chinese predominance is inevitable, fast approaching, and the United States has little ability or will to counter Chinese actions or reverse the broader trendline. These messages reinforce a further Chinese narrative: that American presence in the region is a historical accident and that the latter is here by choice rather than geographical necessity. As the reasoning goes, it is more prudent for Southeast Asian allies and partners to hedge rather than balance against China as a peripatetic United States is likely to abandon its commitments should they become too onerous—better for regional nations to remain neutral and stay on the sidelines than join in futile balancing and countering efforts against China.

IN APRIL 2017, Japan released its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which describes how Tokyo will broaden its worldview and strategic role in the Indo-Pacific as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-standing desire to make a “proactive contribution to peace.” In November 2017, Australia released its Foreign Policy White Paper, which is the country’s first comprehensive blueprint to guide Australia’s external engagement since 2003. The key theme of the white paper is the strengthening and defense of “an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”

One month later, the White House released the National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The NSS promised that the United States will “respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.” The NSS identified China and Russia as seeking to “challenge American power, influence, and interests” whilst attempting to “erode American security and prosperity.” In placing the NSS in a regional context, the document argues that “[a] geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” The strategic response is to “redouble our commitment to established alliances and partnerships, while expanding and deepening relationships with new partners that share respect for sovereignty, fair and reciprocal trade, and the rule of law.”

These positions are variations in pursuit of what the three countries now refer to as a vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). This is essentially a reaffirmation of security and economic principles which have evolved since after the Second World War, especially as they relate to freedom of the regional and global commons such as sea, air and cyberspace, and of the way nations conduct economic affairs.

The reaction of states belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to FOIP is underwhelming. Vietnam appears to be the most supportive. Singapore and Thailand are not inherently opposed to the FOIP but have reservations about juxtaposing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” to China’s preferred view of a hierarchical regional order. Indonesia appears the most supportive of the Indo-Pacific as a geostrategic concept but only if it enhances ASEAN’s presence in that broader construct. Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos have remained silent. Although the FOIP is discussed by Southeast Asian states behind closed doors, none have offered public or (to this author’s knowledge) private endorsement of the FOIP.

A free and open region guided by rules and international law ought to be inherently appealing to ASEAN and the majority of its member states seeking checks on Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Current reluctance to endorse the FOIP concept arises for several reasons.

First, the change of focus from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific gives rise to unease. ASEAN is aware that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are increasingly linked in strategic, economic and logistical ways. ASEAN states are also supportive of India’s “Act East” policy and welcome a greater role for India in regional affairs.

However, there are fears that the change in—and widening of—geostrategic focus will diminish the diplomatic centrality and relevance of ASEAN even though ASEAN-led meetings such as the East Asia Summit include India and are increasingly taking on an Indo-Pacific perspective. The fact that the newfound interest in the Indo-Pacific was an initiative by non-ASEAN countries heightens ASEAN’s apprehension that diplomatic events and discussion may well transcend ASEAN centrality.

Indeed, for some ASEAN states, the reestablishment of the Quad—a formal meeting between officials from the United States, Japan, India and Australia—is the quintessential Indo-Pacific initiative. It may well be a glimpse of a post-ASEAN future within which ASEAN’s standing and ability to set the regional agenda and lead discussion are diminished. It is not lost on members that the Quad brings together four democratic countries with considerable hard power resources that exceeds those of ASEAN member states by a considerable margin.

If groupings such as the Quad become more significant, many believe ASEAN centrality is inherently threatened. Democratic nations like South Korea and perhaps Indonesia may well become more interested in such groupings at ASEAN’s expense. Moreover, a privilege of ASEAN centrality lies in the diplomatic capacity to include or exclude countries in major forums. It is feared that privilege will be diluted.

Second, states seek to manage relationships with great powers by championing the principles of inclusiveness and neutrality (and maximizing diplomatic leverage through demanding the right to define what these terms mean.) If ASEAN is seen to support American and allied actions, it believes its cover of inclusiveness and neutrality will be blown. The consequences of Chinese displeasure are unknown but will cause deep apprehension nevertheless. As Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong argued when asked about his country’s reaction to the FOIP concept during his visit to Australia for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit earlier in March, “we do not want to end up with rival blocs forming or countries having to take one side or the other.”

Third, ASEAN insists on the principle of “consensus” to minimize overt disagreement amongst its member states and to offer the convenient fiction that ASEAN represents a unified bloc. It is believed that presenting itself as a unified bloc provides a louder voice and greater leverage for Southeast Asian states when dealing with larger powers. As there is no consensus amongst ASEAN states on the FOIP, ASEAN is unable to offer any clear position vis-à-vis the concept. Rather than allow differences of view to play out into the open, ASEAN considers it better to not engage with the FOIP concept.