There is an African saying – “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In light of the ongoing economic and security rivalry between world superpowers China and the United States, the ASEAN countries might find themselves mere blades of grass. Singapore president Lee Hsien Loong addressed the possibility of Southeast Asian countries having to take sides as tensions grow between the two giants.
Speaking at the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Lee said being friends with two countries on different sides can sometimes be possible but at other times be awkward. “I think it is very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I am hoping that it’s not coming soon,” he said.
Lee’s statement addresses underlying concerns in the region and analysts have said time and again that the ongoing rift between the two countries may damage their respective economies but will benefit smaller countries like Malaysia and Singapore. Why? Because when these two countries who have monopolised most export import industries cannot trade with one another, they outsource. What does that mean for Southeast Asia? Cha-ching.
Where does ASEAN stand?
Singapore Geopolitics Advisor George Yeo previously wrote in South China Morning Post about how the integration of the Chinese and ASEAN economies were hastened by trade and political tensions between China and the US. “For every ASEAN country, China is already the largest trading partner. However, China knows that, whatever the degree of integration, ASEAN will not allow itself to be locked into China’s embrace. In 2002, when the framework agreement for the ASEAN-China FTA was signed in Phnom Penh, Premier Zhu Rongji assured ASEAN leaders that China did not seek for itself an exclusive position in Southeast Asia,” said Yeo.
He added that as a neutral regional organisation friendly to all the major powers, ASEAN welcomes investments from all directions. The greater the dependence on China, the greater the wish for ASEAN countries to diversify away from China. Japan, the US, India and Europe compete – healthily – for ASEAN’s favour,” he added. Yeo also stressed that a strong US presence was welcome. “To a point, the US military presence helps to maintain strategic balance in Southeast Asia. But if confrontation between the US and China becomes severe, as it threatens to be, it is better for ASEAN not to take sides. Understanding this dynamic, China has redoubled its efforts to work with ASEAN on a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” he said.
The benefits of remaining neutral are clear and the economic gains would be welcome. But the realities of having to deal with the pressure that the US and China would place on the region would be no small issue to navigate. What does this mean for security in the region?
The US and China’s spat over the South China Sea goes back to 2012. Back then, the US, with its congressional Law of the Sea, announced that it would show support to all countries that are involved in similar ‘disagreements’ with China. In trying to rally support within ASEAN, Beijing has long called US military activities in the region a threat to regional stability and, on some occasions, an infringement of its sovereignty.
As both countries went back and forth, the first sign of things getting ugly happened in 2015 when two US bomber aircrafts flew near artificial Chinese-built islands and were instructed by Chinese ground controllers to leave. Though the US managed to carry out their mission undeterred, China, using communist party controlled media Global Times, warned the US of a potential war saying “unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.” Yikes.
A similar incident happened in August 2018 when China told a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft to “Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding.” This happened after the US Navy jet flew past four key artificial islands in the Spratly chain where China has built up fortifications: Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef. China’s development of these islands is also another point of contention. They may be keeping the US out, but they’re also edging out other Southeast Asian nations whose claims to those territories may just be as valid.
At the ASEAN summit, US vice president Mike Pence had said the US would not tolerate aggression but added that it saw ASEAN as an “irreplaceable strategic partner”. In a veiled swipe at China’s rising military strength in the South China Sea, he said “we all agree that empire and aggression has no place in the Indo-Pacific. Let me be clear, though, our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that nations treat their neighbours with respect, and respect the sovereignty of our nations and international rules and order,” he added.
In their response, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attempted to reassure China’s Southeast Asian neighbours about its rising power, saying Beijing was committed to finalising a code of conduct covering the disputed waters within three years. But a code of conduct for whom and with what implications?
Source: South China Morning Post, CNN International, CNBC