ASEAN in Critical Position Between the US and China

Asean Foreign Mninisters pose for a family photo during a plenary session as part of the 55th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting in Phnom Penh, on August 3, 2022. Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP

PHNOM PENH – ASEAN has been put in a critical position between the U.S. and China due to growing geopolitical and economic rivalry between the two superpowers.

Together, the economies of the association’s ten member states are worth $2.5 trillion, accounting for 3.4 percent of the world’s GDP. Over decades, China and the U.S. have become the first and second largest trading partners with ASEAN respectively.

Regardless of their significant contribution to the development of ASEAN, the two countries have also posed internal and external challenges to the block. Because of their increasing political, economic and military rivalry, the ASEAN is now in a position where it is getting harder to preserve its neutrality and avoid choosing any sides.  

Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute, said ASEAN is trying as much as possible to stay neutral in the ongoing battle of influence conducted by both the U.S. and China. The block is so far maintaining good relations with the two superpowers. 

“ASEAN is working hard on maintaining its neutral policy to show its stance of not choosing either side between the two powers. The ten nations are partnering with both the U.S. and China and welcome the presence of both countries in the region,” he said.

“This is how ASEAN maintains its internal solidity,” he added.

From Vannarith’s perspective, the current situation is both complicated and dangerous for the association. Its precarious balance might give the opportunity for the two great powers to interfere within ASEAN’s internal affairs, which can potentially lead the association to its fall. 

Another scholar, Rim Sokvy, co-founder of The Thinker Cambodia, an online forum dedicated to foreign affairs, agreed that ASEAN has been staying neutral so far and has shown no bias towards any superpower. But he underlined that the association has to improve its economic development to avoid being more and more reliant on any foreign power’s money and influence.

“The ASEAN neutrality can be exemplified by the decision of inviting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to participate in ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last week, despite Japan previously urging Cambodia [current ASEAN chair] not to do so,” Sokvy said.

However, he added that it is not the association itself, but some of its member states, who have shown their bias to superpowers. 

“For instance, Vietnam and Singapore have previously expressed their support to Aukus [a trilateral security alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.] despite the fact that these initiatives can underpin ASEAN’s centrality. It also limits its role in providing an ‘institutional hub’ in Asia Pacific to engage with all middle and great powers through institutional-building like ASEAN regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three and East Asian Summit,” the scholar said.

For Sokvy, ASEAN has been doing a good job in maintaining its neutral position while, as a small state, Cambodia has little leverage in maintaining ASEAN neutrality. “For example, during the ASEAN-U.S. special summit in Washington, Cambodia expressed its will in elevating the ASEAN-U.S. relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. It is something that China already achieved in 2021,” he said.

On the other hand, Sam Seun, a policy analyst at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, thinks it’s difficult to find a country that isn’t biased towards any superpower. He says that even though some ASEAN member states attempt to stay neutral, they are too weak to remain neutral regarding the U.S. and China. They’ll sooner or later need to join one of these two groups. 

“We can see that some ASEAN countries are biased towards the United States while others are biased towards China. In all cases, these countries are pursuing their own national interest by getting closer to one or another superpower. And in all cases, they believe their partner will provide them with good national security protection and business opportunities,” he said.

However, changes in U.S. foreign policy towards some ASEAN countries pushed them closer to China, Seum continued. “It is very unfortunate that the U.S. foreign policy changes when the president changes, such as the U.S. contract with Iran and the U.S. foreign policy towards Cambodia during the Khmer Republic,” he said. 

What should ASEAN do to prevent the influence from great powers’ rivalry?

Chheang Vannarith, the policy analyst of the Asian Vision Institute, suggested that there are two strategies ASEAN should strengthen to remain neutral between the great powers.

“The steps ASEAN is taking are to strengthen the implementation of The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) because all partners of ASEAN will sign on the agreement; therefore, ASEAN has to keep the agreement and cooperation in line attentively. In addition to it, member states should accelerate the implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), because AOIP is a concept paper in the ASEAN framework. But so far, the implementation is limited. Therefore, the implementation of AOIP must be urged,” he said.

ASEAN should also urge its members to support the implementation of the AOIP, Vannarith added, by making AOIP the core of the Indo-Pacific mechanism, and TAC the law to make all nations in ASEAN should be obedient and on which ASEAN can rely, in accordance with the U.N.’s constitution.

Economically speaking, Sokvy also suggested that ASEAN should improve its economic development, aiming to reduce their reliance on external partners. Economic leverage is often the tool superpowers use to increase their influence on Southeast Asia.

“ASEAN neutrality is still working for some ASEAN members who have strong economic and security interests like Indonesia and Malaysia. However, for small states like Cambodia and Lao, it is very hard [to remain neutral] due to the need for economic development. Whoever gives more will have more influence,” Sokvy added. 

In 2021, China invested $2.3 billion in Cambodia when the U.S. only invested $163 million, according to statistics from the Council for the Development of Cambodia.

Seun also believes that ASEAN must build trust among its members, which he still describes as a “pipe dream”, where each country focuses primarily on its own national interest instead of valuing the organization principles of togetherness. 

“For example, the ASEAN charter prohibits its members from allowing foreign troops to be based in their territory. But what about the U.S. Army's presence in the Philippines? Another example: during the Covid-19 outbreak, Vietnam closed the border without prior notice to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he said.

On the military aspect, Cambodia has recently been criticized for allegedly opening the doors of the Ream naval base to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

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