ASEAN's Hard Choices: China for Economic Largess or the U.S. for Security and Stability in the Indo-Pacific

A man walks past China's and USA's flags before a meeting between US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and China's Vice Premier He Lifeng at the Guangdong Zhudao Guest House in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, on April 5, 2024. Photo by Pedro Pardo / AFP

As ASEAN faces a strategic deadlock in its effort to balance relations amid great power competition in the region, the old saying “survival is only for the fittest” may once again be invoked, prompting questions about the future relevance of ASEAN as a credible regional organization. 

The engagement of international actors in the Southeast Asian region is of growing geo-strategic concern, mainly because, as some would say, the Chinese have been trying to change the status quo unilaterally by force through their geopolitical muscle assertion against the claimant states, the Philippines and Vietnam in particular, in the contested South China Sea. Recently, a Philippine boat and a Chinese ship collided near a contested reef on 10 December 2023. 

Thus, this entanglement has critical implications for ASEAN's engagement with the U.S. and China. 

First, ASEAN is in a tough spot due to its limited strategic autonomy and internal accountability. This is because of the unique regional diplomacy architecture of the region, which prioritized the individual member states’ interests through the “ASEAN Way” diplomacy style. Such a principle is characterized by non-interference, consensus-building, and mutual respect. On that note, the desire to have a “Unity in Diversity” region through prioritizing such principles had plagued ASEAN greatly in dealing with the US-China rivalry because it allowed individual ASEAN members to pursue their economic and military interests too freely, undermining the organization’s long-term vision of Centrality and Neutrality. 

There has been a rise in divisive security engagements between ASEAN member states, China, and the United States. As recorded by the Lowy Institute, from 2021 to 2023, the U.S. and its allies, Canberra and Tokyo, account for 60 percent of joint military exercises in ASEAN. In contrast, China accounts for only 6 percent of the overall 714 exercises. Joint exercises may be symbolic, but observing the pattern of these drills is crucial. On the one hand, mainland states, except Thailand, generally prefer China over the U.S. and its allies. On the other hand, maritime states tend to cooperate more with the U.S. and its allies than China. 

Second, ASEAN is contemplating the hard choices because they are trade-offs. On one side of the table, China is the major trading partner and investor of ASEAN. As its top export destination in 2023, ASEAN welcomed $523.7 billion worth of goods and services. In contrast, the U.S. fell to third in 2023—a decrease of 13.1 percent from the previous year. Furthermore, China's grand projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, also play a pivotal role in enhancing Southeast Asia's economic largess.

On the other hand, while the U.S. still plays a significant role in Southeast Asia, its presence in Southeast Asia is more predominantly perceived as a deterrent to ASEAN member states against China's assertiveness. As a hegemon, the U.S. plays a catalytic role in preventing conflicts with its military might and alliance system. With backing from the U.S., security arrangements, such as the US-backed Japan-Philippines and Vietnam-Philippines security cooperation, may be possible. Likewise, suppose the U.S. security umbrella is outside Southeast Asia to balance the power. Major regional security issues, such as the South China Sea dispute, are much more likely to arise, inevitably harming regional peace and stability. 

The harsh reality is that ASEAN has been forced to choose between the U.S. and China, as both want absolute domination over Southeast Asia to gain geopolitical dynamics. Of course, ASEAN needs both major powers. Still, it is an open secret that if ASEAN were to choose China for economic reasons and reject U.S. influence, ASEAN would pay for Chinese domination in the region. This could lead the U.S. to limit its engagement with ASEAN as a regional community. In turn, the U.S. would focus on strengthening its bilateral relations with individual ASEAN member states, such as the Philippines. 

The rivalry further divided ASEAN and prevented it from unifying the organization through the spirit of ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN Neutrality. Yet, the side effects of great power competition are inevitable; however, that doesn’t mean ASEAN should wait for the competition to erupt. Rather, ASEAN must be vigilant in engaging with US-China competition. 

Undoubtedly, ASEAN’s balancing act is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In particular, its effort to operationalize the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific Strategy and other relevant principles is vague. Therefore, there are some suggestions for ASEAN to consider as its bottom line in engaging with the US-China rivalry. 

ASEAN member states such as AUKUS and QUAD should find a coherent position on security cooperation. ASEAN has yet to find a unified position on AUKUS since 2021. If ASEAN can achieve a collective view on cooperation, such as AUKUS, it ensures that the ASEAN approach to its centrality is an inside-out approach. This means that ASEAN is already unified and resilient internally while it is on its way to promoting ASEAN Centrality and Neutrality. Forging collectivism through the lens of ASEAN Centrality and Neutrality would enhance ASEAN's bargaining power and strategic autonomy amidst such competition.

On the contrary, many may need help to advocate for ASEAN Centrality and Neutrality in engaging with great powers because ASEAN can’t achieve unity internally. How can one expect others to promote ASEAN Centrality and Neutrality if ASEAN members have different views on this bilateral or multilateral security cooperation? Hence, ASEAN needs a consensus standpoint to balance the relations and prioritize ASEAN Centrality.

In addition, ASEAN should be mindful of the detrimental impact of foreign intervention in the region during the Cold War. This detrimental pattern will not change anytime soon unless some cautious and necessary measures, such as forging ASEAN Centrality, are taken collectively. 

ASEAN should embrace a multilateral information-sharing approach and cooperate regarding economic and national security concerns. Member states should prioritize the region's long-term prosperity rather than short-term gains.

Only time can tell what the future holds, but in the meantime, it is essential to remember that Southeast Asia's prosperity is more likely to happen by choice than by chance. 


Moeung Cheery and Loeng Chetha are research associates at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies (CCRS)

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