Today, the countries of Southeast Asia are, in a sense, between a rock and a hard place. While in the economic sphere they are all firmly connected to China, in the political and military spheres, many maintain close relations with the United States. ASEAN states hope to maintain a balance and avoid a situation in which they have to choose sides in a potential confrontation, but will they succeed? This issue dominated the July 30 online conference of the Valdai Club and the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia: “The Rise of Regional Multipolarity: The Importance of ASEAN Centrality”.
After the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia found itself in a very advantageous geopolitical position, enjoying all the benefits of globalisation in a unipolar world. Rapid economic development encouraged local elites to rethink the political role of their countries. ASEAN, which had included all the states of the region by the early 21st century, began to play the role of coordinator of regional processes and to come up with newer and newer integration initiatives. In 1997, the ASEAN Plus Three format (China, South Korea, Japan) appeared, and in 2005 the first East Asian Summit was held, attended by the leaders of three more countries – India, Australia and New Zealand. Since 2011, Russia and the United States have joined the summit, which makes it one of the most representative forums in the Asia-Pacific.
It was in the Asia-Pacific context that the “East Asian economic miracle” unfolded, which suited everyone until China, its main beneficiary, began to claim the role of an independent centre of power. Amid the exacerbation of the US-China contradictions, a different concept has increasingly emerged in the political rhetoric of the region – the Indo-Pacific. The concept originated in Asia, but over the past few years it has been actively promoted by the United States, which, according to Viktor Sumsky, Director of the ASEAN Center at MGIMO University, is trying to shatter the Asia-Pacific, destabilising the region, rather than creating a productive environment for cooperation. Washington sees the Indo-Pacific concept as a way to contain China, which refuses to play by the rules of the West-centric world order. To some extent, this vision is shared by Australia, India and Japan, which together with the United States formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).
ASEAN has been and remains a strategic partner of Russia, which highly appreciates its cohesive and stabilising role in the region, said Alexey Ovchinnikov, Director of the Department for Asian and Pacific Cooperation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, during the conference. In Southeast Asia, there have always been narrow formats that solved certain issues, but ASEAN gave all interested parties the opportunity to sit down at the same negotiating table and tried to offer pragmatic and understandable directions for interaction. Strengthening of the confrontational component in the Indo-Pacific concept and the threat to ASEAN-centrism cause growing concern in Moscow. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dialogue of the “Indo-Pacific Four” (and its expanded format – Quad + with the participation of Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea) intensified, which, according to Ovchinnikov, is de facto an attempt to replace the relevant ASEAN mechanisms. “At the same time, until recently, we have not heard any specific proposals on combating the pandemic with the use of ASEAN-centric mechanisms from our partners,” the Russian diplomat noted with concern. “Russia, for its part, within the framework of the East Asian Summit (EAS), came up with practical initiatives for the development of regional cooperation in the anti-epidemic sphere. Last year, together with Thai partners, we organised in Bangkok the first meeting of the heads of relevant departments of the EAS member countries. We have launched a three-year project of training ASEAN specialists in the field of combating infectious diseases in Russia”.
Meanwhile, ASEAN formulated its position on the Indo-Pacific in the summer of 2019. The organisation’s official statement says that the countries of Southeast Asia, as a link between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, are interested in the peaceful development of this vast region, and ASEAN must lead the shaping of its economic and security architecture that ensures its stability and prosperity. It was in this vein that Siswo Pramono, Director General of the Policy Analysis and Development Agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, spoke at the conference. He is firmly convinced that no one will force ASEAN to choose sides in a potential confrontation between the United States and China. The Indonesian diplomat stressed that ASEAN’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is different from the American one. This is a particularly valuable comment against the backdrop of Washington’s growing confrontational rhetoric – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent speech, titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future”, has already been compared to Churchill’s 1946 Iron Curtain speech.
Notably, Indonesia generally eludes optimism in assessing the future of the region. The country shows impressive economic growth (the pandemic stopped it, but it did not cause it to reverse) and, according to PwC’s forecast, by 2050 it will become the fourth-largest economy in the world. In terms of political weight, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member state to be part of the G20 and to be considered one of the emerging great powers. During the Cold War, it quite successfully manoeuvred between the two opposing camps, playing a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement. The country’s political class believes that even in the context of the unfolding US-China confrontation, it will be able to pursue a multi-vector course without aligning itself with either of the poles.
Somewhat different sentiments prevail in Singapore, which was represented at the conference by Bilahari Kausikan, a renowned scholar and diplomat (ambassador to Russia in 1994-95). There, great power confrontation is seen more as a risk than as an opportunity. Back in 1973, Lee Kuan Yew likened small and medium-sized states to the grass in the savannah, which suffers whether elephants are fighting or flirting with each other. In his analogy, the United States and the USSR were meant to be the elephants, but when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen used the same metaphor at last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, it was about the United States and China. According to Kausikan, the good news for ASEAN countries is that there is an unprecedented interdependence between the United States and China, and therefore in “containing” China, America will, in fact, contain itself. On the other hand, he urges observers not to harbour illusions about the real weight of ASEAN: collectively, the countries of the bloc “have enough weight to be sometimes useful”, but nothing more. So, according to him, the Indo-Pacific concept is meaningless if it is not supported by ASEAN. However, the real centre of gravity in East Asia is located in the northeast, not in the southeast, the Singaporean scholar believes.
At the same time, Southeast Asia’s natural tendency for multipolarity, as Kausikan puts it, is an important asset for the region. This multipolarity is asymmetric and dynamic, implying a rejection of the struggle for regional hegemony and fluidity of alliances. It is also expressed in the openness of the countries of the region to interaction with various external players. According to Pew Research Center’s polls on the attitudes towards China, Russia, the EU and the United States, public opinion in the region is quite friendly toward all four centres of power. A notable exception is Vietnam, where, according to 2017 data, 88% of those surveyed had a negative attitude towards China. At the same time, approximately the same number of respondents (over 80%) had a positive attitude towards both Russia and the United States. On the whole, sharply negative assessments are not typical for the region.
Of particular importance for the ASEAN countries is Russia’s position on the situation in the South China Sea, which is becoming a central issue of regional security. Moscow, as a matter of principle, does not take sides in territorial disputes at sea, and advocates a political and diplomatic settlement which is based on international law. Meanwhile, the conflict over the disputed islands escalated after attempts at outside assistance, says Viktor Sumsky. “Freedom of Navigation” – including within the South China Sea – is the cornerstone of the Indo-Pacific concept in its American incarnation: both the US Navy attempts to uphold it and China’s responses are becoming constant sources of tension in the region.
The destabilisation of Southeast Asia is becoming a real prospect. Richard Heydarian expressed the hope that the South China Sea would not become a second Persian Gulf, but in the context of the “new Cold War” this is quite consistent with the strategic goals of the United States. Particularly worrisome is the lack of consensus on the South China Sea issue within ASEAN. Will the countries of the region be able to preserve their fundamental unity and, on the basis of “asymmetric dynamic multipolarity”, manoeuvre between the two poles in the growing confrontation? Or will the perceived benefits of a privileged partnership with the United States and the Indo-Pacific “club of democracies” outweigh traditional balance of power considerations? We will see it in the near future.