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).
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.