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Big Powers To ASEAN: Believe What We Say, Not What We Do – Analysis

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One of ASEAN’s core aspirations is ‘centrality’ in security affairs in the region. There is a range of interpretations of what that means. A limited view is that it means ASEAN is situated in and must remain at the core of Southeast Asia forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. But many in ASEAN itself suggest that it means it wants to play a central role in managing security issues in its region. Australia, China, Japan and the U.S. claim to support ASEAN centrality. But their actions belie their rhetoric and seriously undermine it.

That was clearly evident before and even during the recent ASEAN Summits. The U.S. and China used and abused them to verbally attack each other and promote their own visions for the region that differ significantly from that of ASEAN. The U.S., Japan and Australia share a vision of an implicitly anti-China Free and Open Indo-Pacific while ASEAN has its own inclusive [including China], less militaristic Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. They essentially hijacked the focus and publicity of the East Asia Summit with their contest for domination of the South China Sea and the region.  Japan chimed in against China.

In the run up to the meetings, the U.S. and China undertook ‘dueling’ military exercises. The U.S. and its allies carried out major exercises in the Philippine Sea; navies of China and Russia carried out joint military exercises in areas bordering the South China Sea; China undertook unprecedentedly massive military air sorties to the southwest of Taiwan; and during the meetings, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group conducted joint exercises with a Japanese helicopter carrier in the South China Sea.

At the Summits, US President Joe Biden told ASEAN that the U.S. was committed to ASEAN centrality. Yet US- driven actions—the Quad, AUKUS, and military shows of force tell another story. China also claims to support ASEAN centrality in regional affairs but also acts unilaterally in ways that undermine it. Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that “Japan has been consistently supporting ASEAN centrality and Unity”. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison also affirmed Australia’s support for ASEAN centrality. He even told ASEAN that AUKUS the new US-UK-Australia security pact to help Australia build nuclear submarines–reinforces the backing that Canberra has for an ASEAN-led regional architecture.

But Indonesia and Malaysia were not convinced. Even US allies and partners were skeptical. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said it is reasonable for Southeast Asia to call for the U.S. and China to manage their competition responsibly and for external powers to engage the region on “our own merits rather than be seen purely through the lens of the US-China competition.” In reaction to AUKUS, Nguyen Hung Son, Vice President of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam said “One should ask what is the relevance of the ASEAN and whether the centrality that ASEAN and its partners talk about is just lip service__”. In referring to the South China Sea disputes at the ASEAN Summit, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said “We have come a long way in keeping the peace and promoting prosperity in our region. We must not allow those with diverging interests to make our efforts fail.” 

Indeed, US-driven anti-China security partnerships have only compounded the situation and raised the likelihood of a US-China clash in the South China Sea. These realpolitik strategic moves are meant to counter what it sees as the ‘China threat’ to its hegemony in Asia.  China’s reaction is likely to make the situation even more dangerous.

The Quad –short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue– is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. that purports to maintain a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. On 24 September, the Quad leaders met in person in Washington and reaffirmed that they will “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.  This statement alludes to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea and the disingenuously hyped China ‘threat’ to freedom of navigation there.  The Quad countries have undertaken several joint naval exercises. The U.S. clearly hopes it will become an anti-China security partnership and is pushing it in that direction despite reservations by India, perhaps Japan and certainly some Southeast Asian countries.

 AUKUS is an agreement between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S for the U.S. and the U.K. to supply nuclear powered submarines and underwater drone technology to Australia. A major use of these assets will be to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the South China Sea, thus locking Australia into the US military strategy to contain China. More significant, Australia and the U.S. also agreed  to “rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and to potentially “acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth”. So the U.S. military will expand its use of Australia as a base for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Contrary to supporting ASEAN centrality in security affairs, the US and its partners undertook these actions in part because they felt that ASEAN has been ineffective in dealing with regional security issues like the South China Sea dispute. So the U.S. and its allies went around and over them to form these pacts.

ASEAN countries need to hold these big powers to their words.  They should press their ‘pledged partners in peace’ to uphold the principles of the Bali Treaty. These include the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;. settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means; and renunciation of the threat or use of force.

 One possibility is for a group of core members to make a multilateral public appeal to both the U.S. and China to restrain themselves. If nothing else it would deprive both—but especially the U.S., Japan and Australia—of the excuse that they are acting to help the Southeast Asian countries [against China]. Perhaps China’s rival claimants could form an ASEAN subcommittee to deal with China while the larger organization tries to fend off the U.S. 

In any case it is clear that the main protagonists in the deepening struggle for control of the South China Sea are saying “Don’t believe what we do, only what we say”. ASEAN members see through this hypocrisy. What it can do and does about it is another matter.

A different version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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