Recent events have highlighted the possibility and danger of ASEAN being sandwiched between the United States and China in a new cold war that has the Indo Pacific and South China Sea regions as its main battle front.
Clearly the US strategy in targeting China as an enemy can only bring about adverse consequences in the form of an intensified arms and militarization race. The most pessimistic outcome could be a nuclear holocaust which will affect all humanity.
Although put on the defensive by the United States identification as a rival out to eat its lunch and therefore to be brought down, it is in the interest of China to refrain from retaliation against the US and to work towards a peaceful and amicable outcome in the areas of contestation that have emerged between them.
Meanwhile, concerns are growing that the United States and China could be moving to the brink of a nuclear war as the contest for primacy grows more intense. The biggest danger seems centred on the South China Sea, which China claims as its own, using logic not much different from the Monroe Doctrine that the United States has employed in the Caribbean and Latin American region since 1823 to claim that any intervention in the politics of the Americas by foreign powers is a potentially hostile act against the United States.
In January, to underscore the nuclear and other global perils, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock from two minutes to 100 seconds to midnight. This is closer to humanity’s doomsday hour than at any time since its creation in 1947.
According to the Arms Control Association, there are 13,500 nuclear warheads in the world. Ninety percent are held by Russia and the US with a total payload of 6600 megatons, enough to destroy the world many times over. Some 3500 warheads are in military service: 700 deliverable warheads are in China.
Is the world moving closer to Herman Kahn’s theory of “Thinking the Unthinkable” (1960) i.e., of states using thermonuclear weapons to win unwinnable wars? Will China or its North Korea ally nuke Japan for working to maintain US military dominance and for current and past anti-China and anti Korea policies? Is Washington thinking the unthinkable against an equally stubborn China that will not flinch in the face of threats from the US?
Instead of the US overreacting to China’s growing military, economic and cultural power or China taking advantage of declining US influence to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, both superpowers need to bury the hatchet and minimize their geopolitical differences to foster peace and stability in the world. They ought to mobilize their resources to overcome their own domestic shortcomings and just as, if not more importantly, turn their attention to the defining crisis of our time: covid 19 and climate change.
Can this idealistic scenario play out on the global geopolitical stage and what can make it happen?
UNSC’s Glimmer of Hope
On January 3, a rare joint statement by the Five Permanent members of the United Nations Security (UNSC) consisting China, France, Russia, UK and US affirmed
- A nuclear war is the last thing the world needs. A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought
- Nuclear weapons – for as long as they exist – should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war
- The importance of preserving and complying with bilateral and multilateral non-proliferation, disarmament, and arms control agreements and commitments to avert a nuclear holocaust
- The intention to continue seeking bilateral and multilateral diplomatic approaches to avoid military confrontations, strengthen stability and predictability, increase mutual understanding and confidence, and prevent an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all
Besides reaffirmation of the grouping’s agreement on the nuclear issue, the statement is significant in that the five signatories point to their desire to work with “all states” and their resolution “to pursue constructive dialogue with mutual respect and acknowledgment of each other’s security interests and concerns”. This is a clear recognition of the multipolar global system and a repudiation of the uni- or bipolar world posited by advocates of US and Western dominance and hegemony.
Opening for ASEAN To Leave a Mark
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should follow up on this important opening by the UNSC to advance further its opposition to AUKUS and to reiterate the anti-nuclear position of the member countries. This step is necessary to ensure that Southeast Asian nations do not become embroiled or compromised in the US led campaign against China.
A more difficult option for ASEAN to pursue – but one more beneficial to the cause of peace and security in the region – is for the Association to play a role as a referee or as an honest broker in the conflict between the two superpowers. Instead of taking the side of either power. If ASEAN member states can become an honest broker to mitigate the rivalry between the two, they would do the region a great service.
To the best of our knowledge, ASEAN has yet to offer either power its willingness to act as a mediator. This perhaps may be due to the fact that ASEAN has yet to get its house in order. Nevertheless it is a challenge that we urge ASEAN and its members to consider in the next round of their engagement with the two superpowers.
The scenario of a ‘Thucydides Trap’ situation used to describe the tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power is clearly happening now. In addition to the ‘Thucydides Trap’, there is also the danger of the two superpowers falling into the ‘Churchill Trap’. A prolonged confrontation such as that which took place between the US and the USSR, and which drew in small and medium sized countries, will inflict enormous damage to all participant nations, besides the two contesting powers.
Possibilities also exist for the pursuit by the ASEAN member states of an enhanced and stronger concept of non-alignment that can go beyond the traditional policy of nonparticipation in the military affairs in a bipolar world.
It may sound a tall order for small states in ASEAN to help moderate the US-Sino rivalry and to turn global attention to the challenges of the 21st century. Nevertheless, it is one worthy of consideration.
Pandemic and Climate Change Challenges
How to insert and operationalize a comprehensive concept of non-alignment into global relations so that the small and medium sized nations that comprise the Non-Aligned Movement and ASEAN can exert a moderating influence in our multipolar world is a subject that we hope can feature prominently in think tank circles and in ASEAN’s future planning.
Looking further beyond the field of global politics, ASEAN should use its influence to lobby China and the US to work closely to address the many urgent challenges outside the political arena. These socio-economic and environmental challenges threaten regional and global peace and security just as much or even more than the arms race and militarization.
Among poorer countries, in addition to the long-standing challenge of mitigating water and food shortages, reducing poverty and inequality, and helping ensure sustainable development, the pandemic impact threatens to push back whatever development gains have been made during the past decade.
At the global level, the World Resources Institute has identified seven challenges that must be addressed to reduce poverty, grow economies and protect natural systems. These are food, forests, water, energy, cities, climate and the ocean. These challenges are not only inextricably linked. They are at greater risk because of the impact of rapid and uncontrollable climate change which every country is unprepared for or is inadequately dealing with.
Today the severity of the damage to economies, livelihoods, health, and overall development brought about by the pandemic and environmental changes has never been so clear. Indicators of rising oceans, declining ice levels, shifts in snow and rainfall patterns, melting glaciers, and increased land air temperatures have reached an all-time high since data trends were recorded during the past 150 years or so.
Considering the enormous costs and adverse consequences arising from any move into new forms of the cold war, it is imperative that the two superpowers, together with other key nations, put aside their geopolitical differences to provide leadership in managing the global commons and our endangered humankind.
- Lim Teck Ghee is a policy analyst and author of “Challenging the Status Quo in Malaysia”
- BA Hamzah is a student of geopolitics and international law