It’s summit season. Three in rapid succession. First it was BRICS, then Asean and then the G-20 Summit in New Delhi. While BRICS and G20 had their own stories, Asean assumed importance since the United States and China vie for dominance in the East Asia. This contest will have far-reaching economic and military impact on the most dynamic part of the world and beyond.
The Asean leaders met in Jakarta in early September for their regular summit and the partner summits — the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asean + 3 — where Asean engages groups of regional and extra-regional players. The main issues were the extended military rule in Myanmar and contested claims in the South China Sea among some of the Asean states and China. But Asean’s biggest worry is the emerging contest between China the regional power and the US that stakes its claim as the Pacific power since the Spanish–American wars of the late 19th century.
Widodo call for peace and prosperity
The strong US military power has been bolstered by a reactivated Quad, the signing of AUKUS security pact with Britain and Australia and pushing for greater trilateral military cooperation among US-Japan and South Korea. The target is China, which oddly is the largest trading partner of all the regional states. Consequently, no other region faces the heat of friction between the two superpowers more than East Asia.
Worried over the rising stakes and responsibility, Indonesian President and this year’s Asean Chairman Joko Widodo called upon the big powers not to create “new conflicts, new tensions and new wars.” He urged the East Asia Summit leadership to “make this forum a place to strengthen collaboration, not to sharpen rivalries”. Vowing to cooperate with anyone for peace and prosperity, Widodo reiterated that Asean will not become “a proxy for any power”.
For Asean, unity is critical to maintaining its centrality. The Indonesia-sponsored Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) adopted at the 34th Summit in 2019 was a step in this direction. The AOIP institutionally committed to demanding big powers to keep their hands off East Asia. The chairman’s statement emphasised that the AOIP is a vehicle for “peace, security, stability and prosperity” in the region. The great powers were again asked to promote mutual trust “through the Asean-led mechanism”.
Asean, whose economic miracle is based on peace and stability, is deeply worried at the increasing trade war and American attempts at decoupling the China-US economies, disturbing manufacturing and supply chains in which they are key partners.
The floatation of new American-led military pacts in the region dilutes Asean’s open position of neutrality in the great power rivalry. In a payback US President Joe Biden chose to stay away from Asean Plus and landed in New Delhi for G20 two days later.
The China-US friction in the East Asian region encompassing the South China Sea remains complex and volatile. A newer element in this mix is the increasingly inflammatory actions on Taiwan — “China’s redline” — of some American politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taipei just before she relinquished her post. And the new American military alliances, China believes, are meant to provide military cover for Taiwan’s independence.
The Asean countries, while concerned about the Chinese claims, have wisely adopted a low-key approach of negotiating with China over the contested claims in the South China Sea.
This territorial contest has also complicated efforts to explore and exploit energy and fisheries resources in the region. The biggest fear of these smaller states is that a conflict in the region between China and the US could jeopardise their sovereignty.
For China, resources apart, controlling access to its front yard is vital, without which it cannot be a great power. Any adversarial power controlling the sea lanes of China means that Beijing would always remain dependent.
Asean, whose economic miracle is based on peace and stability, is deeply worried at the increasing trade war and American attempts at decoupling the China-US economies, disturbing manufacturing and supply chains in which they are key partners. The adverse economic effects can hit the projects which the Asean nations have signed up for.
Asean states are worried that escalating competition, especially in Asia-Pacific, can disrupt regional stability. The increasing presence of military forces poses a heightened risk of accidental conflict, which would have disastrous consequences for the region. Getting caught in a conflict that can easily spread compelled by the circumstances to take sides, the security and sovereignty of these states can be compromised.
In this complex geopolitical landscape, it is crucial for all parties involved to engage in diplomatic dialogue and conflict resolution mechanisms to prevent the escalation of tensions. The region’s stability and prosperity depend on peaceful cooperation and resolving disputes through international law and negotiations rather than military confrontation. Ultimately, the outcome will depend on the actions and policies of all the parties involved, including the US, China, Asean nations, and other regional stakeholders.
— Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.