If ASEAN can’t tango with China or the U.S., who else? Pragmatic as always, ASEAN’s favourite choices for hedging partners remain the EU and Japan but attention appears to have also fallen on India as its third choice this year, writes Sharon Seah.
A tango for two is an intricate, demanding affair, often daunting even for the most skilled dancers. In the case of ASEAN, the grouping must tread carefully in order to navigate two separate tangos, one with China and the other with the United States, to ensure a peaceful, stable and secure Southeast Asia. But China and the United States are increasingly loath to venture onto the same dance floor, making it difficult for ASEAN to find a way to balance the interests of both powers while still ensuring regional security and economic cooperation.
After decades of peaceful economic cooperation, a tectonic geopolitical shift starting with a low-boil U.S.-China trade war four years ago has now developed into moves to decouple the world’s two largest economies amidst calls for ‘China containment’. This is against a background of greater militarisation after the invasion of Ukraine, rising protectionism and stronger nationalistic sentiments around the world.
In the latest State of Southeast Asia Survey 2023, such concerns are reflected even more starkly. Almost 60 per cent of Southeast Asians are concerned with unemployment and economic recession this year, with 57.1 per cent saying that climate change was their top concern. But what was most striking was that increased military tensions became one of this year’s top three concerns, tied at third place with widening socio-economic gaps and rising income disparity. Southeast Asian respondents’ frustrations with ASEAN, the region’s premier organisation, are also more palpable as 82.6 per cent say that it is slow and ineffective in coping with the rapidly changing geopolitics as compared to 70.1 per cent last year.
Parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan were drawn soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June last year, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida argued that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”. Nearly half of the respondents expressed serious concerns over the invasion, and at least a third said that they were somewhat concerned. The dotted lines between Russia and China cannot be missed, given the rather untimely proclamation of a ‘no limits’ partnership between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping just days before the invasion and China’s refusal to condemn Russia after the invasion.
Perhaps most telling of all the findings in this year’s Survey, alongside concerns of increased military tensions, are worries over a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait and other unresolved disputes with China. In a question on hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, 43.3 per cent of respondents said that such an event could destabilise the entire region. Another 28.7 per cent are worried that ASEAN countries may be forced to take sides. On the question of their country’s responses to such a conflict, 45.6 per cent say that their governments should oppose the use of force using diplomatic measures. Another third of respondents feel that remaining neutral in a conflict between China and Taiwan would be wise. There was little appetite for sanctions or demonstration of support for either China or Taiwan. These reactions provide a bellwether to how the region is thinking about a potential conflict but ultimately it will boil down to who the provocateur is, the circumstances surrounding the provocation and whether the U.S. and/ or its allies are involved.
Perhaps most telling of all the findings in this year’s Survey, alongside concerns of increased military tensions, are worries over a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait and other unresolved disputes with China.
Southeast Asia’s views of its dance partners
China remains the undisputed economic power in Southeast Asia, but its ratings declined from 76.7 per cent in 2022 to 59.9 per cent this year. The significant margins between China and the U.S. mean that it is unlikely that China can be unseated in the foreseeable future (the U.S. scored 10.5 per cent in 2023, just a smidgen higher from 9.8 per cent the previous year). Misgivings about China’s economic strength continue to dominate, with 64.5 per cent of the region saying that they were concerned about its influence. When it comes to exercising political and strategic influence in the region, China is again ranked top at 41.5 per cent, albeit with a significant drop from 54.4 per cent the year before. Worries about China exercising this form of influence remain high at 68.5 per cent, albeit dropping from 76.4 per cent last year. President Xi’s foreign policy moves such as taking coercive measures against trading partners and employing strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea may have added to elevated concerns.
Assessment of the Biden Administration’s level of engagement with the region is fairly positive with 39.4 per cent of respondents saying that engagement has increased or increased significantly. This is a marked difference compared to the 2020 results when asked about the level of U.S. engagement under the Trump Administration, where a clear majority of 77 per cent of Southeast Asians felt that engagement had decreased significantly. But the U.S. continues to fare badly in the economic sphere with only 10.5 per cent of Southeast Asians viewing it as carrying some clout. The U.S.’ unwillingness to inject any meaningful economic agenda (beyond the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity at this point) has affected its ability to project greater influence in the region. This is contrasted with the views that it can be a reliable security partner where confidence levels have increased from 42.6 per cent last year to 47.2 per cent. The U.S.’ security-driven agenda has not gone unnoticed by Southeast Asia and is in fact welcomed by more respondents in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
When it comes to specific U.S.- or China-led initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) or the Global Security Initiative (GSI), the region tended to be agnostic, with 41.8 per cent saying they were unsure about the IPEF and 44.5 per cent expressing little or no confidence in the benefits of the GSI. A third of those with negative views about the IPEF say that U.S.-China competition will worsen while another 24.2 per cent say that the IPEF will hasten the U.S.-China decoupling process. Among those with little or no confidence in the GSI, a third are concerned that it will increase tensions between the U.S. and China and another third feared that ASEAN would be forced to take sides. It is worth noting that a higher proportion of respondents (61.1 per cent) chose the U.S. over China (38.9 per cent) as compared to 2022 in a hypothetical question that forced such a choice.
When it comes to more established mini-lateral initiatives such as the Quad, Southeast Asians showed greater appreciation, with 50.4 per cent saying that the Quad is “positive and reassuring” for the region. Despite lingering misgivings over the threat to ASEAN centrality and ASEAN-led mechanisms, more than a third felt that the Quad would be complementary to ASEAN, and another third said the Quad would be beneficial to the region. The region’s reception to the Quad may have warmed after 2021 with the promise of practical, tangible benefits, but there is still a modicum of wariness towards Beijing’s response.
India as a possible new dance partner?
Levels of trust in India increased across all ASEAN countries (except Cambodia) in this year’s results. Overall trust in India jumped from 16.6 per cent last year to 25.7 per cent this year, and distrust ratings also dropped in tandem. The prevailing reason given is that India was seen as a responsible stakeholder in international law (25.4 per cent) but also that its military power could be an asset for global peace and security (18.2 per cent).
The 2023 findings are not hard to explain. India has maintained a quiet position of neutrality on the Ukraine-Russia war due to its long-standing relations with Russia. India has refused to condemn Russia with the other Quad members; yet, its willingness to demonstrate pushback with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling President Putin that “today’s era is not of war” shows India’s ability to exercise foreign policy independence. Historically, the Global South recognises India’s de facto non-alignment leadership. In the case of India’s position on climate change, for instance, the Global South found cover in India’s refusal to accept the phase-out of coal at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which bought the developing world time in the global energy transition.
If China and the U.S. will not tango, what are ASEAN’s choices? Pragmatic as always, ASEAN’s favourite choices for partners remain the European Union (EU) and Japan. The top choice of a “third party” to hedge against U.S.-China strategic rivalry remained the EU at 42.9 per cent and Japan as the second choice at 26.6 per cent. But attention appears to have been drawn to India this year as a surprising third choice (11.3 per cent) overtaking Australia. Perhaps ASEAN’s reason for looking to India can be explained in its use of ‘strategic ambiguity’ in foreign policy decisions and the strategic counter weight that it can offer. But it remains to be seen if India will ask for ASEAN’s dance card. Even if it did, can India move in lockstep?
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on February 9, 2023.