Index > Briefing
Thursday, September 23, 2021
Consolidating Relations with ASEAN Crucial for China's Future

In the Western Pacific, the geopolitical game between the United States, its allies, and China has put ASEAN countries at the forefront of escalating conflict between the major global powers. The establishment of the new Australia-UK-U.S. alliance (AUKUS) is clearly aimed at China. The emergence of this Anglo-Saxon alliance has placed ASEAN countries in a complex situation in the Indo-Pacific region.

The responses of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other countries, including China, to this development, have received substantial coverage in the international media. However, the views of ASEAN countries, on the other hand, are given significantly less weight. In the view of ANBOUND researchers, ASEAN countries are important stakeholders in the Western Pacific and the Indo-Pacific regions and are also China's most important economic and trade partner regions. ANBOUND researchers also believe that in the future global geopolitics involving China, ASEAN countries are a group of countries that will get the attention of all parties. ASEAN is not only an area of concern to the United States, Japan, Australia, France, and India but also a geopolitical and geo-economic force that China needs to give great importance because for Beijing, it is the most reliable region.

Information tracking study conducted by the ANBOUND Malaysia research team found that ASEAN countries have highly complex viewpoints towards the emergence of AUKUS. In the recent article "What Does the New AUKUS Alliance Mean for Southeast Asia?" published in The Diplomat, it is mentioned that the influence of newly announced military partnership between the United States, the UK and Australia, i.e. the AUKUS on Asia's future strategic balance is unknown, but it is likely to be significant and far-reaching. One of the most important elements of the tripartite partnership is that Australia will have a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The article says that the AUKUS alliance is likely to have an important impact on Southeast Asia, which is located at the center of the "Indo-Pacific" geographic region and is the main focus of the new partnership.

Governments in the ASEAN region, on the other hand, have had wildly divergent reactions to AUKUS. Any move that increases the likelihood of violence could cause havoc in the region. If a conflict breaks out, the AUKUS alliance will make the conflict much more devastating. For Southeast Asia that lies at the center of the "Indo-Pacific", it would conceivably be on the frontlines. The worries for the Southeast Asia region extend to the impact of this partnership: this may bring the region into a greater strategic competition, drive it away from its self-proclaimed regional "centrality", and erode its hard-won strategic autonomy.

On September 20, Malaysian Senior Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin met with his Australian counterpart Peter Dutton to reiterate Malaysia's position on AUKUS. Hishammuddin said the AUKUS was the focus of his discussions with the Australian Defense Minister. He emphasized to Dutton that these new developments may undermine regional peace and stability, especially in the South China Sea. Hishammuddin said that although Australia distinguishes nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered military assets, Malaysia's position is still consistent. He stated that all parties should avoid military operations that are considered provocative and that may increase tensions and trigger regional conflicts, and that all parties must also respect Malaysia's position and approach, which is to continue to abide by international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Among the ASEAN countries, the Philippines has clearly expressed its support for AUKUS with the hope that the alliance would contribute to the military balance in the Indo-Pacific region. Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, in a statement dated September 19, said that "enhancement of a near abroad ally's ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it". Locsin said in the statement that with, "absent actual presence of nuclear weapons, we cannot infer a violation of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty". The position of the Philippines contrasts sharply with that of its Southeast Asian neighbors like Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries that have expressed concern with the AUKUS because they are worried about the intensified competition among superpowers in Southeast Asia.

In a recent online seminar hosted by the East Asian Institute of Singapore attended by ANBOUND researchers, there were discussions on the power and rising status of China vis-à-vis the United States in Southeast Asia. Several guests who participated in the seminar from ASEAN countries shared their views which came from various angles. According to the observations of ANBOUND researchers, there are several common views in the seminar that are worthy of attention: (1) ASEAN people believe that China and the United States need to hold more "talks". But what should they talk about? How should the talks be conducted? What level of satisfaction should it be? These are the issues that both sides should carefully consider. (2) The rise of China's status in ASEAN is an understandably rational choice from the perspective of economic interests. For example, while Indonesia was provided with the options of European and U.S. COVID-19 vaccines, it chose China's Sinovac. Altogether, in Indonesia's infrastructure projects too, many project contractors are Chinese companies. (3) The world outside China has an increasing need to understand how China thinks and what are its priorities. Otherwise, it will be difficult to communicate with China. (4) The U.S.-China dispute has affected the whole world, even India has not completely isolated itself from China.

These observations show that ASEAN is still calmly assessing the relationship in the U.S.-China competition and its impact on ASEAN. As China's close neighbor, ASEAN has seen significant improvements in its economic and trade relations with China in recent years. In the past two years, ASEAN has surpassed the European Union to become China's largest trading partner. During the good times of globalization in the past, China's geopolitical and geo-economics environment was very different from the present. For a long time since its reform and opening-up, China's diplomacy has focused on major powers, chiefly on the United States and Europe. In Asia, its diplomatic focus was on Japan. However, the advent of the era of anti-globalization and the drastic changes in the geopolitical environment has forced China to adjust its global strategy. Under the current circumstances, vigorously developing and consolidating relations with ASEAN countries is becoming one of China's most important geopolitical strategies. If the current deteriorating U.S.-China relations do not improve in the next two to thirty years, and if the Western world has always maintained a systematic strategic competition attitude towards a rising China, China would prioritize and strengthen its relations with ASEAN.

Final analysis conclusion:

The Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States has covered ASEAN. The most important member group of CPTPP is also ASEAN. ASEAN's geopolitical and geo-economic importance to China will grow in the future. The development and consolidation of the relationship with ASEAN should become one of China's most important geopolitical strategies.