By Collins Chong Yew Keat
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The 43rd ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Jakarta are again a manifestation of distinct power plays, denting any aspired efficacy of the scramble to elevate conflict prevention mechanisms.
Having a combined GDP nearing USD3 trillion, ASEAN is the fifth-largest economy globally, projected to become the fourth largest economy by 2030.
Although intra-ASEAN trade has been disappointing, which currently stands at only 22.3%, and imbalances in terms of individual state economic prowess has been widening, ASEAN remains the most assured economic stabiliser and source of energy and food security for most members, knowing the risks involved with deep entanglement with the Chinese economy.
The region cannot dictate China’s economic coercion or military behaviour in the region, the region depends more on China for its survival than vice versa, although this begins to slowly tilt to ASEAN’s favour in light of China’s economic decline.
China realises that using the economic coercion card will no longer work as its own economy falters.
China will want to avoid a simultaneous four-pronged conflict that can stretch its capacity – Taiwan (which will involve participation of Japan and ROK as well), South China Sea conflict, the Himalayan border clash with India and potential future adversary with Moscow (Washington’s potential strategy of cutting off Moscow-Beijing alliance under potential Trump return).
As soon as China can mitigate its Malacca dilemma through Myanmar and Gwaddar port in Pakistan and future Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic and Lombok and Sunda Straits, the South China Sea will be primed for security purposes for Taiwan and as a militarised bastion in targeting mainland US through its improved SSBNs. The oil and gas deposits and the rich marine resources serve as an added bonus.
It capitalises on the absence of Biden to push the narrative that Washington only sees the region from the lenses of China containment and not from true and sincere economic and development support.
Central to this will be the continuous age-old model of using the victim card and regional historical friendship and legacy to ensure the region maintains its loyalty, trust and affiliation with China. China also is ramping up its defence diplomacy in winning over the region and projecting itself as a responsible military and big power role and provider.
This is to force the region to realise that there is only one tangible and credible path of a long term future assurances with Beijing, to make the symbiosis of China- ASEAN relations to be the bedrock of regional stability, and that the future lies with China and not India or ROK-Japan twin offering of economic support and investments.
In doing so, Beijing presents the case of its existing public infrastructure, state led economic and investment initiatives and military umbrella in creating a posture of neighbourly support, as opposed to the “far away and agenda laden motives of the West”.
China has also repeatedly warned of a new Cold War and in warning ASEAN not to fall for the West’s bloc mentality, to ensure ASEAN remains neutral.
China has signed new agreements with ASEAN on several key parameters, including on agriculture that is dubbed as the new growth engine in China-ASEAN ties. China desperately needs the assurances of food security, because of its climate impact that has derailed its internal food production capacity.
It can only rely now on current satellite states of Cambodia and Laos for only a certain fraction of its food dependence, and India’s recent white rice export ban has fuelled Beijing’s urgency. Food security is a predominant factor in any future readiness in facing a protracted conflict with the West over Taiwan or any of the many flashpoints.
Now, the region is being more pivotal to China in terms of strategic importance to fulfil its capacity of choking off India through the String of Pearls approach and its breaking of the West’s First Island Chain containment, and to break the West’s usage of the region to deter its Taiwan ambition.
Beijing presents the case of its existing public infrastructure, state led economic and investment initiatives and military umbrella in creating a posture of neighbourly support, as opposed to the “far away and agenda laden motives of the West”.
ASEAN’s continuous preservation of neutrality is enough for China to ensure the West is deterred, and that the US led West is forced to play bilateral engagements rather than weaponizing the collective grouping in dealing with China.
Continental Southeast Asia is more critical to China than the archipelago, as it knows the archipelago states are more difficult to win over. In continental Southeast Asia, existing grip in Laos and Cambodia and Myanmar supports Beijing in its South China Sea and Indian ambition. It serves to ensure second front access and to deter Indian second line capacity of its necklace of diamonds fightback. It is also vital to link up to Central Asia and in protecting China’s southern and western flanks.
All of Chinese policy and strategies in the region for decades, are primed for its ultimate Taiwan goal.
ASEAN is groomed to conform to China led or Asian characteristics to deter Western and EU style regionalisation and regionalism, in preventing the creation of a mini NATO or any form of military pact that will further threaten Beijing.
It faces the ultimate dilemma of damned if you and damned if you don’t trap.
This includes efforts to rope in more partners and strengthen ties with the EU, Canada, Japan, South Korea and others - just to send a message to China that the future is not confined to China alone.
ASEAN is now forced to build the case for a shared burden and responsibility with other powers, as a means to entice other powers to have deeper stakes here, but in a way not to invite greater Chinese bellicosity. The region remains as sitting ducks if it fails to get other players to be part of the burden sharing role.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.*
ASEAN’S China Dilemma
By Collins Chong Yew Keat