Asean at 45: Still Unsettled Over China
Pavin Chachavalpongpun – Straits Times
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) turned 45 on Wednesday. Asean has come a long way, first as a grouping emerging from the Cold War, and now supposedly the world’s most successful regional organization after the European Union.
In the past decades, there have been significant developments within Asean, ranging from the launch of the Asean Charter to the gradual materialization of the community building. But the path towards regional integration has never been easy for Asean. The failure to deal with the South China Sea conflict demonstrates Asean’s inherent weakness.
Such failure has brought the Sino-Asean relationship under the spotlight. It is timely, on Asean’s 45th birthday, to critically evaluate this complex relationship.
Today, the binary image of China, a “cuddly panda” versus a “menacing dragon,” compels Asean to adopt an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, the region has found it essential to work closely with China for its own strategic interests. Both sides have had firm economic ties. The combined populations and economies of Asean and China are approximately 1.9 billion people and $3 trillion, and the combined country exports and imports equal $1.4 trillion and $1.2 trillion, respectively.
Both have also developed defense and security cooperation in many areas, from high-level visits by military and defense officials to port calls, small-scale joint military exercises, defense equipment transfers, military educational exchange programs, and multilateral dialogues by senior defense and military officers. Currently, Beijing establishes security dialogues with six Asean states — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — as well as Asean itself.
Chinese soft power has been increasingly felt in the region too. China’s foreign aid has had a growing, tangible impact in many countries, although it is difficult to quantify due to a lack of data and the unique characteristics of Chinese assistance. China offers assistance without the conditions that other donors frequently place on aid, such as democratic reform, market opening and environmental protection; this reflects China’s own policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs.”
Meanwhile, a perception of China as a threat has lingered in the minds of many Asean members. The South China Sea dispute has unfortunately preserved such a perception. It is important to note that the perceived threat of China does not come solely from its military assertiveness. Asean countries are aware of the economic consequences of China’s rise. For example, the impact of the Thai-Chinese free trade agreement (FTA) could be measured by the increased trade volume at 27 percent for Thai exports and 14 percent for those of China. However, Thailand’s trade deficit with China stood at $2 billion after the FTA was implemented. This issue has considerable impact on domestic politics in Southeast Asian states.
In dealing with the opportunities and challenges that accompany China’s rise, Southeast Asian nations have implemented an Asean approach. They have used Asean both to keep China in check and to take charge of regional integration, or as often referred to by Asean members — to take the driver’s seat.
Central to this approach is the way in which Asean has cooperated with other powers to alleviate the impact of China’s rise, as seen in Asean’s endorsement of an open regionalism.
Asean has encouraged Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand to actively partake in the regionalization process. In return, these external powers have been enthusiastic to work with Asean to reduce Chinese influence. Japan, India and Australia are particularly cautious about the growing clout of China that could affect their interests in the region.
Asean finds it important to diversify its policy choices. It is aware of the Chinese threat, but wants to keep good ties with China while working with other regional actors to keep the balance of power truly balanced. But the practice of such pendulum politics is not without flaws.
One key challenge for Asean stems from the different positions among its members towards China. Asean members have been unable to produce a unified stance on many issues, including the South China Sea. This has granted Chinese leaders an opportunity to take advantage of Asean’s weakness to keep up its desired regional order and to defend its power position.
Asean has often been criticized for being an incoherent organization. Countries like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and, to a great extent, Thailand are happy to welcome China’s increasing economic and political presence in the region because of benefits they derive from this.
For example, China has become the source of political legitimacy for the Myanmar leadership. China has invested heavily in impoverished Laos, such as in hydro-electricity projects and through the construction of dams. Beijing has forged ties with the Hun Sen regime of Cambodia, pulling the country out of the Vietnamese and Thai orbit.
Some Asean members have chosen to interpret China’s rise with a wider perspective.
Singapore, although possessing enormous economic interests in China, has continued to encourage other powers, particularly the United States, to re-engage with the region so as to counterbalance the power of China, a call that drew good responses from Indonesia and Vietnam.
The different views among Asean states is one reason for the grouping’s seemingly ineffective approach towards China.
The pendulum analogy may explain well how the region has swung back and forth in search of the perfect balance. But occasionally, the inner forces within the pendulum can be too unpredictable. And when this happens, it allows China to enlarge its role and thus further manipulate the regional order.
The writer is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.
Reprinted courtesy of the Straits Times