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ASEAN needs to walk a tightrope

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The Quad leaders’ statement clearly reiterated the importance of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the context of the Indo-Pacific. Said the statement:

“Today we reaffirm our consistent and unwavering support for ASEAN centrality and unity. We are committed to ensuring the Quad’s work is aligned with ASEAN’s principles and priorities and continues to support implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)”

The statement also referred to Indonesia’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2023.

This statement is important for several reasons. First, there have been differences between ASEAN and the US with several ASEAN leaders expressing concern over the consistent deterioration in ties between China and the US. Countries like Singapore have repeatedly reiterated, that they would not like to make choices between Beijing and Washington, since they share robust economic ties with both countries.

At the Boao Forum, often referred to as China’s Davos, held in March 2023, the Singapore PM again underscored the global ramifications of strained ties between China and the US. The Malaysian PM, Anwar Ibrahim perceived to be pro-US, expressed concern over US’ ‘decoupling’ from China.

Second, ASEAN countries which also share close economic links with the US have recently begun to speak about ‘De-dollarisation’ which refers to reducing dependence upon the US dollar for trade. The Malaysian PM, Anwar Ibrahim also spoke about Asian Monetary Fund (this idea was initially mooted by the Malaysian PM in the late 1990’s when he was Malaysia’s Finance Minister).  Like many other regions, ASEAN is wary of US’ increasingly insular economic policies in recent years. While seven Asean countries — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – are part of the US led IPEF (Indo Pacific Economic Framework) they have complained about IPEF not having a trade component.

Third, Indonesia has taken a different stance from the west on the Russia-Ukraine war. Like India, which is the current chair of G20, Indonesia too has pointed to the need for addressing disruptions caused to the global supply chains by the Russia-Ukraine war. Yet, it is an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific and is also important in the context of the goal of reducing economic dependence upon China and altering global supply chains. Apart from Vietnam and India, Indonesia has been one of the favoured countries for companies seeking to re-locate from China.

In spite of all the above differences, several ASEAN states have begun to show greater interest in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. ASEAN came up with its first Indo-Pacific vision in 2018, but it has clearly stated that it’s approach vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific is different from that of the US and not targeted at China. In recent months however, some ASEAN countries have begun to express their discomfort with regard to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour on the South China Sea issue. Philippines, a US ally, which had in recent years been trying to strike a balance between US-China, has once again strengthened security ties with US. In February 2023, Philippines provided the US military access to four more military bases in the ASEAN nation. The US defence department while commenting on Philippines decision to grant access to four more military bases said that this:

“will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,”

In conclusion, the ASEAN grouping is very important in the current geopolitical context and while it needs to walk a tightrope between China and the US it is an important player in the context of the Indo-Pacific for several reasons. As mentioned earlier, ASEAN countries are especially important in the changing economic architecture, where many western countries are seeking to reduce their dependence upon China and many US firms are expanding their operations in ASEAN countries – especially Vietnam. Apart from this, several ASEAN nations do not want to adopt a confrontationalist stance with Beijing due to their economic interests as well as geographical proximity but are not comfortable with China’s assertive behaviour and thus need to find common cause with the Quad.