Published: 18:14, August 14, 2020 | Updated: 19:58, June 5, 2023
ASEAN stresses regional ‘centrality’
By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong

Southeast Asian nations to maintain neutral stance amid China-US tensions, analysts say

A cargo ship docks at Qinzhou Port in China-ASEAN Free Trade Area in Qinzhou, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on July 11, 2020. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Southeast Asian countries stress the importance of regional peace as well as regional “centrality” to ease the rising stormy waters between the United States and China, analysts said.

At its 34th regional summit, last year in Thailand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations emphasized “ASEAN centrality” — advancing and implementing policies that are based on regional interest. And on Aug 8, in a statement commemorating the regional bloc’s 53rd anniversary, Southeast Asian foreign ministers committed to “strengthening” this ASEAN centrality.

The ministers said changing geopolitical dynamics “may have detrimental ramifications” for ASEAN. They reaffirmed their commitment to maintain Southeast Asia as a “region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” and to strengthen “peace-oriented values” in line with international law.

They also “called on all countries to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, to refrain from the threat or use of force” while reiterating their commitment to supporting multilateralism.

Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor on the faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Bangkok-based Mahidol University, expects ASEAN, as an organization, to remain impartial.

Punchada said that while individual ASEAN countries have strong diplomatic and economic ties with both the US and China, these countries “are not taking sides and (choose) to maintain balance of power in the region”, adding that this is in line with the principle of ASEAN centrality.

“The evolving and evidently worsening Sino-US tensions could create an awkward situation for ASEAN countries that have long sought to maintain this precarious balance of keeping close economic linkages with China while trying to lock in continued US security commitment and investments in the region,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Koh said such an economic partnership is now more crucial for ASEAN countries as they attempt to revive their respective economies while keeping the pandemic at bay.

“ASEAN countries have close economic linkages with China, and these partnerships — at the bilateral or bloc level — have become all the more important considering the pandemic,” he said, adding that China is a key source of investments, especially in the area of infrastructure development, providing a vast and lucrative export market for most Southeast Asian countries.

“To kick-start economic recovery, which appears to be a top priority alongside securing access to the coronavirus vaccine for the regional governments, it becomes crucial to maintain dialogue and cooperation over the issue of supply chains, investments and trade,” Koh said.

On the other hand, Koh said ASEAN countries regard the US as a source of technology and investment and a partner in regional security.

Koh said given these strong links, he does not expect ASEAN to “rock the boat” and that it will continue to keep its economic and security ties warm with both China and the US.

“ASEAN, as an institution, could continue to emphasize its centrality in the security architecture,” Koh said. He said the region can provide platforms like the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit to encourage peaceful dialogue.

China-US relations have been strained in the past months, with the US repeatedly provoking China in multiple fields, including technology, education and diplomacy.

China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertions that US engagement with China has been a dismal failure, alluding to Pompeo’s policy speech delivered on July 23 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.

Wang, in an interview on Aug 5 with Xinhua News Agency, said Pompeo’s remarks were based on a “Cold War” mentality and negated achievements from past interactions between China and the US.

“The world can only hope that China responds in a restrained and calibrated manner, which China has shown it has the capability to,” said George Siy, an analyst at the Integrated Development Studies Institute, a Manila-based think tank.

Siy hopes ASEAN leaders continue to promote cooperation over conflict, and stressed that ASEAN centrality has become “more important” given how strained US-China relations are affecting Southeast Asia.

“ASEAN leaders may also help reason with their US and China counterparts — that cooperation, rather than conflict, serves everyone’s interest,” he said.

Siy said the unprecedented development and solidarity seen in ASEAN shows that ASEAN centrality “has generally delivered on a more progressive region which can now better navigate the stormy waters”.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila-based foreign policy think tank, said China and the US have “important security and economic roles” in Southeast Asia. As such, it is unlikely for any of the ASEAN countries to take sides.

“Instead, they will reinforce (the) ASEAN centrality and convening role in any attempt to shape the evolving regional security or economic architecture,” he said.