The Struggle for Influence in Southeast Asia Continues
In early August, the mutual maneuvering of the world’s leading powers in the Southeast Asian sub-region continues. Their main participants are the United States and China, who are increasingly drawn into a struggle for the minds and hearts of people living in Southeast Asia. For the dominant influence on individual countries and the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations formed by China on the whole.
It should be noted that the original image of ASEAN does not correspond to the idea of an economic association of states, let alone a military-political one, bound by some joint commitments. For example, the EU, whose main area of activity is the organization of economic cooperation among the European countries of the Union. Yet, claiming to be the political representation of Europeans on the international scene.
Both of these components are also present in ASEAN but much less pronounced, even if in a “blurred” form. Suffice to say that intra-ASEAN trade cannot go beyond one-third of its total volume, despite ambitious decisions made in the past. In the EU, this figure is about 75%. ASEAN is not even close to having a bureaucratic machine of the magnitude housed in the EU capital Brussels.
This does not mean that this regional association and its ten member countries in Southeast Asia are of secondary importance in contemporary political processes. This is evidenced by the increasingly frequent visits to the region by statesmen of various levels from the world’s leading players. Touring the countries of Southeast Asia, their representatives more and more resemble a race against specific athletes. It’s time to open a new Olympic discipline, “Southeast Asian Road Running.” And there is a reason to “run” because the prize is, again, control of one of the key areas of the world’s gaming table.
Note that this regional association itself provides an abundance of competition venues. There are annual forums with each of the top players. There is the ASEAN+3 format, in which a trio of leading Asian countries represented by the PRC, Japan, and the Republic of Korea are the interlocutors of the association. Several ASEAN member countries share the common problem of using the waters of the Mekong, which is truly a river of life.
So each of the world’s significant “athletes” has a place to show their worth in response to the call from ASEAN: “Go ahead, gentlemen comrades.” And “they do go for it.” Both “gentlemen” and “comrades.”
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has just probed the prospects for relations with three important ASEAN members (Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines). Two days after his departure from the region, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined in the same direction. From August 2-6, he held as many as five videoconferences with colleagues from ASEAN, using most of the platforms offered by the association.
On the eve of these events, the State Department circulated an announcement which, first, once again confirmed the “central role” of ASEAN in the development of US relations with the countries of the region and, second, listed the main topics of the upcoming talks. These included the problems of combating the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, ensuring freedom of the seas, and the workability of existing international acts in this area. Mentioned, of course, was “Burma” (an ASEAN member that has long been called Myanmar), where a military coup took place in early February of this year.
The Department of State’s announcement of the US-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ videoconference agenda drew attention to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) mentioned by Antony Blinken, a program sponsored by the US government and operating since 2013. This program is implemented in cooperation with Fulbright University Vietnam.
The Ho Chi Minh City-based university was established in 2016 with the support of the US and Vietnamese governments. It is so far the only institution of its kind among about 80 others operating under the so-called Fulbright program outside the United States. This once again demonstrates the special role that the US leadership assigns to Vietnam among the other ASEAN member countries.
On August 6, Antony Blinken attended the 28th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) session, a ministerial-level platform where various aspects of strategic stability and security issues are discussed. The ARF, which has been in operation since 1994, is one of the most representative platforms created based on ASEAN. This forum is currently attended by 26 countries plus the EU foreign policy agency.
During his speech on this platform, Antony Blinken, among other things, voiced the entire set of claims to the main geopolitical opponent in Beijing, which has been established by now in Washington. Reference was made to “provocative behavior in the South China Sea, … human rights abuses in Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.
As a novelty, the US Secretary of State expressed “deep concern over the rapid growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. Although a year earlier, the US Department of Defense had already spoken on this topic in its annual report to Congress on the topic of the PRC’s military buildup.
At the same forum, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who also confirmed the “central role of ASEAN” in the region, refrained (unlike his American colleague) from being too specific in designating the source of problems in Southeast Asia. But of course, there was no doubt what was meant when it spoke of “certain major powers outside the region” that try to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, promote new regional strategies or creating bloc confrontation through military threats. It was just as clear to whom the statement about the inadmissibility of the involvement of external players in the events unfolding in Myanmar was addressed.
Addressing the PRC+ASEAN platform, Wang Yi pointed to the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last November as a significant achievement in bilateral trade and economic relations. It is indeed an essential tool of China in implementing its own course in Southeast Asia and the entire Indo-Pacific region. The fact of participation in the RCEP is also a significant advantage for Beijing in competition with “extra-regional” Washington for influence on the situation in Southeast Asia.
The Chinese foreign minister also touched upon one of the most sensitive issues in its southern neighbors, caused by a set of problems arising from the territorial disputes in the South Caucasus. For almost two decades, the parties have worked to develop a binding document (Code of Conduct, CoC) regarding their “behavior” in the South China Sea that would prevent unnecessary incidents from occurring. According to Wang Yi, “consultation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) has maintained momentum”. That’s good.
The videoconference at the aforementioned ASEAN+3 site was no less challenging. The problems in this political “quadrilateral” are mainly due to difficulties on all (let us stress this) sides of the “triangular” ASEAN partner. This, in particular, does not allow the long-standing project of creating a trilateral, with the participation of China, Japan, and South Korea, a Free Trade Zone to be implemented.
Although, judging by the contents of Wang Yi’s and Foreign Minister of Japan Toshimitsu Motegi’s speeches, the assessments of the situation in the region, as well as approaches to solving the emerging problems, are pretty similar. Naturally, both ministers avoided polemics on rather unpleasant aspects of bilateral relations. For example, those stemming from the disputes over the ownership of the Senkaku / Diaoyudao Islands, different attitudes towards the Taiwan issue, the evident and comprehensive competition in the same Southeast Asia.
On the whole, the author’s impression of the most general plan from the events just held with “central” ASEAN participation can be expressed in (almost) classic terms: “The South China Sea is restless.” This is evidenced by the increasing military activity in the South China Sea by both the United States and the PRC, which some of the European filibusters rush to join to. It is unclear why.
The only thing that can be said with certainty in this regard relates to another observation of the growing importance of this subregion at the present stage of the “Great World Game.” This, in particular, is evidenced by the increasingly intense races in the Southeast Asian region of the world’s top “athletes.”
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.