In early 1979, fearing the growing security cooperation between Hanoi and Moscow, China invaded Vietnam. A year earlier, the then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping met Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, asking for Singapore’s support against Vietnam. But, to his utter surprise, the canny Singaporean leader caught the equally perceptive Deng off guard.
Lee Kuan Yew admitted that Singapore was worried about Beijing’s ambitions to dominate the region more than Vietnam. In other words, China was Singapore’s most significant source of long-term concern. The point is that even before China’s economic transformation, Southeast Asian states were worried about living with a giant next door.
Cut to the post-Cold War era and the emergence of the unipolar moment. With the Soviet threat extinguished, the extended cooperation between Washington and Beijing created a stable regional order – propitious for economic growth. Southeast Asian countries could not have asked for more. American handholding of China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation symbolised the spirit of the times.
Southeast Asia took full advantage of regional stability and accelerated their pursuit of prosperity. Over the years, a neat equilibrium saturated the thinking in the regional capitals. For Southeast Asia, China’s development was an economic opportunity to be capitalized on under the umbrella of American military presence. Having drawn the right lessons in Vietnam, Washington was happy to act as the offshore balancer.
During the Sino-US rapprochement period, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations assiduously cultivated the idea of ASEAN centrality. The main motivation behind this effort was safeguarding its agency in the then Asia-Pacific, influencing the actions of the great powers operating in the region, and underscoring the idea that ASEAN’s growth was central to Asia’s developmental story. As a result, even the economic interdependence between the two regional economic powerhouses grew manifold. For example, in 2022, China’s trade with ASEAN was estimated at close to a trillion US dollars.
The last few years have heralded a new dawn of great-power competition. China’s assertive behaviour in the maritime domain and the emergence of new minilateral coalitions under the Indo-Pacific framework are simultaneously causing alarm in some parts of Southeast Asia. Given the established equilibrium that has sustained regional economic prosperity, countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia are wary of the growing chasm between Beijing and Washington.
When asked where it stands, Jakarta doesn’t hesitate to pull out the old card of non-alignment reflexively. However, to expect Indonesia to do otherwise publicly would be unwise. Even the sensitivities in Indonesia and Malaysia around American military presence are primarily due to domestic compulsions.
Picking up from Lee Kuan Yew’s outlook toward Beijing, it is not a wild guess that other regional players also share a similar outlook toward China. The foremost ones are Vietnam and the Philippines. Alongside Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, and Singapore are also influential actors in ASEAN. They might not directly voice their concerns, however, these capitals intuitively understand that the United States,
India, Japan, Australia, and other like-minded powers are essential in upholding the regional balance of power. ASEAN has also long sought India’s role in balancing China. Moreover, nationalism is not frowned upon in Southeast Asia. Irrespective of the sizeable presence of ethnic Chinese citizenry in Southeast Asian states, nationalism runs high in many countries.
Despite their public reservations about American military presence, even Malaysia and Indonesia have military exercises with the United States. Therefore, given its history of quickly adapting to new political realities, ASEAN member countries can be expected to be pragmatic in their approach to selecting partners in the altered geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific.
This brings us to the Quad, drawing together the Australia, Japan, India and United States. It’s not to say that the Quad must expect the ASEAN member states to choose between binary choices. Southeast Asians are adept at playing a polygamous game. Their geographical location and relative sizes do not afford them the liberty to pick clear sides.
Having said that, the deepening structural contradiction between the United States and China increases the difficulty of hedging. Furthermore, the latest ISEAS Survey of sentiment by the Yusof Ishak Institute shows interesting trends. In ASEAN, China is seen as the region’s most “influential” political and economic power. However, if forced to choose between the United States and China, the United States emerges as the frontrunner. Japan also remains ASEAN’s most “trusted” major power, closely followed by the United States.
Therefore, it is in the interests of the Quad partners to capitalise on the goodwill it enjoys and engage like-minded partners in Southeast Asia. The Quad could begin by moving ahead of chanting the mantra of ASEAN centrality, a banal invocation in international conferences. Despite their individual relationships with ASEAN members, it is in the larger interest of the Quad partners to get ASEAN on the same page as far as the Indo-Pacific framework is concerned. After all, pursuing a free and open Indo-Pacific is arguably among the topmost interests of the Quad and ASEAN.
Potential starting points for engaging Southeast Asia could be toning down the democracy-autocracy rhetoric by Washington, giving complementary importance to the land dimension in the Quad’s proposed maritime dialogue with ASEAN, and offering capacity-building and developmental alternatives to countries in the region.
Ved Shinde is a research intern at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi. He studies Political Science and Economics at the St Stephen’s College of the University of Delhi. Ved has also worked with St Stephen’s Centre for Advanced Learning and Synergia Foundation, Bangalore.
Source: Lowy Institute