A survey titled, ” State of Southeast Asia: 2019″ by the Asean Studies Centre (conducted between November 18th and December 5, 2018, and released on January 7, 2019) at the think-tank, Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, came up with some interesting findings. The sample size of the survey was over 1,000 and consisted of policymakers, academics, business community and members of civil society from the region.
It would be fair to say that some of the findings of the survey were along expected lines. Some of the key points highlighted in the survey are as follows:
According to the survey, China’s economic clout and influence in South East Asia is steadily rising, and it is significantly ahead of other competitors. Even in the strategic domain, Washington’s influence pales in comparison to that of Beijing’s. As far as economic influence in South East Asia is concerned, a staggering 73 percent of respondents subscribed to the view, that China does not have much competition. A strong reiteration of this point, is the level of bilateral trade between China and ASEAN which comfortably surpassed 500 Billion USD in 2017. After China, it is not the US, but ASEAN as a unit, which has maximum economic clout in the region. If one were to look at the strategic and political sphere, 45 percent of respondents opined that China is the most influential country in South East Asia, followed by the US at 30 percent.
Second, China’s increasing influence does not imply that it is popular in South East Asia. In fact, a large percentage of the respondents expressed the opinion, that China’s lack of integration with global institutions is not a very positive sign. South East Asian nations also have clear reservations with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While a good 50 percent of respondents believed that the project would increase ASEAN countries’ dependence upon China, there were serious apprehensions among one-third of respondents, who raised question marks with regard to the transparency of the project. A small percentage of respondents (16 percent) also felt that the BRI was bound to fail. Although many ASEAN countries have been alluding to some of the shortcomings of the BRI, none was as vocal as Malaysian Premier, Mahathir Mohammad. In the survey, respondents from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines expressed the view that their countries should be cautious with regard to the BRI. Interestingly, even among respondents from Cambodia, a country where China has made significant inroads, Japan is the most trusted country, not China.
Third, US isolationism under Trump has led to increasing disillusionment with Washington DC in the region. The current administration has been visibly aggressive on China, and it has sought to take forward former US President Barack Obama’s vision of ‘Pivot to Asia’ and Rebalance through its distinct Indo-Pacific narrative. Senior voices within the Trump Administration, including current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have been trying to give a push to the Indo-Pacific discourse by reaching out to South East Asian Countries. In July for instance, while addressing the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum, at the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington DC, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US was going to invest $113 million in new US initiatives in areas like digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo also stated that these funds were a ‘…down payment on a new era in U.S. economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’. Pompeo’s address was followed by a visit to South East Asia (Singapore and Indonesia), where he met with leaders from a number of ASEAN countries.
On December 31, 2018, US also signed the ARIA (Asia Reassurance Initiative act) which sought to underscore increased US economic and security involvement in the Indo-Pacific region. ARIA has flagged US concerns with regard to China’s expansionist tendencies in South East Asia. Other key strategic issues such as nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, have also been highlighted. The Trump Administration has earmarked $US 1.5bn for a variety of programs in East and South East Asia.
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) led to a lot of disappointment in the region, with allies like Singapore putting forward their views openly against the US’ decision to pull out. Speaking at the ANZ Forum in November 2018, Former Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Thong stated: ‘…It is still a superpower but it has become less benign and generous. Its unilateral actions in many areas have hurt allies, friends and rivals alike … America First is diminishing the global stature, moral leadership and influence of the US.’
This view was also echoed by a number of experts who commented on the findings of the survey. In this regard, the Former Singapore PM also made the point, that Asia needed to recalibrate its policies in order to adjust to the new world order.
What is clearly evident is that ASEAN needs to build a new vision which is in sync with the changing geopolitical situation in the region. While Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad, has taken an important step in this direction by scrapping Chinese projects referring BRI as a new sort of colonialism and hence signaling a clear intent to get out of China’s BRI projects, it remains to be seen whether other countries in the region can also play their role in helping ASEAN weave its own distinct narrative. For long, ASEAN countries have been dependent upon both the US and China and have been torn because of choice between a regional and a global hegemon. Seldom has there really been a concerted effort to create an independent regional narrative among ASEAN nations
What ASEAN actually needs, is to create a narrative where it does not shy away from taking an independent stance, and where it is also willing to take a un-influenced stand on issues of global relevance. One such issue is the Rohingya Issue. Apart from Malaysia and Indonesia, none of the other members of ASEAN has taken a clear stand on the Rohingya issue. For long, many ASEAN countries thought that they could refrain from commenting on contentious issues. In what appears to be a critique of such diplomacy, respondents to the survey felt that ASEAN should be more involved in the Rohingya Issue.
US and other countries which are wary of Chinese influence should come up with a workable alternative to its growing influence. So far, while members of the Trump Administration have repeatedly raised the red flag with regard to China’s hegemonic tendencies and predatory economics, as has been discussed earlier, it has not made requisite commitments for a viable alternative to such influence in the region. As such, the Trump Administration has not been able to pose a serious challenge to Beijing and its growing influence. It remains to be seen, if the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act will be effective.
It is also important for Washington and other countries, not to look at Chinese involvement from a zero-sum approach. Perhaps, it is time to adopt a more pragmatic and far-sighted proposition. If Japan and China can work together in the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as other important infrastructural initiatives in South East Asia; India and China can work together in capacity building projects in Afghanistan. The possibility of US and China finding common ground in South East Asia should not be totally ruled out. Amidst all the bilateral tensions, a recent conversation between US President Donald Trump and the Chinese President, Xi Jinping and statements emanating from both sides have been encouraging.
An isolationist Washington DC and a hegemonic Beijing certainly do not augur well, not just for ASEAN, but for other neighboring and extended regions. The survey has outlined some of the key challenges of ASEAN, but it is time now to look for solutions. Hopefully, countries within the region will shape an effective outcome-oriented narrative and be less dependent upon the outside world. The survey is important in highlighting some broad trends but policymakers in Washington, as well as South East Asia, need to come up with some pragmatic solutions to ensure that Beijing does not have a free run.
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New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. One of his areas of interest is the India-Pakistan-China triangle.