US-China Rivalry and ASEAN’s Fine Balancing Act

In recent years, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries have emphatically underscored the point —  on umpteen occasions — that they would not like to pick sides in the US-China tussle for global supremacy  Two factors which have resulted in ASEAN’s economic links strengthening with China are; first, US’ inward looking trade policies which have impacted the South East Asian region and second, ASEAN countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam Laos and Cambodia – being part of China’s  Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  While ASEAN countries have sought to tread a fine balance between Washington and Beijing, this has been no mean task as ties between Washington DC and Beijing have witnessed a steady decline. 

Key takeaways from a recent survey

A recent survey conducted by a Singapore based research centre — the Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) Yusof Ishak Institute — reveals some important points. According to the State of South East Asia Survey 2024, conducted by ISEAS, 50.5% of respondents said they would favour China. In 2023, less than 40% (38.9%) respondents had said that they prefer China. 

Even though the survey shows a growing inclination of ASEAN countries vis-à-vis China, it would be incorrect to believe that ASEAN countries have totally shifted towards the China orbit. While acknowledging the benefits emerging from China’s investments, countries in South East Asia did also reveal high levels of distrust and scepticism vis-à-vis China’s growing economic clout in ASEAN.

Why China has emerged as a more predictable economic partner for ASEAN

It would be important to understand, why several ASEAN countries view China as a safer bet in terms of economic cooperation. 

The first reason is the improvement in infrastructure in ASEAN countries – notwithstanding the long-term economic and environmental pitfalls —  from BRI related projects 

Second, while the US has been critical of the BRI and Chinese expansionism, the former’s inward looking economic policies have done no favour to its perception in ASEAN. The US pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a brainchild of former US President Barack Obama, in 2017 during the presidency of Donald Trump. This came as a surprise to several other signatories to the TPP. Singapore, an ASEAN member, which was one of the fervent supporters of this agreement also expressed surprise at the US pull out from TPP (other ASEAN member states Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam were also signatories to the TPP). The Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) promoted by the Biden Administration has also been viewed with scepticism by several ASEAN member states – even though seven of them Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have signed up of IPEF. The main reason for the lack of enthusiasm of ASEAN states vis-à-vis IPEF is that this agreement lacks a trade component – something ASEAN countries have been seeking. Even though IPEF has no mention of trade, Donald Trump – Republican Presidential Candidate for 2024 and former US President – has said that the US would pull out of IPEF if he were to take over as president.  

Indonesia’s balancing act between Beijing and Tokyo

As mentioned earlier, it is important to bear in mind that while ASEAN countries due to geography and strategic constraints may seem to be tilted towards China, they are keen to follow a balanced foreign policy. A strong reiteration of this point is Indonesia, where recently Indonesia’s president elect, Prabowo Subianto made his first overseas visit to China (March 31, 2024 to April 2, 2024). During  Prabowo’s China visit, both sides highlighted the importance of the economic and security relationship between Beijing and Jakarta and also referred to the importance of certain Belt and Road Initiative BRI related projects in bolstering the relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping dubbed the Jakarta High Speed railway project as: “a golden sign of high-quality cooperation between the two countries.”

Days after his Bejing visit, Prabowo also visited Japan and met with senior officials including Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida. A statement released by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Japan’s PM Kishida told Prabowo that: Japan would contribute to Indonesia’s development through cooperation in such fields as infrastructure development and energy, and support Indonesia’s efforts to proceed with the process of its accession to the OECD.”

Prabowo’s balancing act of visiting both Beijing and Tokyo has been hailed by several commentators.

In conclusion, while it is true that the approach of most ASEAN countries vis-à-vis China will be different from that of the US, it is also important to bear in mind that several ASEAN countries have robust strategic and economic ties with Washington. ASEAN ties with Beijing and Washington will be dependent upon two important factors; the nature of Beijing-Washington ties in the imminent future and Washington’s approach vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific under a Trump presidency – which cannot be ruled out.

[Photo by Priyam Patel / Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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