By Hu Yukun
The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) returned to Singapore this June after a two-year COVID-19 pandemic-forced hiatus. ASEAN countries were among the participants most eager to see the interactions between major countries, especially China and the United States.
Some nerves were eased by talks between Chinese and U.S. defense chiefs, which reassured an outlook on the region in which all the countries can benefit from cooperation rather than conflict or confrontation.
Providing ‘Some Comfort’
To the surprise of few, both the Russia-Ukraine conflict and tense China-U.S. relations took center stage at the SLD.
Due to geographical reasons and global influence, China-U.S. relations normally dominate the annual meeting in Singapore. But this year, the empty chair was the obvious elephant in the room. Russia was not invited to the summit, and topics related to the country were already hotly disputed prior to the opening of SLD, especially its conflict with neighboring Ukraine.
Compared to the United States and EU, the response from countries in Southeast Asia to Russia’s “special military operation in Ukraine” has been considerably more tepid. Singapore has been the only state in the region to impose direct sanctions on Russia, and others issued statements condemning the “invasion” without explicitly mentioning Russia. Considering the economic impact brought by the conflict on so many sectors including food security, inflation, trade, manufacturing, and supply chains, no one in the region wants to further fuel the conflict and extend the suffering from it.
Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again warned of the broader implications of Russia’s military operation and the potential danger facing the entire world, this time by quoting Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister (“Big fish eat small fish. Small fish eat shrimp”), ASEAN countries held firm to a stance of “searching for compromise” and “seeking common ground” to help diplomatic efforts, said Ng Eng Hen, Singapore Defence Minister.
The Asia-Pacific region is now the de facto center of geopolitics and a vital diplomatic priority by many major countries. Growing great power competition in the region is creating difficult situations for ASEAN countries. Their cautious attitude towards Russia is not just about economic concerns, but more flavored by their vision of the geopolitical landscape surrounding them: They don’t want to rush headlong into a new cold war, as The Washington Post argued.
They don’t want a geopolitical standoff between the West and Russia, so they don’t want to pick sides. Never has this dynamic been as obvious as today, especially in terms of the competition between China and U.S., which many observers have been closely monitoring in the region. From “Pivot to Asia” to “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the United States has been shifting its focus from the Atlantic to the East.
In February of this year, the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States published by the White House did not hide an objective to compete with China in the region, and ASEAN was mentioned nearly 20 times as part of a strategy of working with an empowered and leading regional institution that would want to connect to other U.S. allies. A month before SLD, the first ever U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit was held in Washington D.C., where the U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to ASEAN countries with a promise of US$150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness, and other issues.
“Such moves can be interpreted as challenging China’s position in the region and hindering peaceful progress between China and ASEAN countries,” said Lee Pei May, a political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia. This is not what these countries would like to see, as they do not want to become the “battlefield” of China-U.S. competition. In every sense, ASEAN countries were eager to see how China and the United States could interact with each other in Singapore.
At least the meeting between the two defense chiefs on the sidelines of the summit indeed “gave some comfort”, as Mr. Ng put it, since both sides suggested that they were not compelling the region to take sides. More importantly, the two defense chiefs agreed to enhance strategic mutual trust, maintain high-level strategic communication, and properly manage differences so that conflict and confrontation could be avoided.
In a larger sense, the return of SLD has profound meaning: It has been a good platform for all participants to raise concerns and seek common ground for cooperation.
Beneficiaries of Cooperation
Since the 1990s, ASEAN has taken pains to cultivate ties with different major countries seeking to develop vested interests in the region’s stability and overall development while avoiding choosing sides among competing global powers. This strategy, characterized as hedging, double-binding or omni-enmeshment, has succeeded in maintaining peace and boosting regional development, earning ASEAN a reputation for bridging major countries and status as an institutional buffer in geopolitics.
This strategy has worked only when global powers do not engage in power politics or the zero-sum game. Unfortunately, the past decade has witnessed a growing but unfavorable trend against the interests of ASEAN countries.
With Southeast Asia as one of the largest and fastest growing markets, the rapidly changing strategic landscape has been drawing the United States, Europe, and major Asian countries to engage more with this region. As countries across the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean are stepping up their strategic engagements with the Asia-Pacific region including the 10 ASEAN countries, great power competition seems to be staging a comeback.
The United States stated clearly in its latest Indo-Pacific Strategy that reinvigorating engagement with ASEAN was part of its foreign policy focused on its vital interests and “leadership” in the region. In his late May speech at George Washington University, Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, noted that seven ASEAN countries were founding members of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). This was a speech on the Biden administration’s approach to China, in which he talked about a framework that excluded China.
Moreover, the White House openly claimed that it would explore opportunities for ASEAN to work with Quad, a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States which has long been regarded as a framework to contain China. These countries pointed their fingers at China for “its unilateral attempts to change the status quo” in Singapore this time. “Integrated deterrence” and the “strategic power of partnerships” with allies and partners, mentioned by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the meeting, demonstrated the unwavering tough stance of his country in this “great power competition.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida even likened “Ukraine today” to the “East Asia of tomorrow” in his keynote address. In fact, mixed messages conveyed by these countries in the three-day summit converged in a paradox of peace and power, as CNA pointed out, putting Southeast Asia in a precarious position. The keyword of ASEAN’s outlook on the Asia-Pacific region is “centrality,” while in a more volatile world the concept of cooperative security is being substantially challenged.
ASEAN countries have vested interests in both the short and long term. While reopening their borders, they are seeking a robust economic rebound. Facing various natural disasters and rising sea levels, they want to take on climate change. Due to their geographic conditions, maritime security is key to their survival. Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure public health still remains the priority for all these countries. All of these interests require multilateral cooperation even beyond the Asia-Pacific region and should not for any reason exclude any country seeking to work towards those ends.
This inclusive approach has never been more important, yet it will be ever more difficult, said Hoang Thi Ha, Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. For ASEAN countries, it is about their vital interests which they must hold tight.
But the same goes for all the major countries in the world because everyone has always benefited more from cooperation than negative-sum competition, conflict, or confrontation.