ASEAN: A never-ending bumpy road between China & US

by Sami Burgaz
Dr. Muhamad Azwan Abd Rahman

Dr Muhamad Azwan Abd Rahman is a Research Fellow at The Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, National University of Malaysia. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Tun Mahathir Mohamad Institute of Thought, Universiti Utara Malaysia. His expertise in Development, China-Southeast Asia, Globalisation, Public Policy and Governance.

As recently attested by regional developments, ASEAN is still on a bumpy road along the US and China contestation. The current health crisis, such as COVID-19, also extrapolate the race between these big powers to acquire support from ASEAN for their respective agenda. This current plot has also triggered some arguments on “vaccine imperialism” rather than “vaccine diplomacy”.

Moreover, the tension between China and the US through a separate ASEAN proxy also rose to prominence due to the existing challenges, particularly in the South China Sea territorial dispute while battling the pandemic.

Therefore, this article will provide three essential discussions. First, it begins with the 21st century era and superpower disagreements that spill over to ASEAN. Secondly, it relates to the position and the perspectives of Southeast Asian states. Based on these points, it is also vital to discuss the future of ASEAN in oriental globalisation with the present condition between the US and China.

Contention between China and the US in the 21st century has protracted since China joined World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001. China tremendously showed the significance of its socialist market economy model is flexible with the world capitalist system. Since then, according to the World Bank, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) aggressively increased from USD 1 billion in 2000 to USD 14.28 trillion in 2019. China’s success has led many parties to increase their investment and shares to China in order to expand their market while strengthening ties.

However, as an economic power, the US at unease with China developments believing that it could threaten the global market and its geopolitical strategy. The position exhibited by the US has influenced alliances and pro-states to be more cautious with China’ recent global agenda. Many top Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, rebuttal this kind of stance will ripple global harmony.

The silent tension became more visible when China, under Xi Jinping rule introduced The Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 and Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP). Meanwhile, the US heavily promotes the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) against China’s initiative but has withdrawn under the Trump administration.

However, China’s New Silk Road Project since 2013 has made significant inroads into Southeast Asia (Blanchard 2019; Gungwu, 2019). It has been built through trust and cooperation, backed by historical memories, socio-cultural exchanges and vis-a-vis relations.

Contrariwise, the situation is dynamic. While China’s investment through BRI, trade, and COVID-19 assistance to the region are all welcome, there is a mixed reaction towards China’s behaviour, especially in the South China Sea. The latest study by ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute in Singapore shows that China’s economic influence in Southeast Asia has increased from 32.8% in 2020 to 36.7% in 2021. However, the preference for the US is far higher, which is 72.7% in 2020 and increasing to 75% in 2021 (Seah et al. 2021). This stance raises a fundamental question of trust concerning the significant impact of the China Silk Road Initiative in the region. 

Meanwhile, China’s economic boom has also created a euphoria among Asians, particularly ASEAN, to forge oriental globalisation. The charm of the silk road history and memory gives BRI an advantage in Southeast Asia with the latter’s engagement with China’s New Maritime Silk Road (Abdul Rahman, 2018).

Nevertheless, history and memory are not magic wands. Relations have to develop. Significantly, a small and middle power in Southeast Asia is not merely a testing ground for the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) as though the relations are new. This kind of disagreement also has affected the position of Southeast Asia countries. Even having stable regional institutionalism such as ASEAN, each state member still has a different point of view and ‘gesture’ with China and the US.

China as well as the United States have already had many plans and meetings with ASEAN with little to no effective result achieved. This circumstance has also affected the lengthy issue in the South China Sea between the claimant states, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Things could change when the Biden administration takes a bold step –contrary to Trump’s – to blunt Chinese ambitions. In the meantime, this expectation also creates a deeply worried perspective from ASEAN member states that both superpower behaviour will put the Southeast Asia region in uncertainty.

In conclusion, with two decades behind ASEAN has not made any significant transition in institutionalism. This problem is due to the intense national interest in respective members of ASEAN and continuous disconcerting tension between China-US. This position has allowed China and the US under Biden to construct and lay their ideologies as a ‘custodian for Southeast Asia’, prolonging the current issues.

Therefore, the journey for ASEAN to become as been intended, which is “One Community, One Vision”, is still at a crossroad. However, it could be reflected by embracing historical memories and thriving people-to-people relations within ASEAN to embroidered the trust for a better future.   

Abdul Rahman Embong. (2018). The Charms of China’s New Silk Road: Connecting the Dots in Southeast Asia. In Jan Nederveen-Pieterse, Abdul Rahman Embong & Tham Siew Yean (ed.s.),  Changing Constellations of Southeast Asia: From Northeast Asia to China. Abingdon & NY: Routledge.

Blanchard, J. M. F. (2019). China’s MSRI in Southeast Asia: Dynamism Amidst the Delays, Doubts, and Dilemmas. In Blanchard, J. M. F. (ed.). China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative and Southeast Asia (pp. 1-34). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

Seah, S., Ha, H. T., Martinus, M., & Thao, P. T. P. (2021). The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute: Singapore.

Wang Gungwu. (2019). China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-rooted Past to a New World Order. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Asia Today.


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