ASEAN Seeks Cautious Balance between the United States and China in Times of Growing Tension

By Mai Phan

On October 22, 2018, ASEAN and China carried out their first joint maritime exercise in Zhanjiang, in China’s southern Guangdong province [1]. Unsurprisingly, the live-force drill on search and rescue operations upset another great power, the United States, even though the country had been notified about the event in advance [2]. During the meeting with ASEAN defense ministers in Singapore on Oct 19, 2018, the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis addressed his country’s interest in the ASEAN states. The meeting’s major accomplishment was to start a joint exercise between ASEAN and the United States in 2019. As trade tensions between the great powers grow in the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN has intentionally maintained a neutral and balanced attitude.

From a historical perspective, the United States was among one of the first countries to appoint an Ambassador to ASEAN in 2008. According to US Mission to ASEAN, the bilateral relationship focuses on advancing economic integrating, cultivating young ASEAN leaders, promoting women rights, and addressing transnational problems [2]. Apart from those, the U.S. partnership with ASEAN also aims to expand maritime cooperation. The U.S. has seen ASEAN as an essential partner for jobs and opportunity, especially politically strategic partner in Southeast Asia.

The planned US-ASEAN naval exercise in 2019 reflects political and strategical implications from both ASEAN and the United States [3]. First, the planned exercise reflects the Unites States’ stronger engagement and interest in the region. Washington views the force drill as the beginning of a long-term goal to promote integration and deepen relations with ASEAN states beyond the sphere of economic and socio-cultural cooperation. More important perhaps, Washington’s move reflects a stronger attempt to reduce Beijing’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. This is particularly significant given the geographic location of the ASEAN states around the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most strategic maritime chokepoints where more than 30% of global crude oil volumes pass through.[3] Therefore, the region not only plays a significant role in global economic development but also has a strong position in political means. To both China and the United States, Southeast Asia is an indispensable component of their regional and global grand strategies.

On the other hand, ASEAN’s neutrality on the issue also sends an important message about the multilateral regional organization’s own strategic priorities. In relations to the maritime exercises, ASEAN states have so far refused to side with either China or the United States due to their paramount importance in the region’s economic growth, with the former and latter serving as as ASEAN’s first and third largest trading partner respectively.[4] In addition, ASEAN states have also maintained their claims of  sovereignty in the South China Sea without completely relying on either powerhouse. In other words, ASEAN realizes the strategic location of its geographic region and will not benefit from any nation to dominate the region. Instead, ASEAN has chosen cooperation as its best solution and actively avoids going against any of its major partners.

In conclusion, ASEAN is one of the key pieces in the chessboard of US-China Asia-Pacific geopolitical strategy in the twenty-first century. The region’s geostrategical location in the South China Sea and rapidly growing markets have made both the United States and China recognize the economic and political importance of ASEAN. Yet, ASEAN has chosen to a neutral attitude towards both nations by participating in separated joint maritime exercises. In times of increasing regional competition, nonalignment, perhaps, is the best strategy for ASEAN to maintain regional stability and mutual economic development that will allow it to continue flourishing in its own backyard.

Mai Phan is a junior at Lebanon Valley College where she studies Global Studies and Politics.

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