ASEAN’s relations with India, US and Japan under the shadow of Chinese belligerence: future prospects and challenges
The drivers for the US interest in this region are both strategic and economic though of late the former has become more important. US recognises ‘South East Asia as one of the fastest growing and most dynamic regions of the world’. Its mission is ‘to advance U.S. interests in a peaceful, prosperous, and integrated Southeast Asia that respects the rule of law, upholds the dignity of its people and actively addresses regional and global concerns’. The US emphasises economic development, energy cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, youth, and education in its relations with ASEAN. The US partnership with ASEAN focuses on five areas including economic integration, maritime cooperation, emerging leaders, opportunity for women, and transnational challenges.
Since 2009, the US relations with ASEAN deepened significantly. The United States signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2009, joined the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011, and began to hold annual ASEAN-US Summits in 2012. In 2015, the US-ASEAN relationship was raised to the strategic partnership, and in 2016 the first leader-level US-ASEAN Summit in the United States. Obama had remarked that ASEAN was central to the region’s peace and prosperity, and to US goal of building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules.
Notwithstanding the above, the relationship observed the lack of attention of US, which was focused on West Asia and Russia. US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was seen as changing the coherent policy approach developed under Obama. This was followed by Trump’s skipping the ASEAN-US meetings in 2018 and 2019. These resulted in generating a perception that US was not according the desired level of attention. The 2020 State of Southeast Asia Survey Report indicated that the regional confidence in the United States was low. The majority barring Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore, indicated that if asked to choose between China and US they would prefer the former.
However, Trump soon realised the need for paying attention to this region particularly in view of the Chinese bullying activities and came up with the Indo-Pacific Strategy. In 2019 the relations between US and ASEAN began to strengthen. ASEAN had enhanced multilateral and bilateral security cooperation with US. U.S.-ASEAN military exercises grew more multilateral. In August, 2019 the U.S. launched Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training, or SEACAT, exercises, bringing together all ASEAN countries except Myanmar and Laos. And between Sept. 2 and 6, it carried out the first U.S.-ASEAN joint military exercises to practice naval operations. The US has increased its military sales to ASEAN countries. There has been greater appreciation in the US of the significance of ASEAN for economic and strategic interests. There are common interests in the Indo-Pacific region. US had welcomed the issuance of ASEAN Outlook for Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
The US–Southeast Asia trade relations are critical for both sides. America’s economic future lies in the Indo-Pacific, with Southeast Asia being one of the largest and fastest-growing markets in the world, offering tremendous opportunities for American companies in the coming decades. The ASEAN countries are already the fourth-largest export market for the US after Canada, Mexico and China. By 2050, their collective middle class will comprise 350 million people, with approximately US$300 billion in disposable income. The salience of South China Sea (SCS) for trade is recognised by US.
The aggressive stance of China in the pandemic period against India and in the SCS has resulted in the US adopting a tough approach announced the end of its of appeasement towards China. Crucially, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the 13th July stated that the Chinese government has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region and rejected the Chinese claims of the nine-dashed line in SCS, terming them as “completely unlawful”. Significantly US announced for the first time that Washington was aligning its position on the Chinese claims in the SCS with the PCA Ruling of 2016. US also deployed two aircraft carriers in the SCS.
In essence, the US changed approach has the four significant dimensions. First, the US has now taken a position on the maritime disputes on water and seabed rights, which is important for the littoral countries. Second, the US has firmly endorsed the PCA Ruling of 2016. This nullifies the Chinese nine-dashed-line. Third, features like Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank, which are naturally underwater are not subject to any claim of sovereignty. The US would include other such features like Lucania, James Shoal off Malaysia and Vanguard Bank off Vietnam Coast. Fourth, this time US clearly termed the Chinese activities as “illegal”. Earlier US was using terms like “destabilising” or “aggressive”.
The moot question is how this changed approach would impact US-ASEAN relationship. Now US is closely aligned with the ASEAN’s approach. At international forums, the US support would be available openly. At the UN, where some claimants have approached for the implementation of PCA Ruing, the US is likely to provide full support. The finalisation of CoC would also be given greater priority. US would support the alternative for BRI. The supply line not dependent on China would be preferred. US could also provide help in relocating companies from China to ASEAN as would be easier. US would also be helping the nations to build their capabilities for defence.
US has close relations with Vietnam the current chair for ASEAN and this factor would be helpful in obtaining assistance from US. Immediately, the US support to press for the finalisation of legally binding CoC and implementation of PCA Ruling would be invaluable. The US is interested in imposing economic cost on China for bullying tactics and ASEAN would be provided with the necessary assistance, as indicated by Pompeo on the 10 th September in a meeting with ASEAN. In the Indo-Pacific Strategy, US wants that the centrality of ASEAN may be maintained. US dependence for imports on China would be shifted to this region, though ASEAN would have to make serious efforts.
However, there would be challenges to be faced. First, Chinese attempts to cause divisions in the ASEAN would continue. China could impose cost on those countries which would be seen supportive of US as China considers that the US is behind all its problems. Second, US for capacity building would have to make bilateral agreements and this would depend on the members of ASEAN. Not all nations could be willing for closer relations with US for fear of annoying China. Third, US may also have preference for relocation of companies from China to a few ASEAN countries doing well economically and this may cause some bitterness among others. Fourth, after the US Presidential elections, there may be a change in the US approach towards the SCS dispute, though the freedom of navigation is likely to remain its priority, given its strategic and economic interests.
These are challenges which Vietnam would have to deal with as the Chairman of ASEAN. Given the ability for unifying ASEAN and experience in dealing with different US parties, it is expected that ASEAN under Vietnam would be able to overcome such obstacles.