On 13 July 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s maritime claims and actions in South China Sea illegal. This marks a significant shift in its foreign policy towards China on the South China Sea situation and further raised tensions between the two large nations.
ASEAN and its strategic position
By 2030, ASEAN will be the 4th largest economy in the world. Both China and the US are strategic dialogue partners of ASEAN.
Geographically, China needs its neighbour to be on its side. With US allies flanking its east (Japan and South Korea) and west/southwest (Europe and India), and another superpower up north, China has high stakes in ensuring its southeast neighbour (ASEAN) is aligned with it.
The US understands this and has adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy to increase its engagement with ASEAN Member States to ensure its presence, although the absence of President Donald Trump in recent ASEAN summits has raised questions on US’s commitment to the region.
ASEAN will be in a complicated position
ASEAN functions based on consensus and adopts a principle of non-interference. Each ASEAN Member State would have its diplomatic relations with the two major powers and different degree of partnerships with them. As both major powers exert their influence in the region and pushing ASEAN Member States to pick sides on issues, the consensus model would be put to a stress test.
Furthermore, with 5G technology entering the ASEAN region, the contest for influence from the US and China may lead to a bifurcation of technologies and operating systems within ASEAN Member States. The need for a more cohesive ASEAN community has never been so pressing. Be it in terms of economics or sociocultural, a more united ASEAN will posit it in a stronger position to stay neutral.
As the saying goes, “United we stand, divided we fall”.