Asean juggles triangular power game
text size

Asean juggles triangular power game

A rising China, a trusted Japan, and a declining America are three cogs dictating the global geopolitical landscape in Southeast Asia in the months, if not years, to come. Amidst intensifying geopolitics, Asean is in a position where this could either be a blessing or a curse.

These three factors will determine the 57-year-old bloc's diplomacy. It still has the ability to help mitigate -- or exacerbate -- tensions between the trio.

First of all, side-taking is not a favourable strategy. Any member of Asean perceived as tilting towards one direction could rock the Asean modus operandi.

While each country in Southeast Asia has its own diplomacy, this should not undermine Asean's main stance.

For the immediate future, three scenarios can be discerned for Asean.

The most ideal situation is balanced ties among the three powers -- the US, China, and Japan. Fortunately, two are located in Asia. When Beijing and Tokyo work together, their efforts can ease anxiety and tension among the broader international community, both East and West.

But when this balance is disrupted, all possible scenarios can rear their ugly heads.

So far, Asean has been able to navigate delicate relations by using Asean-led mechanisms, ie dialogue and cooperative frameworks.

Since 2005, the leaders of the three powers have met at the East Asia Summit (EAS), which Asean has chaired. This platform has been a space for leaders to exchange views.

However, the other non-Asean EAS members are shaping the agenda through the Asean envoys based in Jakarta. This will impact the EAS discussion on regional issues.

It must be said that Washington, regardless of its declining influence in the Southeast Asian region, has now framed the EAS as a broader strategic Indo-Pacific area and is using it to counter China and its growing influence.

That may explain why Japan, as the most trusted regional partner of Asean, has now come to the fore. Since 2017, Japan has been constantly beefing up strategic relations with Asean, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, who share some menacing strategic challenges concerning Beijing.

To prove that Tokyo is serious, its new Official Security Assistance Program has already two recipients from Asean, the Philippines and Malaysia.

For Washington, burden-sharing and using allies as bridges to execute broad strategies are not new. Under the late Abe and current Kishida administrations, Japan has linked the US with key Asean members in both economic and strategic matters.

A glaring example is Japan's role in reviving the defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that former US President Donald Trump withdrew America from in 2017. To maintain TPP's gist, Japan launched an alternative called the Comprehensive and Progressive Tran Pacific Partnership (CPTPP ).

Another example is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which was launched in Tokyo two years ago. It was based on Japan's recommendations to reach out to larger Asean economies after the US pulled out of the TPP. In response, Asean strongly supported Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework.

Japan has been able to take this role mainly due to the high level of trust among the Asean members. According to the latest survey on the State of Southeast Asia by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Japan has remained the most trusted partner of Asean since the survey was initiated 15 years ago.

Today, Japan continues to have consistent and close consultations with Asean as equal partners. Last December, Japan and Asean adopted a strategic plan and joint vision -- testaments that marked the 50th anniversary of Japan-Asean ties.

As long as Japan continues to deepen cooperation and ties with Asean, its relations with China have the potential to improve. This is partly due to the nature of Asean's engagement with the 'Plus Three' countries, which include China and South Korea.

One caveat is in place: Japan has to maintain its longstanding independent policy when it engages with Asean. The bloc does not want to see Japan acting on behalf of the US.

Asean fully supports Japan's vision and action plans, including its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), as they are not construed as being born of US strategies to contain China.

But the trilateral summit this week hosted by US President Joe Biden, which will include the leaders of two Asian allies -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Junior -- could be a new red line for Asean-Japan relations. A mini-multilateral arrangement with a strong US-Japan strategic thrust, including an Asean member, could polarise the bloc.

The ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey also showed the rise of China's influence in the region. The study, which was released last week, showed 50.5% of Asean members' willingness to align with China if it had to choose sides, against 38.9% last year. For the US, the percentage is 49.5%, down from 61.1% a year earlier.

Nevertheless, the level of mistrust in China stood at 50.1%, owing to concerns that China could use its economic and political powers to threaten their countries' sovereignty and interests. Granted China's dominant economic and security role in the region, the love/fear dichotomy would be an important issue for Beijing to contemplate and manage.

To improve the current situation, better communications and messaging of China's actions and policies in the age of digitalisation and social media's echo chambers are necessary.

Japan, China and South Korea are now working together to hold the next trilateral summit in May, if possible. The summit will allow the three Asian economic powerhouses to fine-tune differences and force collaboration and dialogue. This will help reduce tension and increase security in the region.

Finally, the most unpredictable factor is the November US presidential election. It remains to be seen how both China and Japan will respond to a new president in the White House and broader strategies. Some recognised patterns or nuances of diplomatic overtures are expected to necessitate level-headed adjustments in their cooperation.

However, for the time being, if both can improve ties and cooperation, especially on programmes and activities that involve increasing the Asean community's integration, green economic development and bridging digital divides, that will be a boon for the region.

Otherwise, it could have negative impacts on their economies and existing supply chains.

Asean will continue to respond to the new geopolitical landscape, especially the shifting ties between the US and the two Asian powers. Other tiers of powers that Asean has to tackle on the list include the EU, India, South Korea, Australia, and Russia.

The bloc foresees and expects tougher times and unpredictable circumstances ahead. As a group or as an individual member, Asean knows how to walk the tightrope to keep great powers engaged.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

Do you like the content of this article?