SEA eyes next 20 years of US-China ties
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SEA eyes next 20 years of US-China ties

What will Southeast Asia be like over the next two decades? Given the unpredictable geopolitical situation, the region will certainly maintain its strategic autonomy in ways that mitigate the ripple effects of the emerging new international order. The multipolar world will be a new ballgame that Southeast Asia has to grapple with. Interestingly, the region's countries also realise that the competition between the US and China is not likely to subside given the tit-for-tat measures they have been conducting with each other. Under such circumstances, what role or leadership can Southeast Asia provide under the Asean roof to ensure that the region will not be marginalised or weaponised? To be precise, how can Asean avoid becoming a pawn in the US-China whirlpool?

Truth be told, Asean does not have a common strategic plan or playbook to respond to the most consequential US-China tit-for-tats. Since its inception in 1967, the bloc has been able to weather geopolitical pressure. During the the Cold War, the nascent Asean at that time could withstand the geopolitical maelstrom without compromising the bloc's or individual members' interests.

However, in recent years, the geopolitical landscape has completely turned upside down as the US and China have intensified their rivalry and their bilateral relationship has spiralled downwards. Now, Washington and Beijing are wooing friends and allies from around the world to back up their respective strategies.

To understand Asean's response to the looming rivalry, it is essential to examine the soon-to-be-unveiled Asean Vision 2045. The draft will undergo final vetting by Asean leaders next year under the Malaysian chair.

So far, the draft reflects how 20 members of the committee tasked to draft foresee the geopolitical situation and understand the far-reaching repercussions emanating from the persistent US-China competition. As such, the trajectory of the 2045 vision on the security pillar will be more focused on external relations than ever before. The current Asean vision (2015-2025) emphasises integrating and consolidating the Asean community under the political/security, economic, social/cultural pillars and its well-being.

For the next 20 years, Asean must adopt a tangible pathway -- both within the region and at the international level, to fortify its centrality ethos. The launch of its Outlook on Indo-Pacific in 2019 demonstrated that Asean wish and attempt to play a central role in shaping regional architecture. Yet, Asean must be bolder in taking stands on pivotal issues impacting human and global security, not to mention the four priorities under the AOIP guidelines.

The bloc will continue to follow its traditional pathway of non-interference, consensus-based decision making and neutrality. Obviously, due to the nature of geopolitical trends in the future, Asean's decision-making process must be speedier in responding to the crisis at hand. In the coming years, Asean's visibility will zero in on issues that are impactful beyond the purview of the US-China conflict, leveraging the bloc's diversity and national interests.

Currently, Asean's code of conduct, known as the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), could be a useful framework without power politics. The TAC is a peace treaty among Southeast Asian countries established by its 10 members in the 1970s. As the number of signatories has increased annually and has now reached 51 countries -- about a quarter of the UN members -- the TAC should be further promoted. Its main objectives are for peace-loving countries to promote peace and prosperity. Other useful Asean tools include the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty as well as the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.

To be relevant, Asean must put a premium on international rule of law, speaking with one voice on global issues to augment the bloc's international profile and centrality. Its nimbleness and agility must not be found wanting. Asean can display its centrality and global influence during the year-end Asean-related summits. Nearly all the great powers that shape the world's peace and stability descend on the Asean rotational chair's capital. However, with the current growing tension in US-China ties, Asean cannot sit idly by; it must find ways, using the Asean-initiated platforms, for the two superpowers to reconnect and reconcile with one another.

At present, Asean has used Asean-led mechanisms such as the Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and the Asean Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus to express Asean's frameworks and ethos. However, these platforms are still insufficient to make the US and China forge the regional bloc to engage and deepen cooperation to promote peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Asean, which has prided itself on its convening and convincing powers, should now be in a favourable position to initiate US-China dialogue under the auspices of Asean.

Additional Asean platforms can help. For example, the so-called Asean Plus Two Forum, which was first brought up at the Asean-China Dialogue in June 2021 by Thailand, could start small without fixing agendas at the working level. As mutual confidence and trust increases, specific topics with senior-level participants could further engage with Asean as a neutral observer.

At the end of January, the US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, made a surprise visit to Bangkok and met with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss their bilateral issues and cross-border challenges. The meeting helped to highlight the role an Asean member can play in providing a non-hostile venue and promoting understanding between the two superpowers.

Thailand, given its central geographical location and diplomatic profile, has served as a good host. In a broader sense, the Asean region can act as a fulcrum for the two superpowers to engage in new dialogue to reduce tension and increase cooperation. The year-end Asean summits offer unique opportunities for the two powers to do so.

In the next 20 years, in more ways than one, the future of Asean stability and prosperity will still depend on the state of US-China relations. The bloc must do everything it can to promote dialogue and cooperation between them. Asean has the platform and the trust of both superpowers. The bloc must get the ball rolling now.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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