Officials, experts: ASEAN states unlikely to choose sides between US and China

BenarNews staff
Officials, experts: ASEAN states unlikely to choose sides between US and China Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh and Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian bathe in the sea after a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Tea Banh’s Facebook page

No one in Southeast Asia batted an eyelid when Gen. Tea Banh, Cambodia’s defense minister, joined Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian for a dip in the sea earlier this month.

The two were photographed bathing in the Gulf of Thailand after taking part in a ribbon cutting for a naval base, which China is building for Cambodia in Sihanouk province.

U.S. news reports about Phnom Penh being prepared to give Beijing exclusive use of part of the future Ream Naval Base have added to tensions between the United States and China, rival superpowers vying for influence in the region.

As Sino-U.S. frictions become more intense, Phnom Penh seems to have tilted towards its big neighbor, which has been offering cash and assistance to not only Cambodia but other Southeast Asian nations.

“Cambodia and China aren’t good at hiding their relationship,” said Virak Ou, president of Future Forum, a Cambodian think-tank.

“It's obvious that we are choosing sides.”

Yet most Southeast Asian countries so far remain reluctant to pick sides, and analysts say it is crucial that Washington recognize the need to engage the region’s nations in its Indo-Pacific strategy, or risk losing out to Beijing.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore that wrapped up on Sunday, Tea Banh lashed out at what he called “baseless and problematic accusations” against the Cambodian government in relation to the naval base that Phnom Penh is building in Ream, with help from Beijing.

The Ream Naval Base would effectively be China’s first naval facility in mainland Southeast Asia and allow its military to expand patrols across the region.

“Unfortunately, Cambodia is constantly accused of giving an exclusive right to a foreign country to use the base,” the minister said, adding that this is “a complete insult” to his country.

Cambodia, he said, is a state that is “independent, sovereign, and has the full right to decide its destiny.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his speech at the Shangri-La forum on Saturday, stated that “the Indo-Pacific is our center of strategic gravity” and “our priority theater of operations.”

But questions remain on where smaller Southeast Asian nations feature in that grand strategy of the United States.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (fourth from right) attend a ministerial roundtable luncheon at the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting in Singapore, June 11, 2022. [AFP]

Lopsided cooperation

The region, Indonesian Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto said in his remarks here, “has been for many centuries the crossroad of imperialism, big power domination and exploitation.”

“We understand the rivalry between the established world power and the rising world power,” he said, referring to the United States and China.

Southeast Asian countries are “the most affected by big powers’ competition,” Prabowo, who joined the military in the thick of the Vietnam War and retired with the rank of Lieutenant General, told the audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday.

Despite divisions and differences between member countries, “we’ve come to our own ASEAN way of resolving challenges,” he said.

It may seem that “we’re sitting on the fence,” Prabowo said, but this apparent inaction reflects an effort of preserving neutrality by ASEAN countries.

“Indonesia opted to be not engaged in any military alliance,” the minister said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) stands with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang during a bilateral meeting ahead of the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore, June 10, 2022. [AFP]

The same stance has been adopted by another ASEAN player – Vietnam– whose White Paper on defense policy stated “three nos” including no military alliances, no basing of foreign troops in the country and no explicit alliances with one country against another.

Yet it’s unlikely that Hanoi will embrace the U.S. to counter Beijing, even though Vietnam often is viewed as anti-China because of its experience with Chinese aggression on many occasions in its history.

“It’s better to nurture a relationship with a close neighbor rather than relying on a distant sibling,” Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang explained, quoting a Vietnamese proverb.

Two of ten ASEAN nations – the Philippines and Thailand – are treaty allies with the U.S. But even in Manila and Bangkok, there have been signs of expanded cooperation with China.

“Southeast Asia and China are neighbors thanks to the geography, and their cooperation is natural,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Koh suggested that in order to maintain the foothold in the region, “the U.S. needs to embrace and appreciate local cultures and not try to force regime changes.”

“The cooperation between the U.S. and the region has been too one-dimensional and lopsided, too security focused, and needs to expand,” he said.

Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, attends the opening reception at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore, June 10, 2022. [AFP]

Limited leverage

“Southeast Asia is a difficult region for the U.S. to grasp,” said Blake Herzinger, a Singapore-based defense policy specialist.

“The region needs to foster ties with China and Washington needs to accept and work with that,” Herzinger said, adding it’s time to recognize that “U.S. leverage is limited in a competitive region where the opposite number is China.”

According to Southeast Asia analyst Koh, “it’s not too late for the U.S. to adjust its policy towards Southeast Asia.”

“There are still demands for an American presence here and a reservoir of goodwill that the U.S. has built over the past,” Koh said.

But, he warned, “this may risk running dry if Washington doesn’t truly recognize the importance of engagement in the region.”

The U.S. and allies should also bear in mind regional geopolitical calculations, he said.

“Southeast Asian countries don’t want to pick sides but they find themselves being sucked into the super power competition and being pragmatic as they are, some of them are making efforts to try to benefit from it,” Koh said.

“I think the Biden administration has done a good job in relation to Southeast Asia in the last six months. Before, not so good because they had a lot on their plate,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In her opinion, “to try benefitting from U.S.-China competition is short-sighted.”

“Countries in the region should consider a long-term strategy to hold up a rules-based world order where smaller countries also have rights to speak as they don’t want China to dictate to them what to do,” Glaser said.

On the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue Austin, the American defense chief, met with Southeast Asian counterparts on June 10 to discuss ways to deepen cooperation, especially in maritime security. 

In May, President Joe Biden hosted the first U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit and the U.S. has lately announced a new initiative to permanently deploy a Coast Guard cutter in the region.

This is a “good sign that they’re listening and trying to adjust,” China expert Glaser said.


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