ASEAN states unlikely to choose sides between US and China, officials and experts say — Radio Free Asia
When Cambodian Minister of National Defense General Tea Banh was seen enjoying a leisurely swim in the Gulf of Thailand with Chinese Ambassador Wang Wentian after an inauguration ceremony for a Cambodian naval base being construction with the help of China earlier this month, no one in the region batted an eyelid.
As US-China friction escalates, Phnom Penh appears to have bowed to its larger neighbor, which has offered cash and aid not just to Cambodia but to other South Asian countries -East.
“Cambodia and China don’t know how to hide their relationship,” said Virak Ou, president of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank.
“Obviously we choose sides,” he said.
Yet most countries in the region so far remain reluctant to choose sides, and analysts say it is crucial that Washington realizes the need to engage Southeast Asian countries in its Indo strategy. -peaceful, or risk losing to Beijing.
Right to decide one’s destiny
At the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum in Singapore, Tea Banh denounced what he called “baseless and problematic accusations” against the Cambodian government over a naval base that Phnom Penh is developing in Ream, in the province. of Sihanouk, with the help of Beijing. .
The Ream naval base caused a lot of controversy after US media reported that Hun Sen’s government was ready to give China exclusive use of part of the base.
It would be China’s first naval facility in mainland Southeast Asia and would allow the Chinese military to expand patrols in 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 it is “a complete insult” to his country.
Cambodia, he said, is an “independent, sovereign state that has the full right to decide its destiny”.
As usual, the Cambodian defense chief refrained from naming the countries involved, but it is clear that the United States and China are vying for influence over the group of ten Southeast Asian nations. East.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, in his remarks at the Shangri-La Forum, said “the Indo-Pacific is our strategic center of gravity” and “our priority theater of operations”.
But questions remain about the place of small Southeast Asian nations in this grand strategy of the United States.
The region, noted Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, “has been for many centuries the crossroads of imperialism, domination and great power exploitation.”
“We understand the rivalry between established global power and rising global power,” he said, implying the United States and China.
Prabowo, who joined the military at the height of the Vietnam War and retired at the rank of lieutenant general, told the Shangri-La Dialogue audience that Southeast Asian countries are “the most affected by competition from the great powers”.
Despite divisions and differences among member countries, “we have come to our own way of solving ASEAN’s problems,” he said.
It may seem like “we’re sitting on the fence,” Prabowo said, but this apparent inaction reflects an effort to preserve neutrality by ASEAN countries.
“Indonesia has chosen not to engage in any military alliance,” the minister said.
The same position has been taken by another ASEAN player – Vietnam – whose Defense Policy White Paper spells out “three noes” including no military alliance, no foreign troop bases in the country and no explicit alliance with one country against another.
Yet Hanoi, often seen as anti-Chinese because Vietnam has seen Chinese aggression many times in history, is unlikely to embrace the United States to counter Beijing.
“It is better to have a relationship with a close neighbor than to rely on a distant brother,” said Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang, citing a Vietnamese proverb.
Two of the ten ASEAN countries – the Philippines and Thailand – are allies of the United States. But even in Manila and Bangkok, there have been signs of expanded cooperation with China.
“Southeast Asia and China are neighbors through geography, and their cooperation is natural,” said Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Koh suggested that to maintain its presence in the region, “the United States must embrace and appreciate local cultures and not try to force regime changes.”
“Cooperation between the United States and the region has been too one-dimensional and unbalanced, too security-focused, and needs to expand,” he said.
“Southeast Asia is a difficult region for the United States to grasp,” said Singapore-based defense policy specialist Blake Herzinger.
“The region needs to foster ties with China and Washington needs to accept and work with that,” Herzinger said, adding that it’s time to recognize that “American influence is limited in a competitive region where the opposite is China”.
According to Southeast Asia analyst Koh, “it is not too late for the United States to adjust its policy toward Southeast Asia.”
“There are still demands for an American presence here and a reservoir of goodwill that the United States has built over the past,” Koh said, but warned that “it risks drying up if Washington doesn’t recognize really the importance of commitment in the Region.”
The United States and its allies should also keep regional geopolitical calculations in mind, he said.
“Southeast Asian countries don’t want to pick sides, but they get sucked into the superpower competition and being pragmatic as they are, some of them are making efforts to try to take advantage of it. “Koh said.
“I think the Biden administration has done a good job when it comes to Southeast Asia over the past six months. Before, not so good because they had a lot to do,” said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“Trying to take advantage of US-China competition is short-sighted,” she said.
“Countries in the region should consider a long-term strategy to maintain a rules-based global order where smaller countries also have a voice because they don’t want China telling them what to do,” he said. Glaser.
On the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with defense ministers from Southeast Asia on June 10 to discuss ways to deepen cooperation, including on maritime security. .
In May, President Joe Biden hosted the first special US-ASEAN summit and the United States has just announced a new initiative to permanently deploy a coast guard to the region.
It’s “a good sign that they are listening and trying to adapt,” said Chinese expert Glaser.