ASEAN at 50 Commentary

ASEAN-China Ties: Ticking Time Bomb or ‘Asian’ World Order?

NINGBO, China – It is disturbingly obvious that the ASEAN states do not – and will not – possess the same enormous politico-economic clout that China has to be able to accommodate the West while at the same time strive to reshape a world order dominated by Western hegemony. Hence, the 10-member Association is likely to continue being a receiver of rules of the game that are delineated by the great powers around it, such as China and the United States.

As spelt out in the ASEAN Declaration of 1967, the Association does not aspire to establish itself as a hegemonic power. The only desire of the Association and its member states is to achieve a region of peace, freedom and prosperity, whilst safeguarding their de facto independence – the right to manage their sovereign affairs with minimal interference from external powers.

The traditional ASEAN linking of arms during the 30th ASEAN summit, April 2017

But however much ASEAN states assert their national sovereignty, the current geopolitical and economic environment forces them to seek Chinese aid and funds to develop their economies as well as the infrastructure connectivity projects in Southeast Asia. For instance, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) initiative is in a near-moribund state due to the lack of funding within ASEAN – at a time when progress in China-led infrastructure projects (railroads, port facilities, high-speed trains, etc.) seems unstoppable.

In all likelihood, the Chinese Dragon would use its economic leverage in ASEAN to push its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea – assuming that China’s historical claims in those waters are not impenetrable. Without a continuous flow of economic benefits to Southeast Asia, ASEAN states might be drawn increasingly to the West’s sphere of influence. They are also likely to see Chinese activities in the South China Sea as an act of expansionism.

Chinese expansionism

Whilst economic aid from and cooperation with China do provide quite tangible benefits to ASEAN states, the possibility that these same ties can stir up furious nationalistic sentiments amongst their peoples should not be underestimated. If China is a civilizational state that has suffered a “century of humiliation” from the imperial powers, it should understand that ASEAN states, too, could suffer similar “humiliation” from China. In fact, by reviving its historical claims in the region, China is telling the ASEAN states that it sees them as “tributaries” – akin to those during the Imperial China era – that must kowtow to its supremacy.

As it is, this exposes discrepancies within most Chinese discourses that repeatedly stress Beijing’s commitment to the principle of equality in international relations: If China sees itself as the indisputable ruler of tianxia (all under heaven), how might it welcome others to become its equal?

Although most of the ASEAN states may not share Vietnam’s historical animosity toward China, it should not be forgotten that most Southeast Asian nations are newly founded sovereign nations keen on preserving their de facto independence. This means that ASEAN’s member states are ever-ready to unite if their survival and de facto independence are at stake.

In fact, the potential of ASEAN unity vis-à-vis China was foretold by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew in a 1967 interview. He conjectured the ASEAN states would inevitably “gel together to meet an incoming aggressor” as soon as China’s actions towards the region are perceived as an act of “naked aggression”.

ASEAN-China summit, Laos 2016

The possibility of Chinese expansionism was also raised by China’s ex-Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping in a 1974 address to the United Nations, where he warned: “If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.

Those who view ASEAN’s clout solely through the parameter of its member states’ combined military power miscalculate the weight of ASEAN’s soft power – its 10 members’ single but neutral voice in international relations. Should the tipping point be reached and the 10 ASEAN states come together in joint condemnation of Chinese expansionism, that may be high time for the world to unite against Chinese expansionism as well.

China should be wary about its presence being seen as a time bomb in Southeast Asia and guard it with care and wisdom, so that it may never be viewed as an aggressor by ASEAN states. It should be mindful that the Association has what is arguably the most neutral voice in international relations – perhaps even more so than the United Nations since the UN Security Council’s decision-making is dominated by its five permanent members. The world should understand that given Southeast Asia’s geographical proximity to China, plus the region’s hitherto vulnerability to external subjugation, ASEAN states’ survival and prosperity would more likely be preserved with Chinese, rather than Western, safeguarding of Southeast Asia as a zone of peace that deserves to be free from external interference.

Ironically, ASEAN – China’s closest yet most vulnerable neighbor – may be the world’s most powerful port of call for legitimizing any action against the Chinese Dragon’s possible expansionism.

New world order shaped by Asian norms?

Yet while China might need ASEAN’s neutral voice to convince the world that it is a benign power, it is only through the engagement of China that ASEAN’s centrality in international relations can be sustained.

For one, it is unlikely for the West, given the persistence of parochialism in Western thinking, to have engaged with China in multilateral frameworks had it not been for the sponsorship by ASEAN of multilateral venues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asian Summit (EAS). It is only through China’s challenging of Western hegemony that the ASEAN states may safeguard their de facto independence vis-à-vis the preponderance of Western liberal norms. ASEAN could not have resisted pressure from the West for institutional reforms on their part without China’s support for the ‘ASEAN Way’ – which stresses decision-making by consensus. This is because it reaffirms the ASEAN states’ commitment to the norm of non-interference in sovereign matters.

These shared norms and attitudes towards international relations between China and ASEAN might hold potential for carving out an alternative world order in the Asia-Pacific, one that is based on dialogue, negotiations and respect for national sovereignty that includes the use of non legally-binding approaches. This is in sharp contrast to the ‘EU Way’ of supranationalism, which diminishes the EU member states’ sovereignty in furtherance of the interests of ‘Eurocrats’ (those conceived in the political union of Europe) through legally binding rules and treaties.

Thus, it becomes understandable why China repeatedly stresses that ASEAN and China share a “community of common destiny”, as it probably sees its rise as being inseparable from ASEAN’s perception of, and attitudes towards it. After all, ASEAN is arguably the only Association in China’s periphery that maintains a neutral attitude towards its rise, given the persistence of Western-manufactured hostilities in the Chinese periphery. Similarly, ASEAN’s well-being cannot be isolated from China’s guaranteeing of Southeast Asia as a zone of peace and neutrality (the 1971 ZOPFAN concept) and its support for the ‘ASEAN Way’, as China will always be ASEAN’s largest and closest neighbour.

ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting. Aug. 2017

As the Chinese saying goes, “If two tigers fight, one must be injured.” If China represents a ‘hard tiger’ and ASEAN a ‘soft tiger’, it is more than likely that when the two fight, both will get injured, only to the delight of the Euro-American hunter. If ASEAN and China fail to discover among themselves a formula for the preservation of peace, cooperation and prosperity in East Asia, it might truly mean the “end of history” (predicated by Francis Fukuyama in 1992) as liberal democracy would have triumphed over Asia’s formula, which is based on norms such as non-intervention and mutual non-aggression, among others.

A case in point is the much-discussed framework for the ASEAN-pushed Code of Conduct governing claimants in the South China. The ongoing negotiations around this, in fact, signify joint cooperation between China and ASEAN states in carving out a unique “Asian” model of international relations; that is, one which respects states’ sovereignty and emphasizes dialogue and negotiations in the resolution of inter-state disputes. China and the ASEAN states should see the hidden value of the COC framework as that any progress on this matter would signal progress in the making of a uniquely ‘Asian’ world order. Such a world order will be founded on the principle of unity-in-diversity, cultivating the harmonious coexistence of Asia’s diverse cultures, religions, nations and peoples.

With the rise of the East, the world might be witnessing the diminishing influence of the West’s balance-of-power (Hegelian dialectical) approach in international relations. What comes thereafter might be a world order ‘pacified’ by a yin-yang dialectical framework (as I suggested in a previous article) that stresses dialogue, negotiations and non-confrontation.

Might the peoples and leaders of Asia and the world, current and future, prove that states and civilizations, despite their vast diversity and differences, can co-exist or even flourish together? Could we rejoice in a 21st century distinguished by peace and joint prosperity?

(*Bo Yuan Chang, a Malaysian Master of Arts student in International Relations and International Business at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China, contributed this to the Reporting ASEAN series. Some quotations and phrases are taken from his dissertation completed as part of his mandatory MA coursework.)