The U.S. Navy participated in joint exercises with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last week, following months of tensions in the region.
There’s much at stake in South China Sea, including an ongoing standoff between Vietnam and China. In recent weeks, Chinese coast guard vessels have patrolled within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, less than 200 nautical miles off its east coast, while a large Chinese crane vessel reportedly came as close as 56 nautical miles to Vietnam’s coastline last week. In response, Hanoi dispatched at least two naval vessels to deter the Chinese ships. The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry called on Beijing to “immediately” withdraw its vessels from Vietnamese waters.
With the Chinese presence in the South China Sea on the rise, the Trump administration has pushed Australia and other Pacific nations to take a firmer stance against Beijing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored Canberra’s geopolitical choice between Washington and Beijing on a recent trip to Australia. Some analysts may be eager to interpret the joint maritime exercise as a signal that ASEAN states are beginning to rally and push back against Beijing.
But these latest developments don’t mean ASEAN is tilting toward Washington’s corner amid the U.S.-China rivalry — or that countries in the region are ready to adopt more antagonistic strategies against Beijing.
There are several reasons to take a more cautious interpretation of ASEAN diplomacy.
1. ASEAN nations also held joint exercises with China. The United States and ASEAN agreed to hold these maritime exercises last October, during the ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting in Singapore. But Washington is not the only dance partner for ASEAN. Beijing first held similar maritime exercises with ASEAN in October 2018 off the coast of southern China.
2. ASEAN nations may be hedging their bets. Some analysts see Vietnam as the most forward-leaning Southeast Asian state, given its willingness to stand up to China in the South China Sea. But Vietnam has stuck to a strategy of hedging between the great powers by broadening ties with external partners, in case the relationship with China goes south. Regional countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are doing the same.
Hanoi persists in hedging despite overt Chinese threats to Vietnam’s national security and territorial sovereignty. This is probably due to a variety of factors: Beijing’s assistance during the war with the United States, ideological affinities between communist governments, geographical necessity and historical distrust of U.S. intentions. And certain factions in Vietnam’s Communist Party continue to believe stable ties with China, its largest trading partner, are necessary to regime survival.
3. Vietnam faced a similar standoff with Beijing in 2014. China’s National Petroleum Corp. moved an oil rig into waters off the Paracel Islands, which both Hanoi and Beijing claim. The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the Chinese actions, calling for the removal of the oil rig, and violent anti-China protests took place across the country.
Despite the increased tension with Beijing, Vietnam’s political leaders have been careful to stress the importance of international law and multilateral dispute resolution mechanisms, rather than confronting China directly over its claims or calling on outside nations to do so. Hanoi may believe that it lacks the military clout to stand up to Beijing and defend itself in a conflict.
4. The Philippines may be charting an independent course. U.S. policymakers remain concerned that the Philippines, under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, has tilted toward Beijing. But the Duterte administration has begun to strike a more forceful tone, warning of escalating tensions triggered by Chinese territorial claims in Philippine waters in the South China Sea.
This has led some analysts critical of Duterte’s foreign policy to be hopeful that Manila may once again take a tougher line against Beijing. Manila has preserved the bulk of its preexisting defense cooperation with Washington, even as Duterte has deepened bilateral ties with Beijing. Rather than swing like a pendulum from one end to the other, Duterte has displayed a single-minded focus on charting an independent foreign policy and proving Manila’s ability to hedge. His game plan may be to play the two superpowers against each other to extract the maximum security and economic benefits.
5. ASEAN won’t choose sides. ASEAN as a regional group has steadfastly refused to indicate its member countries will lean in one direction or the other. The consensus-oriented operating style means that the U.S. policymaking community often sees ASEAN as an underachiever in regional security.
Some analysts, though, argue that the strong preference for neutrality has been the key to preserving strategic autonomy — a fundamental ASEAN goal for decades. ASEAN leaders have long prioritized “ASEAN centrality” in great power relations. That is, they want to ensure ASEAN has a gatekeeping role in managing external relations. Involving both the United States and China in the regional institution helps to ensure ASEAN remains “in the driver’s seat.” Within ASEAN, however, some members have shown clearer signs of aligning with Beijing. For example, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly has permitted the construction of a Chinese base in southern Cambodia. And Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, has frustrated policymakers in Washington by deepening Sino-Thai defense cooperation, and buying military equipment from China. Yet for all the diversity of positions taken by ASEAN states, the net result remains ambiguous.
The Trump administration tends to see U.S.-China relations through the lens of deepening great power rivalry — but there are few signs of a strategic tilt by ASEAN toward the United States. Hedging will remain the preferred state of play for many Southeast Asian nations.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4), a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, writes frequently on Southeast Asia and U.S.-China competition.