Power Shifts and Asean

Khmer Times, 7 May 2018

Geopolitical risks and uncertainties are high and the power shifts are real and consequential, argued top regional opinion leaders at the 2018 Asean Media Forum last Friday. The forum was co-organised by the Asean Secretariat and S Rajaratnam School of International Studies with the support from GIZ and Air Asia.

The power shifts in the Asia Pacific region is fast unfolding, mainly driven by the relative declining power of the US and the ascending power of China and the rest. It is estimated that China will overtake the US and become the world’s largest economy a decade from now. According to Bloomberg, if China continues to maintain its annual growth rate of 6.5 percent, China’s GDP will reach $25.5 trillion in 2029, while the US’ GDP will be $24.1 trillion.

Some analysts argue that complex interdependence between China and the US will structurally force these two powers to cooperate and solve the differences through peaceful means. However, Professor Tommy Koh, special advisor to the Singapore Institute of Policy Studies and former Singapore ambassador to the UN, cautiously suggests that economic interdependence does not necessarily prevent interstate war. Drawing the lessons learned from World War I, he said, “Economic interdependence is not a guarantee of peace”.

Sharing the view with Professor Koh, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, recently retired dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, stressed that US-China relations was going through a “difficult phase” and it will get worse down the road. There was a deep anxiety within the American establishment about the rise of China, he pointed out.

“There is a ‘seismic change’ in American society. The issue is beyond the personality of President Donald Trump, but it has deeper structural issues,” argued Professor Mahbubani. For one, trade imbalance and a widespread perception that the US is losing the race structurally forces US leaders to make a correction and take preventive measures.

The ongoing trade spat between the US and China is cause for concern and anxiety and Southeast Asian countries will suffer “collateral damage”.

According to Washington, the US has demanded that China drop its tariffs to match lower US levels, eliminate limits on US investment in specific industries, end cyberattacks on US targets, strengthen intellectual property safeguards, and halt subsidies for advanced technology industries.

In addition to using trade as a geopolitical tool, the US is also playing the “Taiwan card” in a “grand bargain” with China. The Taiwan issue will reemerge to be a regional security hot spot and a potential source of regional war. President Trump “is playing with fire” on the Taiwan issue – Taiwan is regarded as the “core interest” of China. In recent months, the US has approved licenses for American firms to sell defense technology to Taiwan to build submarines and adopted the Taiwan Travel Act to promote bilateral visits between the officials.

As the power competition intensifies, Professor Kishore agues China will use its economic might against the US while the US will use the “political system” question to challenge the legitimacy of the existence of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In response, China has been pushing very hard to strengthen the CPC.

The South China Sea is another platform of China-US power competition. The US will take more concrete measures, militarily and diplomatically, to challenge China’s maritime power projection by constraining or deterring China’s behavior in the South China Sea. The more assertive China is in the South China Sea the more damage it will inflict on its regional image and trust.

How should Asean respond to these evolving geopolitical risks and challenges?

The EU has “zero prospect of war”, but this does not apply to Asean, Professor Koh said.

Asean is at a critical juncture. Progressing or withering largely depends on the capacity of Asean to envision its role in a fluid global geopolitical environment, have the courage to ask critical questions, and be transformative in its leadership of the regional grouping and its member states.

Asean must reform and adapt to changes and it needs to implement and make use of the existing mechanisms and create new practices.

Marty Natalegawa, former foreign minister of Indonesia, emphasised that, “Business as usual is not good enough”. Asean needs to “renew trust in its own instrument that it has created”. Some frameworks including the dispute settlement procedure of the High Council have not been activated.

Mr Natalegawa said, in order to address geopolitical challenges such as power shifts, trust deficit, and territorial disputes, Asean must build its capacity in crisis management and strengthen the norms of non-use of force. Expanding Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation will help Asean earn its central role amidst evolving regional architecture.

He added, Asean must understand the dynamics of power shifts and aim to build a “dynamic equilibrium”. Asean must “inject more ambitions”, have its own script on international issues, embrace changes and encourage transformative leadership, and develop a statecraft that can earn trust and build consensus within the regional grouping.

Decision-making based on consensus is the backbone of Asean unity and centrality although it will be challenging for Asean to reach consensus on certain sensitive issues. Asean will lose its relevance if it allows major powers to interfere into the domestic affairs of its member states. The regional grouping must build stronger mechanisms and norms to protect the independence and sovereignty of its member states to ward off the adverse impacts of rivalry among major global powers.

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