ASEAN Centrality and the US-China Position

JAKARTA (ANTARA) – All partner countries, including China and the United States, attended the 2023 ASEAN Summit in Jakarta this week to support and honor the ASEAN Center.

Southeast Asian countries emphasized the centrality of ASEAN while regional and global dynamics required the association to adopt a common mechanism to achieve common interests.

The ASEAN Charter clearly states that ASEAN’s main objective is to maintain the bloc’s centrality and to be an active contributor to an open, transparent and inclusive regional architecture as a key driver of relations and cooperation with external partners.

As stated in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific Region, the concept of an ASEAN hub is to become the dominant regional platform for addressing common challenges and interacting with powers outside the region.

Since assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN 2023, Indonesia has strongly emphasized this point, and it is indeed very important as Southeast Asia strives to be tugged back and forth by the world’s dominant powers, especially China and the United States.

Ironically, both superpowers accuse each other of trying to co-opt ASEAN. Both countries seem to be trying to prevent ASEAN from tilting towards one of them.

China appears to be dominant in wanting to see ASEAN disengage from the United States in order to free itself from the influence of its main rival country, although its approach is more lenient through its economic approach.

On the other hand, the US is keen to make ASEAN a bulwark against China’s competition on various fronts, from politics and security to economics.

In Jakarta, during the series of 43rd ASEAN Summit this week, the position of the two countries became more and more difficult, despite ending the tough stand with a commitment to stronger relations with ASEAN.

This can be seen, among other things, in China’s strong message reminding ASEAN not to be provoked by outsiders so as not to turn Southeast Asia into a new area of ​​conflict.

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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has reminded Southeast Asia to avoid a „new Cold War” in the region. At yesterday’s ASEAN-China summit, Li noted that all countries should properly handle differences and disputes.

„For now, it is important to reject paralysis, reject alliance conflict and a new cold war,” Li said at the ASEAN-China Summit on Wednesday (Sept 6).

Li’s comment corroborates a similarly strong statement made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a conference organized by an Indonesian think tank on September 3. At the time, Wang reminded ASEAN not to be pawned off by outside powers.

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Now at the same level

Wang did not name the outside power, but he is believed to be referring to the United States.

The Global Times, an English-language Chinese media outlet that is a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, issued an even starker tone.

According to the Global Times, China has demonstrated its respect and support for ASEAN through its actions and important cooperation projects such as high-speed rail construction.

China is currently putting forward a four-pronged proposal to draw closer to ASEAN, including creating economic growth hubs, strengthening interconnections, and increasing industrial and supply chain cooperation.

This is China’s positive outlook on ASEAN, which, according to the Global Times, has never tried to create a new multilateral platform in the region to weaken ASEAN’s position.

The statement was a satire against the US, which the Global Times said was rhetorical rather than embodying a commitment to ASEAN with concrete steps.

The US rejected the claim, saying it had done a lot for ASEAN and would continue to do so.

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„The United States has a long-term commitment to Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” commented U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited Jakarta in place of Joe Biden. Attending the G20 summit in India.

According to the White House, in fiscal year 2024, the Biden-Harris administration proposes a budget of US$1.2 billion for economic, development and security assistance in ASEAN countries, and specifically US$90 million in aid to ASEAN to strengthen ASEAN institutions.

Exactly one year after Harris’ presence in Jakarta, ASEAN raised the level of cooperation with the United States to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level of international cooperative relations.

United States-ASEAN relations are now at the same level as China-ASEAN relations, which achieved the same status in November 2021.

This indicates that both countries consider ASEAN important, although in this ASEAN summit, their top leaders — President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping — were absent.

While this is seen as essential by the two countries that contribute heavily to ASEAN, the Southeast Asian Association does not want to be forced to choose between the two.

On the other hand, ASEAN is keen that the two major countries should understand a condition that all the partnerships of this regional organization should be ASEAN-centric.

To consolidate it further

President Joko Widodo at the 11th ASEAN-US Summit in Jakarta on September 6 urged all ASEAN partners to support the ASEAN core and avoid unhealthy competition.

On the other hand, taking the statement of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the United States and China should show leadership in tackling various global issues, so that the two countries should continue to negotiate, build strategic trust at all levels, and strive for greater cooperation.

In this way, a positive environment creates a positive ecosystem for ASEAN and other regions and the world.

However, sometimes, the efforts are not synchronized with the situation on the ground. ASEAN, China, and the United States often display rhetoric at odds with practice.

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In the case of ASEAN, the regional body often lacks unity on many issues, including the Myanmar issues and the South China Sea issue.

On the other hand, by intensifying the Quads with India, Japan and Australia, realizing AUKUS with Australia and the UK, and for a tripartite pact with Japan, the US is actively mobilizing sub-regional blocs that could actually destabilize the ASEAN core. South Korea.

Those circumstances enraged China, who later hinted that there was a trend toward a „new cold war,” including in Southeast Asia.

Ironically, China is also aggressively projecting military power at a level seen as provoking other countries, including Indonesia, which has no conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

US and China’s approach in Southeast Asia is already in a cycle of action and reaction without knowing who started first.

However, perhaps, in that scenario, the centrality of ASEAN is even more important.

In addition to becoming a red line that no one, including China and the United States, can cross, the concept is important to prevent ASEAN from becoming pawns of either China or the United States so that competition between them does not escalate. An open conflict that harms all parties.

For ASEAN, the awareness of keeping the regional core grounded can accelerate ASEAN integration so that the regional system is more integrated, independent and ready to face the challenges of the times.

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Translated by: Zafar M Siddiqui, Cindy Frishanti Octavia
Author: Sri Haryati
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