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Opinion

ASEAN must respond boldly to growing US-China competition

It should advance own Indo-Pacific concept or see Washington or Beijing take the lead

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is anchored off the coast at Danang, Vietnam, in March.   © AP

Over the last year, we have seen a profound structural change in the U.S.-China relationship. Officially, the Americans describe this as a shift from 40 years of "strategic engagement" to a new period of "strategic competition." While the precise definition of strategic competition, as an operational rather than declaratory strategy, has yet to fully emerge, deep change is underway.

The U.S.-China trade war is but one manifestation of a deeper phenomenon, covering the whole political, security, and economic relationship. And we would be foolish not to recognize that this systemic shift in U.S. sentiment toward China is likely to continue well after President Donald Trump has gone. Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, the major agencies of state as well as most of the U.S. business community by and large support this new, robust approach to China

What does this mean for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as it seeks to navigate its future in a Southeast Asia increasingly pulled in different directions by the contending security and economic force-fields represented by Washington and Beijing?

The difficulty for ASEAN is that Southeast Asia has now become the "New Great Game" for strategic influence between the world's two major great powers. It looms as the principal terrain where the battles for strategic dominance are fought for the next quarter century.

Southeast Asia lies in a swing position between China and India. China now seeks a more benign southern flank more willing to accommodate its strategic interests, while America wants to preserve the sea-lanes of Southeast Asia for freedom of navigation, and its own freedom of strategic maneuver.

The grave danger, therefore, which ASEAN faces, is that the increasingly binary nature of the U.S.-China relationship in East Asia, the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean begins to divide ASEAN into pro-American and pro-Chinese camps. This is not in the interests of ASEAN or the wider region. A divided region breeds instability.

I have been a lifelong supporter of ASEAN. ASEAN has transformed a once-divided region into one which had achieved a remarkable degree of unity, despite the disparate domestic political systems of ASEAN's 10 members. This has in turn facilitated decades of growing economic prosperity.

ASEAN's strategic response to external challenges has been anchored in two principles: safeguarding its internal unity, and the consistent assertion of its doctrine of ASEAN centrality, which means the primacy of ASEAN in foreign policy. We've seen these principles reflected in the evolution of the various ASEAN-Plus arrangements, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and of course the East Asia Summit (EAS).

The time has come, however, for ASEAN, consistent with these traditions of internal consensus and centrality, to become considerably bolder in its aspirations. Indeed, there is a danger that ASEAN has become too consensual, too passive and too inert for its own good. The uncomfortable truth is that to stand still is to go backward. Unless ASEAN sets the terms for its own engagement with the wider region, those terms will be increasingly set for it by the great powers around it.

First, ASEAN must maximize its efforts to develop and maintain common positions in dealing with the external powers. In China's case, that includes the South China Sea in general, and the negotiation of the Code of Conduct in particular. In America's case it may mean ASEAN's posture toward future changes in U.S. strategy in Southeast Asia. ASEAN must make greater recourse to its "Ten minus X" formula, that is making major decisions even without unanimity if consensus is routinely denied by a small minority of states, or even just one small country. The politics of the "lowest common denominator," when taken to the extreme, can render the entire institution dysfunctional.

Second, ASEAN needs to look boldly out to the wider region, rather than focus exclusively on its formidable internal challenges. ASEAN needs increasingly to look both east and west-to both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and evolve its concept of an Indo-Pacific future.

This has long been part of ASEAN's traditional thinking. But rapidly changing strategic realities require that this work now be intensified. Whether we like it or not, China and the United States have deep interests in the future of both oceans. Meanwhile, India, a member of the EAS, has for some time now prosecuted a policy of "looking east" or "acting east."

So unless ASEAN evolves its own strategic concept of the future shape of a wider Indo-Pacific region, it will simply be required to respond to the contending strategic conceptions of the United States or China.

Third, this raises the question of what the content of such an ASEAN concept of the Indo-Pacific might be. Ten years ago, as prime minister of Australia, I launched the concept of an Asia-Pacific Community, representing the evolution over time of the EAS, with all 18 member states sitting around one table, developing security and economic collaboration across the wider region.

Last year, as president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, I chaired an international commission which developed this concept further in a paper entitled "Preserving the Long Peace in Asia: The Institutional Building Blocks of Long-Term Regional Security."

I believe the ideas in the report could be adapted to ASEAN's deliberations on the future of the Indo-Pacific region. The report's proposals are practical, focused on building different forms of security policy collaboration, from disaster management and military transparency, to other forms of confidence and security-building measures. Such a concept is not designed to replace the region's existing hard security arrangements. But instead to reduce the brittleness of those arrangements and to create, over time, a greater sense of common security. This meshes with ASEAN's intrinsic DNA.

Most critically, it also builds on an existing ASEAN institution, the EAS, which was established 13 years ago with a mandate for both security and economic cooperation. In other words, neither a new institution nor a new mandate is needed. The EAS is there to be built on.

But unless there is a new sense of urgency, there is a danger that the EAS will wither away through lack of a substantive function, other than to meet.

ASEAN can no longer afford to rely exclusively on its pan-regional convening power. It must also elaborate its vision for the wider region beyond Southeast Asia and build more robust institutions of pan-regional security, economic and political collaboration in the wider remit of the Indo-Pacific.

Apart from what ASEAN itself chooses to do, or not to do, to shape Southeast Asia's future, there is also the more fundamental question of the future of Chinese and American strategy. China's strategy toward the region is relatively clear: namely to become the ASEAN states' indispensable economic partner though the combined deployment of trade, foreign direct investment, the long-term role of its capital markets and direct economic aid, and though them to enhance China's political and foreign policy leverage.

By contrast, U.S. strategy toward ASEAN today is far less clear. The Pentagon's policy of strategic engagement in Southeast Asia, and with most of the militaries of the region, stands out as the exception. The State Department, by contrast, is reeling from budget cuts while USAID is being cut to pieces. Most crucially, there is no American alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative and the roll out of major infrastructure initiatives across the region. This represents a fundamental gap in US strategy for which there is nothing in the policy pipeline. The only alternatives offered to the developing countries of Southeast Asia on infrastructure investment are the vehicles offered by Japan and to some extent India, although these do not approach the BRI's sheer scale.

If and when the U.S. returns more fully to the regional table, there is also a danger that regional adjustments and accommodations to Chinese realities will have already taken place. The region will not be "snap-frozen" in time for several years while the U.S., redefines its global role. In some respects, the cold hard reality is that the regional caravan will continue to move on as Southeast Asian states continue to hedge against a range of future contingencies.

None of these challenges are easy to manage. But most systemic challenges in international relations are by definition difficult. Particularly when we are at a time of fundamental disruption, driven largely by the changing US-China relationship.

Nonetheless, ASEAN can help navigate the common peace and common prosperity of our wider region, and do so within the existing global rules-based order. But this will not be achieved by ASEAN standing still. In fact being static is likely to prove the most debilitating position for ASEAN to adopt. Because then ASEAN becomes increasingly the "price-taker" of the terms of regional engagement set by others outside the immediate region. ASEAN must instead set its own strategic course and shape the conditions through which other powers engage it.

  © Reuters

Kevin Rudd was Australia's prime minister (2007-2010, 2013) and foreign minister. This article is based on an address delivered to the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in Jakarta on Nov. 8.

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