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International relations

Indonesia and Singapore feud over ASEAN engagement in Indo-Pacific

US-led initiative poses dilemma for bloc leery of China's wrath

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold transits the Philippine Sea in June 2018.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- When Southeast Asian foreign ministers meet in Bangkok later this month they will have their work cut out to convince their dialogue partners that they are strategically relevant to the U.S., but also friends of China.

That will require deft diplomacy, given that officials from both the established and the rising superpower will be present.

The ministers already have a script to follow: The centrality of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in these shifting geopolitical tides was spelled out in June in a five-page report, "ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific," a broad vision statement with an accommodative tone released following a regional summit in the Thai capital.

The report touched on favored ASEAN themes, including concerns about maritime cooperation, peace, stability, and prosperity.

"ASEAN was under pressure to issue a statement at the Bangkok summit to claim its centrality in this geopolitical situation the U.S. has triggered," said Sihasak Phuangketkewo, former permanent secretary with Thailand's Foreign Ministry. "Indonesia took the lead and was backed by Thailand to draft the text in fairly rapid time -- a few months."

The text came amid tensions between Indonesia and Singapore over how ASEAN should respond to the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, as it is formally known in Washington. Singapore's concern, Southeast Asian diplomatic sources say, was to avoid forcing ASEAN to choose between the U.S. and China. The other members of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

But sidestepping the U.S. strategic initiative risks leaving ASEAN a bystander. "We cannot be seen as being silent, because it affects our centrality in broader regionalism, and once we are engaged, we have to show unity," Sihasak said. "If we didn't come out with the outlook document, we would have become irrelevant."

Yet the bloc left unanswered questions about how its officials and ministers will sell the "ASEAN Outlook" at the upcoming ministerial meetings, which are expected to draw the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The litmus test will be the ministerial meetings of the East Asia Summit, a regional forum where ASEAN engages with eight other countries, including the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India and Australia.

Bangkok-based diplomats say they have been left guessing as to whether ASEAN will take the bilateral or the multilateral route during the ministerial sessions. The U.S. strategy for the newly defined Indo-Pacific region is not beloved by all of ASEAN's dialogue partners.

The initiative covers an area stretching from the Pacific coast of the U.S. to the west coast of India, according to a report published in June by the U.S. Department of Defense. Japan, India and Australia have signed on to the concept, but not China and Russia.

According to one diplomatic source, one-on-one talks between ASEAN and its East Asia Summit partners will "give more room for discussion." The danger of broaching the subject in a larger setting, with all the partners present, lies in "China and Russia wanting a final statement to be diluted, so that may be a no-go area for all partners to agree," the diplomat said.

China's sensitivity is understandable, given that it is locked in a contest with Washington for influence in the region. The U.S. government has not tried to conceal that its effort to encompass two oceans, with ASEAN straddling the center, is the Trump administration's response to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Peter Haymond, the acting U.S. ambassador to Thailand, said as much in a June address to foreign journalists in Bangkok. "It is great to have infrastructure funding, but countries need to keep their sovereign decision-making space when making these decisions," he said in an obvious dig at China. Beijing has been accused by critics in the West of putting smaller nations in a "debt-trap" -- encouraging them to take out huge loans, then seizing assets when they are unable to repay.

But Southeast Asian officials want to hear more before they commit to the U.S. vision. "How will it be backed with real actions?" one official wondered aloud. "Will it be concrete commitments or crumbs?"

ASEAN's struggle to be seen as on board with U.S. while not antagonizing China is an ongoing issue. Some analysts see it as the latest storm in the region's choppy diplomatic waters. ASEAN's ties with China are already strained by the contest for dominance in the South China Sea.

Four ASEAN's members -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- have overlapping claims in the strategic stretch of ocean, where China has been busy building artificial islands and stationing naval and air assets.

According to Benjamin Zawacki, author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground between the U.S. and a Rising China," the dilemma ASEAN faces over the U.S. Indo-Pacific plans is an "old and familiar one, merely updated," since ASEAN is able and willing to "convene but not convey power."

"The reason and reality is that, within ASEAN -- as opposed to outside actors like China and the U.S. -- mainland and maritime Southeast Asia are seen as two very separate and different subregions," Zawacki said. "China supports and exploits this and other divisions within ASEAN, which accounts for Beijing's unhindered advances in the South China Sea, while the U.S. prefers and promotes an elusive single voice, which explains the anodyne and vacuous nature of ASEAN's response."

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