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ASEAN must choose between China, US and a third way

The nations of Southeast Asia are facing an invidious and increasingly binary choice: Are they with China or are they with the U.S.?      

     Most Southeast Asian governments are struggling to span the divide, but the region needs a third alternative. All the signs are that the straddle is only going to become more uncomfortable.      

     Trans-Pacific competition -- for resources, influence and prestige -- is only going to get more stark, and as the interests of two superpowers diverge, the position of individual Southeast Asian nations is only going to get harder, if not impossible, to hold. This is not a comment on U.S. or Chinese policy, but an observation that established powers tend to try to protect their prerogative, and emerging powers tend to try to expand: Friction is all but inevitable. For most of the region, the nightmare scenario is being caught between the grindstones of competing superpowers.     

     This is not a unique predicament. As the policies of the U.S. and Russia diverged after their great joint enterprise in World War II, 29 nations -- many of them newly liberated from the yoke of colonialism and unwilling to become satellites of newer powers -- gathered in the Indonesian hill town of Bandung in 1955 to start what would eventually become the Non-Aligned Movement.      

     The Non-Aligned Movement was a recognition that smaller countries had a better chance of surviving the gravitational pull of superpower competition if they stood together. The movement turned out to be too little, too late to succeed in its aim of being a bulwark in "the struggle against ... great power and bloc politics" as Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro would later put it, but the raison d'etre behind its formation was sound.

Coming together

Southeast Asia has no need to reinvent the Non-Aligned Movement, it already has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Taken together, the 10 members of ASEAN are a mini-superpower in their own right: abundant natural resources; 625 million people; gross domestic product of more than $2.4 trillion; and McKinsey & Co. forecasts the bloc will constitute the world's fourth-largest economy by 2050.     

     ASEAN was founded in 1967, but has always been less than the sum of its parts. Stymied by the prickly nationalism of its members as they charted parallel, if minimally coordinated, routes to prosperity, and shackled to an extreme interpretation of "noninterference," the group has struggled to come up with a common vision for the region.      

     But that is changing. The ASEAN Economic Community is an ambitious program to create a common production base and market across the region. It will be less than fully functional when it comes into force at the end of this year, but even in its embryonic stage it marks a major shift in regional philosophy.      

     The community represents a recognition that in economic terms, at least, the region is stronger as a single unit than each member is as an individual country. Relinquishing a small degree of autonomy -- in setting tariffs, or allowing citizens of other members to engage in work -- can strengthen countries by making the whole region more attractive to investors and giving producers a chance to compete on a level playing field with the economic giants that surround them. The same logic should apply in the diplomatic sphere -- Southeast Asia needs the power of collective bargaining to protect its own interests. China and the U.S. are always going to pursue their own interests. As it stands, the nations of Southeast Asia are eventually going to have to make a decision as to which is least inimical to their own future.      

Test in the waters

There is no need, nor likelihood, of ASEAN becoming an Asian version of the European Union, let alone trying problematic experiments such as a currency union. The differences between the countries are significant and their diversity is an important source of strength, but there are also similarities -- not least the fact that they all find themselves in a strikingly similar geostrategic bind -- that would benefit from a common position.      

     The obvious test-bed for a more coherent Southeast Asia is the South China Sea. Almost all the countries of the region send large volumes of exports through the trading lanes that run east through the South China Sea, and collective bargaining would be uncontroversial.      

     China is wary of a weakened negotiating position against a multilateral forum, but prefers a central role for ASEAN to greater U.S. intervention. As China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Kuala Lumpur in August grudgingly conceded: "China and ASEAN countries will work together to maintain [the] peace and stability of the South China Sea."   

     A common position on trade and some diplomatic issues would give Southeast Asian nations the power to pursue their own future on their own terms, rather than relying on a precarious ability to maintain their current balance between the interests of the superpowers.

     Forty years ago, the debonair Mohammed Daoud Khan, Afghanistan's first president, also believed he could achieve a successful superpower straddle: "I feel the happiest when I can light my American cigarettes with Soviet matches," he said, not long before his smoking days were ended for good in a coup and his country became a cockpit for the last round of superpower confrontation.      

     History is never so crude or simplistic as to repeat itself exactly, but it does tend to punish those who think that "this time, it's different." Southeast Asia should take heed.      

Tim Johnston is International Crisis Group's Asia program director.


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