Asean must calm South China Sea waters or risk ‘Asia’s Ukraine’

As disputes in the South China Sea risk escalating into open conflict, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must reassert its centrality to prevent the region from becoming a theatre of war, and a pawn on someone else’s chessboard.

With pro-Palestinian encampments proliferating across US campuses, comparisons to the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s have emerged. The Biden administration’s reluctance to rein in Israel’s destruction of the Gaza Strip has divided the nation and sparked questions about US leadership in upholding a rules-based world order.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore of policy influencers and leaders found that more in Southeast Asia favoured alignment with China over the United States for the first time. The US’ unquestioning support for Israel in the Gaza conflict is no doubt a factor.

In an unusual move in March, Singapore demanded that the Israeli embassy remove a Facebook post due to its potential to inflame religious sentiments. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has emerged as a leading voice condemning Israel’s ruthless assault on Gaza and championing the Palestinians’ right to statehood.

Next year, Malaysia assumes chairmanship of Asean. Anwar has pledged to revitalise Asean-led forums, such as the East Asia Summit. A pivotal strategy in the preservation of Asean’s centrality is hewing to neutrality, refraining from taking sides and fostering collaboration.

Amid the US-China trade war, maintaining neutrality has proven advantageous for Southeast Asia. Countries like Vietnam and Malaysia have welcomed increased investment as the US pursues “friendshoring”, even as they continue to engage with Beijing despite territorial disputes.

At the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne in March, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said his country remained an important friend to the US and that this did not preclude being friendly with China. Photo: Asean-Australia Special Summit 2024/AFP

A recent Financial Times article described Malaysia as the “surprise winner from US-China chip wars”, citing a surge in investment from both Western and Chinese semiconductor companies. But looming challenges threaten to disrupt Asean’s delicate balancing act.

Last month, US President Joe Biden hosted an inaugural US-Japan-Philippines summit in Washington to counter perceived Chinese aggression. Addressing a joint session of Congress, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, perhaps sensing Americans’ self-doubt and inward turn, warned that the “Ukraine of today may be the East Asia of tomorrow” and emphasised the indispensable role of US leadership in safeguarding the free world.

As a crucial US ally, Japan has played a vital role in Southeast Asia’s nation-building. Through economic partnerships, Japan has helped Asean members in their modernisation and industrialisation. However, in response to China’s rise over the past decade, the Japanese have adopted a more security-focused stance within the region.

Recent reports suggest Japan’s potential participation in the Aukus alliance between Australia, Britain and the US, raising speculation over an “Asian Nato” aimed at containing China. Japan’s militarisation efforts have sparked consternation among many in the Asia-Pacific; the brutality of the imperial Japanese army during World War II still casts a shadow.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr may be an exception. At the Washington summit, Marcos declared that the “trilateral agreement is extremely important”. He has also cautioned that any loss of Filipino lives due to a “foreign power” could activate its mutual defence treaty with the US.

In addition to the backing of the US and Japan, Marcos has found support in India and South Korea, and possibly even Australia and New Zealand, seemingly forming an alliance framed as a defence of the international rules-based order.



Why is the Philippines aligning itself with the US after years of close China ties under Duterte

Why is the Philippines aligning itself with the US after years of close China ties under Duterte

Last year, in an attempt to isolate China, the Philippines reportedly approached neighbours such as Malaysia and Vietnam to develop a separate code of conduct for the South China Sea. Apparently neither responded positively to the idea, underscoring Asean’s position that any credible solution to the South China Sea disputes must include China.

As tensions mount, concerns arise that the South China Sea could become Asia’s Ukraine. But unlike Kyiv, which enjoys the European Union’s support, Manila will find itself without Asean backing.

Marcos could also face a predicament similar to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s: relying on an unreliable US. Aid for Ukraine was finally passed last month in a hard-fought bill that highlighted the uncertainty of American support. The outcome of the coming presidential election could further jeopardise US aid to Ukraine. The trilateral summit in Washington has been described as the Biden administration’s effort to Trump-proof the US’ commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

Although the Philippines’ territorial disputes with China are legitimate, aligning too closely with the US carries the danger of Filipinos becoming collateral damage of great power rivalry. Fear of a nuclear conflict with Russia has kept US boots out of Ukraine. Similarly, the US is likely to avoid direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed China. Consequently, as with the Ukrainians, the Philippines may find itself alone in the trenches battling a much larger adversary.

This is the tragic reality of the struggle for global power: the US is willing to use smaller nations as proxies to contain its rivals and maintain its supremacy. Much like the devastation witnessed in Ukraine, a conflict in the South China Sea would have far-reaching ramifications, wreaking havoc on the Philippines and triggering instability across Southeast Asia and beyond.

According to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey, while many Southeast Asians are concerned about the Gaza crisis, they also percieve imminent danger closer to home. Escalating tensions threaten to turn the South China Sea into another theatre of war, endangering regional stability and prosperity.

Non-interference is another cornerstone principle of Asean. Nevertheless, when a member state’s actions jeopardise the collective well-being, Asean must act to de-escalate tensions and prevent catastrophe. Failing to do so risks undermining Asean’s centrality, reducing Southeast Asia to a mere pawn in great power rivalries.

Peter T.C. Chang is a research associate at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia



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