[Contribution] Can Korea learn from ASEAN to face US-China tensions?
By Bala Ramasamy
The increasingly difficult relationship between the US and China has put many East Asian countries in the crosshairs. Recent geopolitical developments have led to a clash of interests in trade and traditional security partnerships, highlighting the tightrope that many countries have to walk.
One of the most pertinent questions today for many East Asian states is: how can we maintain good relations with both the US and China without jeopardizing economic ties with both?
Perhaps Korea can take a look at Southeast Asia’s recent history and current challenges, in particular how individual neighboring countries can emphasize cooperation with each other, to try to chart a path forward for itself.
An important factor that has contributed to the economic success of countries in Southeast Asia must be the peace and stability in the region, brought about mainly by their membership in ASEAN.
For a region so diverse in terms of political systems, religion, economic development and culture, this achievement is unparalleled. But it should not be taken for granted.
Political upheavals in member states, including the recent military coup in Myanmar, and regional disputes in the South China Sea, could destabilize regional peace. Nothing will hurt ASEAN more than allowing an outside power to tear apart this entrenched unity by forcing member states to take sides. Politically, this is folly. It is an economic problem.
Recent developments pose a challenge to ASEAN – the sudden rise of the Quad – the US, Japan, India and Australia – from a security dialogue to one that forces countries to divide along ideological lines, namely Cold War 2.0. Likewise, AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, is adding to the tension in the region.
Meanwhile, if the establishment of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP and its amendment, CPTPP) to match the rise of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was not enough, the aims of the Quad and AUKUS are to reduce China’s influence balance in the Indo-Pacific.
However, this threatens to damage decades of peace and stability in the region. Moreover, the vaccine diplomacy initiated by both sides in Southeast Asia, as recently reported in the media, is taking the pandemic to a dimension of international relations.
From an economic perspective, China and the Quad (especially the US and Japan) are important for the Southeast Asian countries. Quad countries are particularly important export markets, while China is a major source of imports.
Damaging the relationship with one at the expense of the other will negatively affect the economic prospects of all countries in the region. As a whole, 27 percent of ASEAN’s total exports go to the Quad, while China accounts for about 14 percent.
But on the import side, China accounts for 22 percent compared to the Quad’s 20 percent. At the national level, the picture is even clearer. Indonesia exports 29 percent of its goods to the Quad, but imports 26% from China. So both the Quad and China are equally important trading partners, showing how much ASEAN countries have to lose by siding with one power or the other.
Perhaps protecting ASEAN’s unity would be by remaining neutral to both sides and taking a position that ASEAN will not be tied to any superpowers.
This in itself would not be new – all 10 ASEAN countries are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) founded in 1961 by former Yugoslavia leader Josip Broz Tito.
While the intention at the time was not to take sides between the US and the Soviet Union, the reality of the current order must be recognized as the concept has new relevance in a US-Chinese context. The current global trade situation is much more complex and interconnected compared to that of the Cold War, which now ended more than 30 years ago.
Further afield, as Britain has taken sides by joining AUKUS, it would be advisable for the EU to remain neutral so that ASEAN and other developing countries in Africa and South America have an economic ally to rely on to promote the idea of neutrality.
An ideal situation would undoubtedly be when each country can maintain its own sovereignty and international relations on the basis of mutual benefit, without fear or favour.
However, the current situation requires ASEAN to act as one entity and not take sides — a strategy that other countries in the region, including Korea, could consider to maintain a balance in a crucial area for the global economy.
The writer is the director of GEMBA program at China Europe International Business School