Analyzing the Outcomes of the ASEAN Summit
Photo Credit: Prime Minister's Office, Singapore
By Tai Wei Lim

Analyzing the Outcomes of the ASEAN Summit

Dec. 06, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, held in Singapore in November 2018, saw five world leaders — US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan — descending upon the city state. The outcomes of the Summit can be divided into two main categories: the “cautious optimism” view, and the “missed opportunity” interpretation, against the backdrop of a G2 titans’ clash between the US and China.


The cautious optimism view is centered round three major geopolitical items. Firstly, the achievement of inserting all statements on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea into a single document. This was the most important first step towards any finalization of a Code of Conduct. The process started out with ASEAN and China negotiating the framework for a Code of Conduct. It progressed to inserting all materials into a single Code of Conduct document before the long road of negotiations ahead towards the finalization of a Code of Conduct. Reaching the stage of inserting all documents into a single document was not taken for granted by all negotiating countries, given the tensions amongst claimant states in the recent past, especially between China and Vietnam or with the Philippines. The Philippines had previously referred the issue to an international court of arbitration.


Secondly, the US engagement with ASEAN on 26 pilot smart cities projects in ASEAN. The US showed concrete support and pledged resources for ASEAN to work on the next generation of urban development in ASEAN’s first tier frontline cities. This is important given the US is the world’s most important supply of high technologies. US help comes on top of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well as the European Union’s own connectivity initiative in infrastructure support. Thirdly, the enhanced relationship between China and ASEAN due to the former’s trade tensions with the US and China had once again turned on its charm offensive towards Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea. In addition to that, countries like Vietnam are beneficiaries of the Sino-US trade tensions as manufacturing facilities are shifting to Vietnam as an alternative to China (e.g. the so-called China Plus One business strategy).


The cautiously optimistic view also pointed to the chair’s statement for the East Asia Summit which appeared to show some form of balancing between the US and China. In the script for the statement, an open and transparent approach was advocated. It appeared to keep away from equivalent phrases about Indo-Pacific and/or the Belt and Road Initiative. This could indicate that the East Asia community as a whole is perceived to stay neutral in contesting geopolitical views or visions. The draft also reinforced the centrality of ASEAN which is sandwiched between India and East Asia and the global/regional presence of the United States. India had also mentioned the centrality of ASEAN during the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Indonesia had also articulated its preference for its own worldview (perhaps in sync with the ASEAN version) in terms of the Indo-Pacific area.

China wants to maintain a strong presence in the formative drafting stages of the Code of Conduct. The US is firm that it does not want any power to restrict free passage to merchant shipping lanes, including those used by American merchant shipping.

The missed opportunity perspective is a comparatively more pessimistic view of the Summit. In this viewpoint, while maritime tensions between ASEAN and China have calmed down, Sino-US rivalry has heated up and this superpower rivalry is so powerful that it has sucked up the other issues and claimants’ concerns along with it, and therefore subsumed ASEAN priorities under the superpower rivalry. According to this reading, it says ASEAN countries have to henceforth take sides in geopolitical issues. And because of the superpower rivalry, they have been unable to seize the opportunity to make progress on the South China Sea dispute and resolve it, since China is keen to work bilaterally with ASEAN countries while the US and its allies are enforcing freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.


According to this narrative, Sino-US rivalry has complicated the situation and it has affected meetings like the ASEAN Summit which could have discussed the contentious points of China and Southeast Asia and their national interests in the South China Sea. Instead, it became an avenue of contest between the two, arguing with each other over alleged unfair Chinese trade practices and Chinese denials of such practices, with China accusing the US of unilateralism instead. There is a fear inherent in this interpretation that economic tensions will spill into the geopolitical realm and make the Code of Conduct issue a subset of Sino-US rivalry for control and power over the South China Sea.


There had already been near clashes between the two, such as the incident where the USS Decatur came within 40 yards or so of a Chinese warship. The Americans said they avoided a clash by veering away. Incidents like these increase temperatures further and make it difficult for the two powers to reach a compromise. Moreover, it also forces ASEAN countries to take sides which most if not all are loathe to do so. The situation is now focused on risk reduction and also the avoidance of accidental clashes at sea and in air. Pence’s frank speech at the Hudson Institute was read by some as the contemporary American version of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech that marked the beginning of the Cold War in the mid-20th century. Many in ASEAN are hoping not to see Cold War version II which can complicate things in the South China Sea.


Words like “empire” were even used in the exchanges between China and the US. China was also wary of the Indo-Pacific strategy. This prompted India to re-orientate the Indo-Pacific strategy back to ASEAN centrality. The US Navy had carried out exercises near the Philippines as a show of freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, alongside sailing ships into the disputed territory. Patrols or FONOPs in the South China Sea are likely to increase. Australia, France and the United Kingdom have all committed to sailing their warships into the South China Sea.


China, which favors bilateralism in the issue of the South China Sea, has also wanted to stop US naval exercises with other claimant states. China wants to maintain a strong presence in the formative drafting stages of the Code of Conduct. But the Western allies are keen to strengthen existing legal and regional maritime architectures and will stop any attempt to change the status quo. The US is firm that it does not want any power to restrict free passage to merchant shipping lanes, including those used by American merchant shipping. The US which used to preserve a low-key presence as a non-claimant state now feels compelled to speak out against issues that are against its interests but are related to the South China Sea. Perceptions of interference are strong on both sides. According to this interpretation, taking sides is a zero-sum game and can eventually affect ASEAN unity.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *