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"Keeping the Balance: Power Transitions Threaten ASEAN's Hedging Role", in 'East Asia Forum Quarterly'

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22 EAST ASIA FORUM QUARTERLY JANUARY — MARCH 2018
Power transitions threaten
ASEAN’s hedging role
PICTURE: SAMRANG PRING / REUTERS
KUIK CHeNG-CHwee
S INCE its inception in 1967,
ASEAN has served as a platform
for multiple gradually expanding
functions for its member states and
the wider Asia Pacific community.
One relatively understudied function
of ASEAN is its role as a platform for
‘hedging’ in the post-Cold War era.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN and the
ASEAN Plus multilateral mechanisms
have provided an additional avenue
for small- and medium-sized states
to hedge against the risks associated
with the rise of China. e states’
converging efforts (not necessarily
collective nor coordinated actions)
occur alongside traditional unilateral
and bilateral channels for hedging and
allow them to simultaneously pursue
actions that engage and constrain
China at the regional level.
Engagement is the active use of
multilateral and bilateral processes
to forge increasingly close,
comprehensive and productive ties
with China. Constrainment involves
the contradictory action of keeping
distance from and even containing
the rising power, by using the very
same ASEAN-based platforms as the
diplomatic, economic and strategic
mechanisms for other regional powers
and players to provide checks and
balances on Beijing. Engagement and
constrainment are two sides of the
hedging coin.
ASEAN-centred platforms create
and cultivate the offsetting space for
weaker states to keep their options
open to deal with the rise of China.
is allows smaller states to avoid
becoming subservient or over-
dependent on their giant neighbours
(the risks of engagement without
constrainment). ey can also avoid
antagonising any power or forgoing
any economic gains (the risks of
constrainment without engagement),
while mitigating the risks of
entrapment and abandonment in the
face of uncertainty.
is space may be shrinking. e
power dynamics surrounding the
South China Sea are challenging
Southeast Asian cohesion and ASEAN
centrality. Beijing’s increasingly
assertive actions at sea are not
significantly constrained by any
actors such as the United States or
arrangements such as the Declaration
of the Conduct of Parties in the
South China Sea.
e United States’ growing
unpredictability under the Trump
administration further weakens the
capacity of ASEAN Plus platforms and
processes to pursue constrainment.
Regional scepticism intensified after
President Trump’s tour of Asia in
November 2017, especially after
his last-minute decision to skip
the East Asia Summit. e Trump
administration’s lack of attention
towards ASEAN-based regional
multilateralism (alongside the
other liabilities of Trump’s ‘America
First’ agenda), is undoing some
of the diplomatic and strategic
accomplishments of the Obama
administration’s ‘rebalancing to Asia’
policy.
is is all taking place at a time
keepINg the balaNce
Welders at work on a bridge in Phnom Penh, one of many projects in Cambodia supported by the Chinese
government. In Southeast Asia, infrastructure development is far more than an economic issue.
-------------
constraining
EAST ASIA FORUM QUARTERLY JANUARY — MARCH 2018 23
EAFQ
when China’s connectivity-based
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and
various Beijing-initiated multilateral
mechanisms (such as the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank)
are gradually gaining momentum
in Eurasia and beyond. China’s
expanded presence globally and Japan’s
corresponding infrastructure-centred
foreign policy are turning connectivity
cooperation into the new chessboard
of Asian geopolitical competition.
As geoeconomics increasingly
converges with geopolitics in Asia,
the United States and other Western
nations have thus far remained
bystanders not effective players. is
is a cause for concern. In Southeast
Asia, infrastructure development is
far more than an economic issue—it
is a matter of political significance.
Infrastructure is regarded by the
ruling elites of ASEAN states as the
key to governance performance and
economic growth, upon which they
rely to enhance or preserve their
political authority.
China’s trillion-dollar BRI agenda
is thus a growing inducement to
many Southeast Asian political
elites, as shown by the increasing
number, scope and scale of the
negotiated and ongoing infrastructure
partnerships involving China in
the region. A growing inducement
may not necessarily translate into
growing influence, but a simultaneous
increase in China’s inducements and a
perceived decrease in US commitment
to the region may accelerate power
shifts and regional transformation.
ASEAN remains a useful platform
for Southeast Asian hedging precisely
because of these challenges. ASEAN-
based forums are the only institutional
pillars of Asian architecture that are
not centred on or dominated by major
powers. Preserving this institutional
buffer role is crucial to preserving
a stable distribution of power, a
sustainable peace and a durable
prosperity in Asia.
One danger of the ongoing power
shift is that more and more Southeast
Asian states may move closer to
Beijing to benefit from China’s
numerous economic carrots and its
growing geopolitical clout. If the trend
continues, this may further threaten
Southeast Asian unity and ASEAN
centrality. Over time, if more ASEAN
states repeatedly show a greater
commitment to their big-power
patron’s preferences than the interests
of other members of the group,
ASEAN risks becoming divided,
weakened and marginalised.
e growing gravitational pull of
China’s power is not the only concern
for Southeast Asian cohesion and
centrality. Other powers, importantly
the United States and its allies,
may forge a coalition of likeminded
nations in the Indo-Pacific if their
current efforts at constraint turn into
containment. is would happen if
such a coalition’s military actions
targeted China explicitly and directly.
e China policies of these states
would be characterised less by the
current cooperation-amid-competition
approach and more by all-out
confrontation. is would likely divide
the region and undermine ASEAN’s
role as a platform for hedging.
ese possibilities are likely to
result in regional polarisation and
international instability. Any shift
in regional alignments would spark
reactions among the big powers, each
vying to win back or further expand
its own sphere of influence and
deny or limit its rival’s geopolitical
gains. Conflict might erupt at some
point, which would entrap states and
undermine regional security.
Southeast Asian states’ current
hedging posture is far from the
optimal choice for anyone. But it
is the second-best option that is in
the interest of everyone, including
China and other powers. e current
ambiguity of neutral omni-alignment
is far better than clear cut rivalry,
outright confrontation or all out tug-
of-war.
Any power may make some
immediate gains by inducing other
states to side with it. But these short-
term gains would be at the longer-term
expense of provoking other power(s)
to push back. is could create a
vicious cycle of actions and reactions
that distracts states from domestic
governance, deepens alignment
dilemmas, creates camps, exacerbates
existing disputes and leads to conflicts
that no state wants.
ASEAN’s role as a hedging
platform—despite all its limitations
and shortcomings—is good for all
Southeast Asian states and also good
for all other powers and players.
Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate
professor and co-convener of the
East Asian International Relations
(EAIR) Caucus, National University of
Malaysia (UKM).
The current ambiguity of
neutral omni-alignment
is far better than clear
cut rivalry, outright
confrontation or all-out
tug-of-war
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