Drawing ASEAN into the anti-China crusade

May 23, 2022
The ASEAN meeting in Washington on May 13. Photo: Freddie Everett/State Department via Flickr

The recent Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, hosted by United States President Joe Biden in Washington on May 16, was designed to bring the 10-country association closer to the US’ anti-China orbit.

The ASEAN states — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — may share a geographic location and a common set of economic aspirations, but they are politically diverse — a concern for the US as it seeks to forge anti-China unity.

The US promoted the gathering as marking 45 years of US-ASEAN ties. But Biden used it to promote the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a strategy that is only partially economic. Rather, it is one more piece in a patchwork of groupings and alliances aimed at further militarily encircling China in a bid to curtail its economic advance in the region.

IPEF includes a security element: it will stand alongside the AUKUS and the Quad group of US, Japan India and Australia, which starts in Tokyo on May 24.

The ASEAN meeting reflected the US’ effort to pursue a united front against China. The thrust of US foreign policy remains focused on the Asia-Pacific region, regardless of the ongoing war in Ukraine and US ambitions in Europe.

It is steadily losing ground in its economic war with China. This makes the region a dangerous place. US imperialism has given many veiled, as well as clear, indications that it is prepared to do anything, including precipitating a war with China, to maintain its position as economic hegemon.

The ASEAN states are interested in free and open trade. War and war preparations are not in their immediate or long-term interests. Trade between China and ASEAN is growing rapidly: last year it rose by 30%. Total trade between ASEAN and China reached US$411 billion. By contrast, last year total US-ASEAN trade fell by 12%. Overall trade was US$362 billion.

Such simple logic ought to be enough to convince the ASEAN states that backing the US is a bad economic choice.

The other factor that needs to be considered is that capitalist states and their economies rely on investment dollars. The amount of Chinese foreign direct investment that flows into the ASEAN economies was just US$16 billion in 2020. On the other hand, the figure from the US was US$328 billion. This becomes a huge bargaining chip, or cudgel, with which to threaten.

The US has never been backward in reminding allies, or client states, that this investment has strings.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. Chinese investment accounts for just 2% of all foreign investment. The US component is just short of 25%. Capitalist states are wary about endangering this investment, even at the expense of “national sovereignty”.

It is clear that good relations with China are in the best interests of its close neighbours. This does not mean that the relationship is rosy. Apart from deep animosities and territorial disputes, nationalist rhetoric is frequently on display and the US is keen to exploit this.

Biden heralded the ASEAN meeting, the first to be hosted in Washington, as the beginning of a “new era in US-ASEAN relations”. Even as he invoked the idea of multilateral interests, Biden said: “The breadth of our discussions reflects just how vital the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN region are to the United States of America, from our perspective”.

The economic threat China presents is never far from Biden’s view that the Indo-Pacific remain “free and open, stable and prosperous and resilient and secure”. While he did not name China, he did not have to.

While ASEAN member states broadly support US foreign policy demands, the group does not speak as one: national interests come into play. The US has been able to fuel antagonisms between Vietnam and China and the Sino-Philippines relationship remains tempestuous. On the other hand, Cambodia and Laos enjoy a much warmer relationship with China.

Self interest and wariness on the part of member countries meant that the ASEAN summit, as far as Biden was concerned, was not altogether successful. Cambodian leader Hun Sen, for instance, made it clear that he is not in the business of taking sides. “If you force me to take one, I will refuse,” he said.

The US wanted to take things a little further than the long-held “containment” policy. It made no secret of a desire to further its military presence in the region.

Biden is now heading to the Quad meeting in Japan to present what has been described by US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel as a “wake-up call to China that America is the permanent Pacific presence and power”.

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