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The Taiwan Crisis and ASEAN’s Dilemma

Following the recent US-China tensions over Taiwan, ASEAN seems caught up in the great power competition, as the series of exchanges between the two powers is perturbing the region’s geopolitics.

The high-level visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August this year further exacerbated the already tense relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. As a reaction, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted live military drills less than twenty kilometers from Taiwan, cutting into Taiwan’s territorial waters. This signaled the possibility of a cross-strait war to the US and the neighboring ASEAN states who fear that US-China tensions over Taiwan might have a spillover effect in the region.

Since Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing Wen came to power in 2016, cross-strait tensions appear to have heightened. In office, Tsai has repeatedly refused to accept the formula of her predecessor that allowed for enhanced cross-strait relations. Under the One-China Principle, Beijing has reiterated that there exists only “One China” having only one legitimate Chinese government with Taiwan as its part awaiting reunification, referring to the 1992 Consensus reached between the representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT). Chinese officials have repeatedly proclaimed that the Taiwan issue is its internal affair, and it would not tolerate any interference from any other country.

Southeast Asia, a rumbling economic powerhouse lying at the heart of the geopolitically important Indo-Pacific region, has expansive security and defense cooperation with the United States and the region offers enormous opportunities for bolstering US employment in the wider Indo-Pacific via strong economic, diplomatic, political, and security means. China, on the other hand, has shown impressive economic growth and has sought to anchor its foothold in the region by increasing its material power capabilities, huge economic potential, diplomatic skills, and tactical intimidation. The ASEAN nations have admirable trade with both the US and China, both being the largest trading partners of the region. This bloc had an estimated trade of $362.2 billion with the US in 2020 as stated by the US Trade Representative office, whereas the region has been the largest trading partner of ASEAN for over past 13 years and had a trade of $544.9 billion with China in first seven months of this year, according to Chinese state media Xinhua.

The Southeast Asian nations have long relied upon China for trade and the United States for security; many governments in the region have struggled to find a clear response to the escalating tensions between the rival powers and are acting warily. As the strategic rivalry between the two global powers continues to blaze, there seems to be a divide among the Southeast Asian nations, posing a challenge for this region that has always sought unity to attain speedy economic growth. At present, there seems to be no consensus among these states about mitigating the risks, but the majority agree that they do not want to choose sides or risk antagonizing China due to the risk of disproportionate retaliation by Beijing.

In August, Malaysia’s former and long-ruling Prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad condemned “US provocation” for the intensifying tensions over Taiwan, asserting that China is a “big market” for Malaysia and maintaining economic ties with China is crucial. Adding that China’s philosophy is not to subjugate and conquer nations, Mahathir urged the Southeast Asian countries to move closer to China. Cambodia is also a close Chinese ally and its trading partner in the region. There are other Southeast Asian nations who seem to pivot away from China, given the fear of Chinese assertiveness and coercion in the region. The Philippines is one such state, whose President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has established ties with the US, unlike his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. There is an increased probability that the country will be a potential launching site for American military action as it also has a mutual defense treaty with the US. Indonesia, another geographically important country, has a fraternal relationship with the United States. Other countries such as Singapore and Vietnam are already strong US partners in the bloc.

In the Joint communique of the 55th ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, ASEAN reiterated its support for the “One China Principle”. Moreover, they asserted that "ASEAN is concerned with the international and regional volatility, especially in the recent development in the area adjacent to the ASEAN region which could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers," and that  “ASEAN stands ready to play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful dialogue between all parties including through utilizing ASEAN-led mechanisms to deescalate tension, to safeguard peace, security, and development in our region.” In the U.S.-ASEAN summit held in Phnom Penh on 10-13th November, ASEAN leaders also refrained from taking any side in the US-China strategic rivalry. According to Kung Phoak, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Cambodia, “We do not want to choose sides. ASEAN wants to work closely with both the U.S. and China”.

Conclusively, Southeast Asian nations, lying in the ambit of the global powers, appear to refrain from taking any definite position on what side they should take during the recent US-China spat over Taiwan. Many Southeast Asian countries are anxious about growing Chinese military capabilities and long-term ambitions with a strong fear of inciting China; however, they also have persistent doubts about the US security assurances. Economic pressures, no doubt, add worry to the region, in the face of the faltering global growth outlook and decoupling supply chains affecting the export-oriented economies. While on the one hand, it may seem that the region might prefer to align with China given its promises of government inducements, loans, and other economic opportunities, on the other hand, the crucial role of the US in assuring the region’s security cannot be overlooked. These ambivalent attitudes and threat perceptions, coupled with intraregional tensions, present a great challenge for the ASEAN states to bolster their centrality while sustaining their neutrality amid great power competition.