A Renewed Plea for Non-Alignment

AAYLF delegate from Singapore Qi Siang Ng explores the importance of a neutral and stable ASEAN, particularly for Australia amidst rising global tensions.

The time of “having your cake and eating it too” in the Asia-Pacific is over. For most of the past two decades, ASEAN and Australia have profited from the economic heft of a rising China and the protection of the US security umbrella. With growing US-China great power rivalry and protectionism eroding this order, small states and middle powers fear that they may be forced to take sides, losing a key trade and/or security partner in the process.

A more uncompromising relationship between Washington and Beijing could degrade Southeast Asia’s security architecture. To limit great power influence, ASEAN insists on its centrality in managing regional affairs and institutions. If individual states are made to pick different sides in this conflict, however,  ASEAN could lose its cherished autonomy by ceasing to be a collective voice for regional interests, becoming instead yet another battlefield for great power influence.

A neutral and stable ASEAN is crucial to Australia’s security and trade. Southeast Asia is a strategic junction between Australia and the rest of the Asia-Pacific, insulating it from geopolitical insecurity while controlling access to lucrative shipping lanes. The regional stability of ASEAN centrality and the regional grouping’s commitment to freedom of navigation better enable these interests than the uncertainty of great power conflict.

While ASEAN and Australia have a shared interest in managing regional US-China rivalry, how could they do so while relatively weaker than both powers? The answer perhaps lies in renewing the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a group of Third World states that sought to maintain their independence from Cold War rivalries. Rendered obsolete by Pax Americana, non-alignment could be a useful way of constraining US-China competition.

Key principles of non-alignment include respect for national sovereignty, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of foreign nations and independence from great power blocs. In 1961, developing nations formed an influential bloc that introduced a “Third World” perspective into key debates on global issues like the UN Reform. Members states maintained a greater degree of foreign policy independence, though governments usually preferred one superpower over the other in practice.

Certainly, the original NAM was flawed – it advanced an anti-globalisation agenda, never fully overturned international superpower dominance, and was excessively (though understandably) suspicious of the West. Still, non-alignment could serve as a model for managing US-China rivalry. A coalition of non-aligned states could pressure Beijing and Washington to refrain from forcing states to form exclusive alliances and avoiding competition that could lead to negative externalities for the international community (e.g. technological protectionism).

ASEAN and Australia should use their “good offices” to revive or recreate NAM. While the effects of US-China rivalry may be felt more intensely at the regional level, this geopolitical contestation is a global phenomenon, with the resulting fallout requiring global solutions. A global NAM movement would enable states to coordinate cross-regional diplomatic efforts while legitimising the movement through broad international support.

This international movement should therefore be expanded beyond traditional NAM members. States like Australia and South Korea who are not traditionally associated with NAM should also be included due to their similar concerns about US-China rivalry. The inclusion of emerging powers like India and Indonesia will also add significant diplomatic heft to the body.

NAM’s goals and philosophy of the grouping should be modified to present conditions. Where member states formerly pursued an anti-globalist agenda, for instance, the objectives and philosophy of the organisation should reflect the increasing economic openness that these states have adopted.  New topics like sustainability and cybersecurity should also be integrated into the NAM agenda to improve its contemporary relevance.

Growing US-China rivalry is not inevitable cause for pessimism. Small and middle powers should not underestimate the power of collective action in checking Washington and Beijing and asserting their right to foreign policy independence. If Beijing and Washington had to think twice before defying this international assertion of non-alignment, ASEAN and Australia could avoid having to pick sides after all.