The first half of 2020 has proved to be a turbulent period for the international community. COVID-19 has brought to a halt economic processes and trade exchanges between countries due to travel restrictions. More significantly, COVID-19 has heightened the rivalry between Beijing and Washington, which can be felt through fierce diplomatic confrontations between the two superpowers. For ASEAN countries, what does this unprecedented debate between the world’s first and second superpower mean?
Chinese foreign policy in South-East Asia
Firstly, China’s expansion to South East Asia is perceived across the ASEAN community as Beijing’s process to turn the region into its own “sphere of influence”. Beijing has on a recurrent basis acted in a way that demonstrates strategic interest in the South East Asian region. Xi Jinping in 2013 announced in Indonesia the commencement of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, which is a foreign policy initiative incorporated within the 21st century Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s interest in South East Asia is a result of Xi Jinping’s slogan “The Chinese Dream”, which pushes for China’s prosperity both nationally and internationally. As part of this vision, China has been developing projects with the ultimate aim to have leverage in South East Asia, strengthening its soft power within the region. This has primarily occurred through the establishment of infrastructure development projects, which could benefit economies in the ASEAN region. However, these types of projects initiated by China have been subject to criticism; there are concerns that these infrastructure development initiatives may feed corruption within ASEAN economies and only primarily benefit Chinese firms initiating the projects.
Diplomatic confrontations affecting ASEAN
Before the Coronavirus pandemic started, ASEAN countries could equally distance themselves from China’s and Washington’s foreign policy. However, Trump’s “America First” foreign policy approach has created the idea among ASEAN countries that the US may be unable to provide stable diplomatic support. Consequently, a mutual loss of trust from ASEAN countries towards Washington and Beijing is taking place, particularly due to circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. The US is gradually losing its reputation for being a superpower able to provide world-class leadership, due to its flawed management of the coronavirus crisis within its borders.
At the same time, the international community is stuck in unconstructive debates which seek to bring a blame for the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. Further instances of intense diplomatic confrontations are happening between China and Australia, despite the latter having taken an approach that attempted to build equally constructive relationships with Washington and Beijing in pre-COVID-19 times. As such, ASEAN countries are geographically located in an area encompassed by tense diplomatic relations.
Diplomatic confrontation between ASEAN nations and China also exist due to the issue of disputed islands in the South China Sea. The US has been dragged away from the issue of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea because of the challenges it is facing within its borders. However, China may take the retreat of the US from the region as a strategic vacuum working to Beijing’s advantage in the ASEAN region.
A possible decrease of US influence in the ASEAN region may be perceived through the origins of exports to ASEAN economies; Chinese exports in the region have been continuously growing, and show no signs of decline despite the economic difficulties brought by the Coronavirus pandemic In the first quarter of 2020, China exported US$478 billion to the rest of the world, of which 16% to the ASEAN block. On the other hand, Chinese exports to the United States amounted to 14%. This is possibly the first time that Chinese exports to ASEAN economies surpass that of the United States. This could possibly symbolise a gradual rebalancing of cooperation from an ASEAN perspective.
The results of diplomatic confrontation between US and China: beyond ASEAN
At present, the world’s two superpowers can choose to take the path of either confrontation or constructive cooperation. The whole world will be affected by the way Beijing and Washington will choose to interact. Will China and the US decide to maintain the recurring aggressive tone that has been seen in the recent years? Or will the two superpowers be able to develop a constructive relationship taking in consideration the two countries’ differences? ASEAN nations possibly feel unsure in terms of which direction to side, and this uncertainty from an ASEAN perspective may also have been increased due to Australia’s increasing tension with China due to Coronavirus-related debates.
However, we need to take in consideration that the geopolitical developments between the US and China will not only bring changes to the ASEAN community, but will also have repercussions for the entire international arena. After all, we are seeing a situation which may remind the international community of Thucydides’ Trap. This is a concept named after the Greek historian who argued that the rise of Athens “instilled fear in Sparta”, which was the ruling power at the time. He argued that this was ultimately the primary cause of war between the two. In the last 500 years human society saw 16 cases where a ruling power feared the rise of a growing nation, and according to historians, on 12 occasions it resulted in war.
2020 has certainly been a year which has brought unforeseen circumstances and challenges to the international community. Arguably, we are seeing developments across the international spectrum that will have tangible effects for several years following 2020. An already tangible effect can be seen through the rebalancing of Chinese and American influence within the ASEAN region.