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September 30, 2021

Middle-Power Multilateralism Needed

As China continues its military expansion and Washington divides the Indo-Pacific into democratic friends and autocratic foes, the EU and ASEAN are the only forces that can credibly jump to the rescue of multilateralism and rules-based trade.

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A military soldier stands guard at the ASEAN summit in Hanoi, Vietnam November 12, 2020.
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From the outset, US President Joe Biden made no secret about his intention to build (or rebuild) alliances to counter China’s rise and the global spread of authoritarianism. While Europe initially reacted with relief that Trumpism and US unilateralism was over, feelings in ASEAN have certainly been more mixed—not only due to the questionable democratic record of some member states (including US security allies), but also because the perspective of having to choose sides between the two regional superpowers goes fundamentally against the strategic in-betweenness that is inherent to the concept of “ASEAN centrality.” Many Southeast Asian countries have built their economic strategies on this.

ASEAN Centrality Under Siege

Indeed, one key element of the “ASEAN way” has been to prevent geopolitics from interfering with economic cooperation while defending “ASEAN centrality” in the Asia-Pacific—sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. Only last November, the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) marked a major success in this regard. Notwithstanding its moderate ambitions in terms of standardization or non-tariff barriers to trade, the RCEP sent a strong signal of multilateral cooperation in the region, bringing together Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, and Wellington in one agreement despite a multitude of lingering economic and political conflicts between them.

Thus, whereas some US and European media misleadingly portrayed the agreement as a Chinese hegemonic initiative, the RCEP has been more accurately described as “a triumph of ASEAN middle-power diplomacy.” In an already tense geopolitical environment and against the backdrop of pandemic-related disruptions to interconnected globalization, it was also a powerful signal for interdependence rather than decoupling.

Ten months on, the new Australian-British-American security alliance AUKUS is sending  very different messages: It is heralding not so much a US “return to multilateralism” but rather of a prioritizing of realist zero-sum over liberal positive-sum calculations. The drastic French reaction may have overshadowed the agonizing in many Southeast Asian capitals.

The Australian government felt compelled to issue a conciliatory follow-up statement, reassuring neighbors that the US and Australia remain “firmly committed to Southeast Asia, ASEAN centrality, and ASEAN-led architecture,” while underscoring “the role of the East Asia Summit as the region’s premier, leaders-led forum for addressing strategic challenges.” In fact,  AUKUS has already exacerbated the internal strategic rifts in ASEAN and put them on painful display. While the Philippines explicitly welcomed the initiative, and Vietnam de facto condoned it, Malaysia and Indonesia—notably the group’s most important remaining democracies—voiced serious concerns about both the new tripartite alliance and the Quad, another regional security alliance of India, Australia, Japan, and the US that only pays lip service to ASEAN centrality.

Even those ASEAN governments welcoming an external counter-balancing of China’s regional hegemony recognize that such security alliances are only going to strengthen what Helena Legarda of the Mercator Institute for China Studies has described as the Chinese Communist Party’s “feeling of being under siege, surrounded by Western countries and their allies.” AUKUS strengthens nationalist hardliners in Beijing, while also exposing the US commitment to international norms (such as nuclear non-proliferation) as just as vacuous as Beijing’s commitment to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is hardly surprising that one of the new alliance’s biggest cheerleaders is Donald Trump’s former national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who simplistically frames the conundrum for countries in the Indo-Pacific as a “choice between sovereignty and servitude.” This Manichean worldview, which refuses to take account of the concerns of smaller countries, now appears to have gone mainstream in Washington as well as Beijing.

Alliance Building Is Not Multilateralism

Simultaneously, President Biden has chosen to once again bring values to the forefront of international politics as he is preparing to unite the “Free World” in a virtual Summit for Democracy in December. That Washington commits itself to supporting human rights defenders, anti-corruption groups, and women’s rights activists is reassuring after four years of autocratic posturing and support for far-right populist groups worldwide straight from the White House.

But not only is the US commitment to the transatlantic alliance waning—both the inconsiderate withdrawal from Afghanistan and the formation of the AUKUS alliance against French interests show how little European sensitivities count in Washington—the characterization of the Biden administration’s alliance-building approach to containing China as “multilateralism” is also flawed. The artificial division of the world into democratic allies and non-democratic enablers of a global authoritarian advance only shows how mainstream foreign policy thinking across the aisle in Washington is now dominated by (spurious) historical analogies with the Cold War that preceded the European Union’s creation and enlargement.

Yet, Biden has shied away from defining a minimal standard for “democracy,” and for good reason: the decisions about who to invite make for tough choices between values and realpolitik, not least in the Indo-Pacific. Just think of the crackdown on civil society and media freedom in the “world’s largest democracy,” India, or the murderous right-wing populism in the Philippines, another crucial building block of Washington’s security-focused containment strategy in the South China Sea. With Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brunei currently devoid of any democratic pretense, the Biden administration risks deepening the intra-ASEAN rift only further by explicitly splitting member countries into a “good,” democratic, pro-US camp and an “evil,” autocratic, pro-China camp.

It is also noteworthy that Biden has not made it a priority for the US to (re)join the (CP)TPP, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, once the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s non-military toolbox in countering China’s rise and defending American regional leadership. In fact, the new US administration has shied away from articulating any coherent trade and investment strategy, probably out of fear of a domestic backlash against trade agreements of any kind.

Seeking to Avoid Taking Sides

While the US has been fixated on China in all its recent foreign policy initiatives, Beijing has been turning its diplomatic attention southward, focusing its efforts on currying favor with the vast group of so-called “developing countries” in the Global South. Chinese leaders are doubling down on their long-standing narrative of economic “win-win cooperation,” portraying China as the pragmatic, hands-on alternative to an aging hegemonic power that unnecessarily politicizes the United Nations and the global cause of economic development.

Nowhere did this become clearer than in President Xi Jinping’s September 2021 address to the UN General Assembly. Beijing’s development-focused rhetoric and long-term charm offensive toward the heads of state and government of developing countries who are used to being snubbed by Washington will continue to pay dividends, notably in Africa, as long as Western countries only treat the Global South as a sphere of influence where China’s “authoritarian advance” must be repelled. (President Biden did not grant an audience to any African leader who visited New York for the occasion.)

The situation in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific is of course wildly different: Beijing’s rapid military build-up and ruthless unilateral changes to the status quo in the South China Sea cannot be glossed over with economic “win-win” rhetoric, as they directly affect the vital national interests of all countries in the region and have repeatedly fueled outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiment—not to mention the many examples of Beijing’s disregard for UNCLOS, its bilateralization of regional issues and geo-economic bullying of weaker neighbors.

Nonetheless, forcing Southeast Asian countries to choose sides is particularly problematic at a moment when China-ASEAN economic interdependence is at an all-time high. China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for over a decade, and ASEAN also overtook the EU to become China’s largest trading partner in 2020. Chinese investments in ASEAN still trail European Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) despite the higher mediatic prominence of flagship Belt and Road projects; but many Southeast Asian governments are banking on their northern neighbor for the digitalization of their industries and government services, while also trying to capitalize on Western companies’ growing wariness of overreliance on China.

Especially for the larger maritime countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, it is essential to maintain and even further deepen trade and investment ties with the new regional hegemonic power that is there to stay while simultaneously counter-balancing China’s aggressive foreign policy with external help. This means that while most countries (and their citizens, according to surveys) certainly welcome a continued, meaningful economic and military US presence in the region as a counterweight to Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions, exacerbated US-China polarization with the prospect of eventually having to choose sides in a decoupling global economy is even more daunting for Southeast Asians than for Europeans.

After all, ASEAN’s economic future, as laid out in its 2016 Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, crucially relies on Southeast Asia’s strategic role in integrated global value chains. For this to work, ASEAN countries need to remain a battleground for economic and technological competition, not for a military arms race. In this context, China’s application to join the CPTPP only days after the controversial AUKUS announcement was a smart move. Even if it has little chance of succeeding, it signals Beijing’s commitment to regional economic integration despite geopolitical tensions.

Alternatives to Great Power Rivalry

The concept of a “New Cold War” is, to a certain extent, a self-fulfilling one. The more middle powers and smaller countries believe in an inevitable repetition of the 20th century’s bipolar confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, the less they will be able to do to avoid it and stand up for a multilateral (rather than multipolar) world order. While only the United States may be able to counterbalance China’s military expansion, the EU has a strong material and normative interest in not being seen—in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere—as the appendix of US containment policies. Rather, it should be a principled, cooperation-oriented actor in its own right. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, at least appears committed to the cause. In a speech given during his June 2021 visit to Jakarta, he acknowledged “the need for the EU to engage more in and with the Indo-Pacific” and pledged stronger cooperation with ASEAN on “shared security, sustainable connectivity and global challenges.”

The EU does have significant strengths here which it should put much more to the fore: EU support for democracy, human rights, and civil society is less susceptible to being perceived only through the lens of countering Chinese influence. Unlike the US, EU member states are actual parties to UNCLOS as well as to the International Labour Organization’s eight core conventions which the Chinese government is rightly accused of violating.

The EU can also take the high ground on supply-chain due diligence by adopting a stringent, mandatory system that addresses human trafficking, forced labor, or illegal deforestation across the board rather than through selective sanctions against individual countries and industries. And by seriously assuming a global leadership role on climate crisis mitigation and the green transformation, Europeans can also contribute to addressing the most imminent non-traditional security threat in the region—after all, six ASEAN member states are among the 20 most vulnerable countries in the world. While the EU’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy includes many important initiatives in this regard, it remains rather unambitious in light of the acute challenges and lacks the public and political attention it would deserve in this (South)East Asian century.

Rather than trying to play a military role in the Indo-Pacific, the EU should put more faith in its normative strength and the sway of its internal market and related regulatory powers to exert its influence in the region. Despite the poor democratic record of many of its member states, ASEAN with its innate logic of consensus-oriented negotiation and hard-won compromises remains the most like-minded entity in the EU’s struggle for multilateral solutions and “shared security.”

Together, the EU and ASEAN as multilateral organizations will need to take back the initiative. Thus, the relaunch of negotiations for a region-to-region trade agreement should not be a remote possibility, but an urgent priority for EU trade policy. Direct economic benefits aside, the perspective of an EU-ASEAN FTA would send a strong signal for multilateralism and raise Europe’s profile in the region. And by offering European companies a more attractive exit strategy from China—or at least facilitating their diversification strategies along the idea of “China+1”—it might even do more to improve the famous “level playing field” in China itself than the embattled EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) ever could.

Bertram Lang is academic coordinator of the interdisciplinary center for East Asian Studies (IZO) at Goethe University Frankfurt.

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