Friday, April 12, 2024
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Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has served as a platform for its member states and its dialogue partners across the wider Asia Pacific community. One relatively understudied function of ASEAN is its role as a platform for institutional ‘hedging’ in the post-Cold War era.

In Southeast Asia, ASEAN and the ASEAN+ multilateral mechanisms have provided an avenue for small- and medium-sized states to hedge against multiple risks associated with the rise of China, US-China competition and wider strategic uncertainties. The states’ converging efforts (not necessarily collective nor coordinated actions) occur alongside unilateral and bilateral channels for hedging and allow them to simultaneously pursue actions that engage and constrain China at the regional level.

Engagement is the active use of multilateral and bilateral processes to forge increasingly close, comprehensive and productive ties with China — and for that matter, all big powers. Constrainment involves the contradictory action of limiting the influence of the rising power by leveraging the presence of other powers to provide checks and balances on Beijing. Engagement and containment are two sides of the hedging coin.

ASEAN-centred platforms create the manoeuvring and offsetting space for weaker states to keep their options open to deal with the rise of China and wider power uncertainties. This allows smaller states to avoid becoming subservient or over-dependent on their giant neighbour, thereby hedging the risks of ‘engagement without containment. They can also avoid antagonising any power or forgoing any economic gains (hedging the risks of ‘constrained without engagement’) while mitigating the dangers of entrapment and abandonment in the face of uncertainty.

This space may be shrinking. The power dynamics surrounding the South China Sea have challenged Southeast Asian cohesion and ASEAN centrality. Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions are not significantly constrained by any actors or by any arrangements. The United States’ unpredictability under the Trump administration may have been moderated but is still a factor under the Biden administration and weakens the capacity of ASEAN+ platforms and processes to pursue constrained. The intensifying US-China rivalry and Washington’s emerging emphasis on a democracies-versus-autocracies ‘divide’ after the Russian invasion of Ukraine further reduces the space for engagement.

This is all taking place at a time when China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and various Beijing-initiated multilateral mechanisms (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) are gaining momentum in Eurasia and beyond. China’s expanded global economic footprint and Japan’s corresponding infrastructure-centred policy are turning connectivity cooperation into a new chessboard of Asian geopolitical competition.

As geoeconomics converges with geopolitics in Asia, the United States and other Western nations have largely remained bystanders. Though the Western nations eventually announced such ‘alternative’ schemes as the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy (2018), the Blue Dot Network (2019), the Global Gateway (2021) and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (2022), these schemes have thus far remained announcements rather than concrete, credible alternatives to the BRI.

This is a cause for concern. In Southeast Asia, infrastructure development is far more than an economic issue — infrastructure is regarded by the ruling elites of ASEAN states as the key to governance performance upon which they rely to enhance or preserve their political authority. The BRI and Beijing’s new initiatives may not necessarily translate into growing Chinese influence, but a simultaneous increase in China’s inducement and a perceived unpredictability in US external commitments post-2024 may accelerate power shifts and order transitions.

ASEAN remains a useful platform for Southeast Asian hedging precisely because of these uncertainties and challenges. ASEAN-based forums are the only institutional pillars of Asian architecture that are not centred on or dominated by major powers.

Preserving this institutional buffer role is crucial to preserving a stable distribution of power, sustainable peace and durable prosperity in Asia.

One danger of the ongoing order transitions is that more and more Southeast Asian states may move closer to Beijing to benefit from China’s economic opportunities and its growing geopolitical clout. Over time, if more ASEAN states repeatedly show a greater commitment to their big-power patron’s preferences than the interests of other members of the group, ASEAN will risk becoming divided, weakened and marginalised.

The growing gravitational pull of China’s power is not the only concern for Southeast Asian cohesion and centrality. The United States and its allies are forging coalitions of ‘like-minded’ nations (like the Quad and AUKUS), pursuing ‘de-risking’ and planning to open a NATO office in Asia. These threaten to turn their current containment efforts into containment, thereby dividing the region and undermining ASEAN’s role as a platform for hedging.

Southeast Asian states’ current hedging posture is far from the optimal choice for anyone. But there is no risk-free, first-best policy in the real world. Hedging is the next-best option that is in the interest of everyone, including China and other powers. The current ambiguity of active multi-alignment is far better than clear-cut rivalry, outright confrontation or all-out tug-of-war.

Any power may make some immediate gains by inducing other states to side with it. But the short-term gains would be at the longer-term expense of provoking other powers to push back. This could create a vicious cycle of actions and reactions that distracts states from domestic governance, deepens alignment dilemmas, creates camps, exacerbates existing disputes and leads to conflicts that no state wants.

ASEAN’s role as a hedging platform — despite all its limitations and shortcomings — is good for all Southeast Asian states and also good for all other powers and players. How ASEAN entrenches that role in the near term is critical to long-term regional stability in the face of strategic competition between the United States and China, threats of weaponised interdependence, economic decoupling and a dangerous binary trap.

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