1 I find the title odd. The objective of peace is good. The characterization of relationship with China as principally one of competition is a bad starting point. It will be very strange if Singapore were to define its relationship with the US, EU, India or Japan as one of peaceful competition.
2 China has a long history and, because of it, a deep nature which is hard to change. In ASEAN, the rise of China is seen as a re-emergence. We have seen the historical cycles of China over many centuries. Generally speaking, the rise of Chinese dynasties brought prosperity to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In fact, Southeast Asian kingdoms often competed among themselves for the China trade, sometimes going to war over it. No one wants China as an enemy.
3 China’s economic strength is mostly seen as an opportunity. If China is prepared to help ASEAN improve its physical infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative, that is to be welcomed. If this encourages Japan to do more for ASEAN, that rivalry is also to be welcomed. If the Americans and Europeans want to help too, which most of us doubt, that would be wonderful. China’s investments are becoming increasingly important to all of us. ASEAN countries compete to get a piece of the China’s huge market.
4 This does not mean ASEAN countries want to be tributary states of China. Imperial China might have viewed Southeast Asian kingdoms as tributary states but they never saw themselves in that way. In the Malay Annals, the Sultan of Malacca saw himself doing the Chinese emperor a favour by having good relations with him. No Southeast Asian kingdom acknowledged China as suzerain but all desired its friendship and the economic benefits. For this reason, ASEAN’s growing relationship with China will not lead to a subordination of ASEAN to China.
5 As China’s economic and political weight in Southeast Asia grows, ASEAN countries will naturally seek diversification. They will continue to seize opportunities in relations with China but will at the same time welcome a growing American, Japanese, European and Indian presence. Politically, ASEAN will stay neutral. If China pushes too hard, ASEAN will lean to the other powers for countervailing balance. But the objective is balance and neutrality, not alignment with a competitive power. The US is unwise to force a choice on ASEAN countries, which it denies publicly but does privately. Any country seeing its relationship with China grow naturally wants the US to be a friend.
6 ASEAN is diverse and the different member states will strike a different balance in their relationships with the major powers. Cambodia may be closer to China; Singapore to the US. Notwithstanding, the overall group instinct is to stick together. By sticking together, each is better able to withstand pressure from the major powers. Every member state can then buffer itself by declaring solidarity with a common ASEAN position. Indonesia is ASEAN’s anchor. Indonesia has a sense of itself as a big country and will therefore not be aligned with one major power against another. Indonesia is ASEAN’s ballast. Vietnam will never be too close to China or the US.
7 ASEAN countries will not support the US or western agenda against China. To begin with, ASEAN countries remember the period when they were under western domination and find western criticisms of China hypocritical. No ASEAN country supports the western view of China’s introduction of a national security law for Hong Kong. No ASEAN government condemns China’s policy on Xinjiang because all of us face problems of Islamist extremism of one kind or another in our own country.
8 ASEAN sees Japan’s support for US positions as strategic necessity and not necessarily positions which Japan holds deeply. For example, Japan has a long relationship with the Myanmar, Thai and Indonesian armies going back to Aung San, Pibulsonggram and Sukarno. Japan has a deep understanding of Southeast Asia’s history and will not, by taking a western position, cause it to lose influence vis a vis China.
9 ASEAN sees India’s participation in the QUAD as tactical. India has too long a history and too profound a view of itself to be made use of by anybody. India will not give up its strategic relationship with Russia. Whatever threat of sanction the US may issue, India is taking delivery of the S-400 air defence system.
10 As for the west itself, the EU has its own interest even though it shares common civilizational values with the US. Australia’s close alignment of its national policy on China with the US has lost it credibility as an autonomous player in the region. It is to be expected that Australia’s core position should be close to that of the US. But, on non-core positions, Australia should assert its own position and hew closer to ASEAN. ASEAN countries have deep links with Australia. ASEAN countries are aware that the position of the current administration is not necessarily the long-term position of Australia.
11 ASEAN countries are anxious about the deteriorating state of US-China relations. This is like a quarrel between mother and father which ASEAN countries would not wish to be caught in between. In recent years, there is a general sense that China is on the ascent while the US is in decline. Countries are therefore re-triangulating their longer-term positions but all are careful not to take sides.
12 On Taiwan, in particular, the common view is that the US is playing Taiwan as a card against China. No ASEAN country will sit on this table. If there is conflict between the US and
China, no country in ASEAN will want to be involved.
13 On disputes in the South China Sea, there is a general view that China’s claims are excessive. Among the five claimant states, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei prefer the resulting problems to be managed quietly. Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ position are sharper. US support is viewed with mixed feelings. There is a wish to make use of the US to counterbalance China but there is also a fear that we may become pawns on a US-China chessboard. A China-ASEAN Code of Conduct on disputes in the South China Sea serves our regional interests best. It is however not clear whether the US wants any agreement at all. The US will continue to lean on ASEAN against China. ASEAN countries have the uncomfortable feeling that the US is interested in them only to the extent that they are part of global US policy against China.
14 A significant part of Europe’s policy on ASEAN is motivated by human rights considerations. This is regretted by ASEAN countries. ASEAN countries do not acknowledge a European moral right to pass judgment on them but they do desire a greater European presence in the region. A stronger European presence softens the position for everybody. Unfortunately, we still do not see a clear and sensible European position on ASEAN.
15 Throughout Southeast Asia, the rise of China is in everyone’s view. Ethnic Chinese living in the ten member states are playing a growing role in China’s relationship with ASEAN. Like in the past, they are once again playing the role of compradores, playing the role of intermediaries. This creates new challenges of course. On the whole, however, their role is perceived as positive but this is only for as long as China’s relationship with ASEAN countries is good. If that relationship sours, ethnic Chinese in Singapore will see a recurrence of an anti-Chinese backlash. This is an old theme in Southeast Asia’s relationship with China which we hopefully have sufficient historical wisdom to manage well.
16 If ASEAN plays its cards right, it will be the best and the only convening platform for players in the region. ASEAN is supposedly in the driver’s seat for regional organisations not because it is a good driver but because it is a safe driver, a little bumbling perhaps, and not one which will take the vehicle in a direction which the passengers do not want. If there were no rising China, ASEAN would not have such a role. China’s rise presents a huge opportunity for ASEAN but also challenges which have to be skillfully managed.
17 Decoupling in strategic areas between the US and China may benefit ASEAN which has strong economic relations with all major economic powers. MNCs see ASEAN as useful diversification as they are never sure what new headaches trade disputes can cause them. As the Chinese market grows, China may become more important than the US for many US MNCs. The shift of manufacturing from China to Southeast Asia is good for ASEAN. Even Chinese MNCs see advantage in such a strategy.
18 Singapore’s well-being is greatly dependent on Southeast Asia as a whole. Hong Kong’s national security law has benefited Singapore because it is seen to be far away enough from China but also close enough. All the major powers, including China, see the benefit of building up their presence in Singapore. In recent years, the flow of Chinese money in Singapore has been significant. Modern Singapore was established by the British East India Company for the China trade of that era. In this century, Singpaore is well-positioned for a new China trade which dwarfs the old.