The meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) in Cambodia, Bali and Bangkok (to be held on November 8-13, 2022) are taking place in the shadow of the European conflict in Ukraine. In recent weeks, China has activated its diplomacy, taking advantage of the favorable situation, especially in Asia. Beijing’s goal is to gain control of the Indo-Pacific. This is what their adversaries, in particular the US and Russia, are striving for.
China effectively takes advantage of the European conflict, strengthening its relations with ASEAN, the most dynamic area of economic development in the world, rich in fossil fuels and other natural resources, and with well-educated high-tech professionals. On the other hand, the Western world is also interested in the innovations created there.
China wants to integrate with the economies of ASEAN countries that already have become their most important trading partners. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the slogans of the three summit meetings coincided with the actions of Chinese diplomacy. During the meetings, joint initiatives were emphasized for the reconstruction of the ASEAN nations after the Covid-19 pandemic. Those countries are currently also affected by the effects of the Russian aggression on Ukraine.
The current war in Ukraine is a military operation whose far-reaching goals consist in gaining control over the area of Eurasia with huge economic and raw material potential, through which new routes of road, rail and air communication are already being marked out. They are leading to the Indo-Pacific.
UKRAINE AS A GATEWAY TO EURASIA
China’s two most serious adversaries, the United States and Russia, have become embroiled in the Ukrainian conflict as Ukraine stands in their way to Eurasia. The causes of the conflict are too complex to be analyzed ad hoc. The war broke out because Russia believed in the effectiveness and invariability of its current policy based on brute force that it has been conducting for centuries in the areas of its colonization. The control over those areas has grown into their imperial policy, hence the attack on the hitherto sovereign Ukraine, over which the United States has also been trying to extend its influence since at least 2014 and the famous Kiev Maidan. Therefore, the resistance on the part of Ukraine and the relatively united response of the West caused considerable consternation in the Kremlin.
The conflict in Ukraine has already activated some countries in the region, such as Kazakhstan that is currently seeking to open new routes for the export of its oil because dependence on Russian pipelines hinders the free flow of that raw material to many foreign recipients. Georgia, Armenia and Uzbekistan are also planning to join new raw material routes.
Land routes leading to the oceans of East Asia via Ukraine may in the future, after the end of the conflict, be as lucrative as sea routes, so it is understandable that gaining control over Eurasia is the key to gaining influence also over the future directions of economic development of the world.
ASEAN AND THE UKRAINIAN WAR
The Ukrainian issue was emphasized on the ASEAN debates in Phnom Penh, thanks to the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was the chairman of this Summit. For Hun Sen, it was an opportunity to stand up for the fate of small states bordering on powerful neighbors that threaten their sovereignty, and in this context to also condemn Russian aggression, which was underlined by Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). Cambodian Prime Minister spoke out against any aggression and territorial annexation by any state. His statements on Ukraine contrasted with the relatively cautious and vague stance of ASEAN countries on the conflict.
Caution in expressing unequivocal opinions or calls the ASEAN forum is comes, among others, from Russia’s presence among the states parties to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) that also includes the USA and China. This also due to the ASEAN’s strategic partnerships with Australia, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, USA and EU along with China. Although the attack on Ukraine created the basis for the exclusion of the Russian Federation from the group, ASEAN limited its reaction only to calling on to all parties for a peaceful solution to the conflict in accordance with the rules of the Association contained in the TAC. On the other hand, ASEAN’s reserve towards the conflict is also a result of serious economic losses incurred from the effects of military operations. There have already been changes in supply chains, difficulties in accessing raw materials imported from Russia to Asian countries, perturbations in international trade, and disruptions in cooperation between companies. The anti-Russian sanctions of the West are not in the interests of the countries of the Association, because, among other things, apart from energy resources, they also import space technologies from Russia that are increasingly needed not only for defense purposes.
In this context, as a failure can be seen ASEAN’s previous plans to “count on” Russia as one of the strategic forces that could be resorted to in the event that China tries to establish itself as the regional hegemonic power. This is also true since Russia’s trade with ASEAN has now decreased to just USD 1 billion in 2021.
SOUTH EAST ASIA BETWEEN CHINA AND USA
During the meetings in Phnom Penh, Bali and Bangkok, China promoted an increased dynamics of its economy’s integration with the ASEAN countries. The instruments China constantly uses to achieve its goals of an ‘integration diplomacy’ with the region include: building the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), currently the world’s largest trade bloc, building economic land-sea corridors to ensure the supply of raw materials to China and the export of Chinese goods. This is, for example, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that threatens India’s interests in its close vicinity, or the continuation of the already initiated railway lines from southern China to Malaysia and Singapore, the first section of which – through Laos – is already in operation.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-Russian talks in Turkey have caused uneasiness on the Ukrainian side as Kiev fears that a possible agreement between Washington and Moscow could jeopardize the unity of the state and undermine the current power structure. On the basis of talks in Turkey, the Chinese president called for a peaceful solution, and above all, for nuclear weapons not to be used as it would lead to a mass loss of human life in the world’s most developed areas and the regression of the global economy. Similar appeals for peace come from various opinion-forming centers around the world.
The situation may become increasingly tense as evidenced, for example, by accidental tragic rocket explosions on Polish territory. This can be explained in various ways, also as a sign of the Ukraine’s determination as it employed its air defense against Russian attacks but – unfortunately – it hit a completely different target. Kiev is expecting a more active and stronger involvement of Warsaw in the Ukrainian issue, including the sphere of propaganda, to finally get the desired reaction in the West.
China’s activity at the recent ASEAN Summit is not surprising, as China has entered into a “strategic partnership” with the Association in 2021 and is implementing its own Belt and Road (BRI) projects, binding it to the region. Therefore, on the ASEAN forum China calmly played its part in the great game for global influence.
In its dealings with the states in its immediate neighbourhood, China follows the eastern tactics of the friendship hierarchy. In response, it expects from its partners at least neutrality and respect for the Chinese values. This attitude was demonstrated, for example, by Vietnam, whose president paid a visit to Beijing immediately after the end of the Chinese Communist Party congress. China expects similar signs of friendship from Singapore, which is a hub for ASEAN’s financial and technological cooperation. China has recently signed several agreements with Singapore on high-tech exchanges.
Meanwhile, opponents of Chinese penetration into the Asian region and Beijing’s building and strengthening of influence among the maritime states are not staying idle. Various Anglo-Saxon initiatives (UK and US) launched in recent years with the participation of France and India are aimed at pushing China away and containing its territorial and political ambitions. However, both AUKUS and the QUAD format have, so far, an illusory impact on the situation in the region. Nevertheless, the situation in the Pacific is dynamic, because many countries, not only the USA and China, have already entered into competition in all spheres of international relations, especially military and technological ones.
Countries that do not enter into any alliances will not gain access to the latest technologies, especially defense ones, and will become defenseless prey for others. In today’s world, there is not much space for those who hesitate or are unable to defend their own sovereignty.
China is not deterred by anti-Chinese games in the Indo-Pacific area and acts as if they did not exist, knowing that their adversaries are not uniform and constant in their views, and their diplomacy is changeable, because it expresses different interests of the members of the emerging coalition resulting from the needs of a given moment, which is temporary and unstable.
The fact that China does not waste time to strengthen its influence can be seen in its approach to seemingly insignificant countries such as Laos and Cambodia. Their strategic location in the center of the Indochina peninsula was appreciated by China during bilateral Sino-Lao and Sino-Cambodian talks at the Lancang-Mekong Commission forum in Pagan, Myanmar in April 2022. China’s strengthening of ties with both nations had an immediate impact on their relations with the US, which, as the host of the meeting, did not invite representatives of Laos and Cambodia to the conference on the framework of future ASEAN economic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, despite the efforts of both countries to be included in the new initiative.
The neighborhood diplomacy currently conducted by China encourages countries in the region to cooperate more closely under the aegis of Beijing. Chinese signals are so general and ideologically unobtrusive that they can be perceived positively, even as a desired vision of getting out of poverty, which still plagues societies of that region. Aid efforts are now helping China better disguise the neo-colonial nature of its policies. In particular, since Beijing is increasingly emphasizing its dominant role in Asian relations, as expressed by the Chinese security initiative announced by President Xi in April this year during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Summit.
China enjoys a strong position in the historical memory of the inhabitants of the region also thanks to the cultural factors it has created over the centuries. The Chinese diasporas existing in individual countries create additional fields of mutual understanding. Therefore, back in 2013, President Xi Jinping recalled China’s former ties with the region with remarkable words, saying that the inhabitants of various countries located along the ancient silk routes have written together for millennia the cards of friendship that lasts until today, and that now is the high time to establish closer economic relations, deepening cooperation and expanding development in the Eurasian region, so that a new area of economic community will be set up along the former silk route. Probably, during the Summit, the leaders of the ASEAN countries had these Chinese political enunciations well in mind.
LESSONS FOR EUROPE AND POLAND
Meetings during the last ASEAN Summit did not bring any major surprises. The leaders of the participating countries did not reach a unified position on the issues raised, both in terms of the way to recover from the damage suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the policy on climate change, digitization of life nor responsible and fair economic and social growth of individual societies. The ASEAN has not yet developed a strong leadership that could give the Association a more pronounced dynamism. On the contrary, one could get the impression that the Association is subject to similar manipulations as elsewhere and oscillates towards the goals imposed by the propagators of globalism.
The ongoing war has also shaken the ideas of ASEAN, and now the bloc must look more realistically at its principles (the so-called ASEAN way), such as respect for territorial integrity or non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. So how should member states behave in a situation where they are forced to support one or another contender for hegemony, be it the United States, China, India or Russia? According to the Indonesian Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzan, ASEAN countries have no interest in interfering in the European conflict. They also do not want to irritate China, so as not to cause an escalation of the conflict in the South China Sea that is much closer to the countries of the region.
The Summit debates have shown that any new initiatives to create economic blocs, regardless of whether they are against the interests of the main players, whether in Asia or Europe, can be destroyed by political pressure, and ultimately also military reactions from the globalists. The Ukrainian conflict exposed many elements of that game. This may also apply to the Three Seas Initiative that is assumed to be a plan for a central-eastern-southern European economic community, comparable to ASEAN, and the conflict in Ukraine may be a counterattack by the same parties involved in the conflict in Ukraine – acting against the growing economic competition, whether in Asian or European region.
Author: Tomasz Gerlach, PhD, expert, Center for International Relations