Global Lens

Prosperity and doubts: the two-faced relationship between China and the Southeast

Article by Vittoria Mazzieri

Regional investment targets, ideological allies, security partners, players in territorial claims: since the beginning of diplomatic relations, Southeast Asian countries have assumed changing and complex roles in Beijing's eyes. In terms of geographic proximity and economic cooperation, ASEAN occupies a priority role in Chinese foreign policy

Deng Xiaoping's 1979 trip to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore marks an important point in relations between Beijing and the countries of Southeast Asia. The "little helmsman" was amazed by the socioeconomic progress in an area he had mistakenly regarded as economically backward. As noted in an essay on the subject by Singapore's Nanyang Technological University professors Zhou Taomo and Hong Liu, what particularly struck Deng was the city-state south of Malaysia. In the aftermath of his meeting with then Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the People's Daily moves from describing Singapore as the "watchdog of American imperialists" to painting it as an "island of peace," a "garden city worth studying." Deng, on the other hand, receives yet another confirmation of the need to abandon the ideological lenses with which the Communist Party has hitherto interpreted relations with Southeast Asia.

Relations between the Asian giant and the city-state demonstrate the People's Republic's changing relations with the area traditionally known as Nanyang 南洋, "South Seas." In addition to the domestic political context, Beijing's relations with the region have been influenced by issues related to the identity of diasporic communities (in Singapore, 75 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese), territorial disputes, and various infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative.

The first years after the People's Republic's emergence are characterized by a moderate and flexible approach: Beijing advocates a "third way" that can offer an alternative to the two Cold War blocs even to countries ideologically unrelated to the Communist Party. The promulgation of the Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence in 1954 presents a new framework of international relations based on mutual respect for territorial integrity and the principle of non-interference, even for ideologically unrelated countries. The Sino-Indonesian Dual Nationality Treaty, signed the following year, ends the policy of granting nationality to all ethnic Chinese. China thus encourages overseas communities to adopt the nationality of the countries in which they live, thereby aiming to assuage the concerns of some Southeast Asian countries, fearful that communities of Chinese could be used by the Party to engage in subversive activities. 

Over the years ethnic Chinese minorities became the target of heavy-handed discriminatory policies: in 1959 Indonesian President Sukarno revoked the license to operate retail businesses from all "foreigners," mostly Chinese. As a result, in some places, the feeling of belonging to the motherland is strengthened. With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, groups of ethnic Chinese students began wearing Mao Zedong badges in schools in Rangoon, in present-day Myanmar. A wave of large-scale ethnic riots and a drastic deterioration in bilateral relations ensue.

Since the late 1960s, Chinese foreign policy in general has tended to radicalize, partly because of the economic recession following the disastrous Great Leap Forward. The establishment in 1967 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand from an anti-communist perspective, is perceived by Mao Zedong as a tool of imperialism. Ideologically neighboring countries are asked to recognize as the main targets of the revolution, in Premier Zhou Enlai's words, "imperialism, feudalism and comprador capitalism." An approach that would change dramatically in the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. As explained in an article for ISPI by Ngeow Chow-Bing, director of the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Malaya, in this scenario ASEAN assumes strategic importance for Beijing to contain the expansionist aims of the government in Hanoi (with which relations have deteriorated irretrievably) over Indochina and the entire region.

The record-breaking economic development affecting the People's Republic since the 1990s is a key element in the expansion of its soft power influence, as Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, has written. China's economic performance attracts the interest of developing countries and also has the effect of enhancing the reputation of Chinese communities living in the region.

It is during those years that what official Chinese rhetoric describes as the "golden decade" of relations with ASEAN (which as of today, in addition to the founding countries, also counts Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, East Timor, Laos, and Vietnam) begins. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Beijing made the symbolic decision not to devalue its currency, offering itself as a guarantor of stability. In the following years it initiated relevant multilateral agreements: the Chiang Mai Currency Exchange Initiative, the 2002 Free Trade Agreement, and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which stabilized territorial disputes, in the same year. 

But with Xi Jinping's rise to power, Chinese foreign policy acquired a more proactive and assertive profile. The deterioration of relations over the past decade, especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, is inextricably linked to territorial claims in the South China Sea area. Since the 1970s, disputes with Vietnam over the Spratly and Paracelsus Islands have turned into a regional, or even global, dispute. Of little or no use was the 2002 Code of Conduct, which while celebrated at the time as a means of ensuring a "peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea," did not include provisions on enforcement or dispute resolution mechanisms. 

Tensions, therefore, grew, even reaching Indonesia for the first time in 2016. In the same year, a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected Beijing's claims, represented by the so-called "nine-point line." Beijing did not accept the decision recognizing Manila's rights to exploit resources within the 200 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Rather, it accused Washington of pushing the Philippines to resort to the court to "sabotage relations between China and ASEAN countries."

Despite its maritime claims, China has never stopped courting countries in the region. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the historic agreement sealed in 2020 after eight years of negotiations and entered into force in January 2022, has served Beijing to consolidate economic cooperation in the area. But mutual trade relations cannot be explained without bringing up the Belt and Road Initiative, the ambitious new Silk Road launched in 2013 that counts Chinese investments worth about 85 billion a year. As early as the early 2000s, Southeast Asia emerged as an important regional target for Chinese foreign direct investment. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic crisis, ASEAN rose to the top spot among BRI investment destinations. 

The initiative has met with varying degrees of acceptance in countries in the region. Despite tensions over territorial disputes, many nations involved have continued to desire Chinese investment in infrastructure and manufacturing. Unlike its more welcoming neighbors, Hanoi has taken a cautious approach: the Vietnamese strategy seems to aim to avoid confrontation with China while averting the risk of economic dependence. To date, the only BRI project implemented in the country is the Cat Linh-Ha Dong tramway, which has attracted widespread criticism because of its high cost.

The derailment of a high-speed train of the ambitious Jakarta-Bandung rail project shows that safety risks can undermine the People's Republic's credibility. A recent report by Malaysian lending institution Maybank suggests that the post-pandemic recovery may be less strong than expected. Projects could suffer setbacks because of growing government distrust of, for example, social and environmental costs: in 2014, Chinese-owned bauxite mining operations in Vietnam's central highlands sparked widespread protests over environmental damage and noncompliance with local laws. For other countries that have been more actively engaged in the BRI, such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, fears about the "debt trap" periodically return from economists and observers. 

Overall, Southeast Asian countries remain essential to Beijing for numerous reasons. For example, as partners toward whom China can accelerate the spread of "soft" infrastructure such as health services and the digital economy. Or as useful players in subverting international balances and increasing the relevance of the Asia-Pacific. Against the backdrop of tensions with the United States, the People's Republic aims to present itself to ASEAN countries as a non-assertive actor, willing to pursue "mutual respect," "dialogue," and "win-win" synergies, as claimed last year at the launch of the Global Security Initiative (GSI). On the other hand, China's investments are shaping up as unmissable resources for developing countries in the region: the GSI's sister initiative, the Global Development Initiative (GDI), represents Beijing's willingness to name itself a central role in multilateral development promotion. ASEAN has become the largest regional group to benefit from it, nabbing 14 projects out of a total of 50 from the first batch of the GDI Project Pool.


South-East, a model for managing tensions

The region has rapid growth and expanding economy suggest that the region can become a model for managing competition between major powers

"South-East Asia is far from a monolith: its countries have different foreign policies and objectives, some of them at odds with each other. But the region's rapid growth and expanding economy suggest that its countries will become more powerful over time and, with them, probably more able to avoid external interference. South-East Asia may have been defined in the past by conflict between great powers, but today it may become a model for managing competition between great powers'. Thus judges an analysis by Huong Le Thu, published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. South-East Asia has worked hard to maintain and expand diplomatic and security stability. In addition to the ASEAN-led multilateral security architecture, the region has established many plurilateral and bilateral agreements with third states. These are ad hoc groups, such as the joint patrolling of the Mekong River by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. According to Foreign Affairs, as geopolitical tensions rise, the already large number of these partnerships is set to increase. These complex and often overlapping agreements are central to Southeast Asia's efforts to engage with all, but without making exclusive commitments to any. Southeast Asian states are also becoming more active in groups that include participants from outside their neighbourhood. Last year, for example, Cambodia hosted the high-profile East Asia Summit, Thailand held the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and Indonesia chaired the G20. Individually, Huong points out, some South East Asian governments have learnt that competition between the US and China has advantages. The clash between Beijing and Washington may scare politicians in the region, but it has led both governments to try to win the hearts and minds of non-aligned countries. This has helped South East Asian countries, home to young populations and cheap labour, reap all kinds of economic benefits. Vietnam, says Foreign Affairs, has benefited enormously from the US breakaway from China, as American companies have moved production to Vietnamese factories. Indonesia has also received an investment boost from US companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and Tesla. The region is also becoming increasingly critical for global supply chains. And it may point the way forward for continued prosperity.

World moves closer to ASEAN

Increasing cooperation between Southeast Asian countries and global platforms such as the G7. And beyond. With the hope that more and more governments will follow the bloc's "third way"

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is increasingly involved in global decision-making mechanisms. A very timely example is the historic first meeting between G7 justice ministers and those of the regional bloc. A joint meeting is scheduled for July, with Japan, the host country and G7 chair. A similar Japan-ASEAN meeting is scheduled for the same days. On the other hand, since the start of the war in Ukraine, it has sharpened the distance between the West and some countries. ASEAN, with its third way of neutrality and pacifism, can serve as a crucial connector in this global phase. Southeast Asians fear that the use of force to change the status quo, as Russia did in Ukraine, will spread to the Asia-Pacific. Most of all, they fear getting involved in disputes where they do not belong. "ASEAN must remain independent and a zone of neutrality amid the escalating rivalry between the U.S. and China," Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said in recent days, stressing that ASEAN was formed to promote peace and stability in the region. "This position continues. We do not want the region to be the basis for military competition. This position has been quite consistent, although we remain friendly with all countries," he explained. Recent multilateral agreements that threaten to set the stage for an arms race are frowned upon. In 1995, 10 ASEAN member states signed the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, or Bangkok Treaty, which designates the region as nuclear weapons-free. The treaty also includes a protocol open for signature by China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. So far no one has signed it, but we are finally seeing the first movements. Recently, China expressed its intention to sign the protocol for the ASEAN Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty. But it will not be easy to get everyone to join. The bloc's hope is that by participating more and more frequently in global platforms, the world will increasingly choose to follow that third way it has been indicating for several years now.

Asia’s Third Way

How ASEAN Survives—and Thrives—Amid Great-Power Competition

We offer below an excerpt from the latest essay by Kishore Mahbubani, published by Foreign Affairs

The defining geopolitical contest of our time is between China and the United States. And as tensions rise over trade and Taiwan, among other things, concern is understandably mounting in many capitals about a future defined by great-power competition. But one region is already charting a peaceful and prosperous path through this bipolar era. Situated at the geographical center of the U.S.-Chinese struggle for influence, Southeast Asia has not only managed to maintain good relations with Beijing and Washington, walking a diplomatic tightrope to preserve the trust and confidence of both capitals; it has also enabled China and the United States to contribute significantly to its growth and development. This is no small feat. Three decades ago, many analysts believed that Asia was destined for conflict. As the political scientist Aaron Friedberg wrote in 1993, Asia seemed far more likely than Europe to be “the cockpit of great-power conflict.” In the long run, he predicted, “Europe’s past could be Asia’s future.” But although suspicion and rivalry endured—particularly between China and Japan and between China and India—Asia is now in its fifth decade of relative peace, while Europe is once again at war. (Asia’s last major conflict, the Sino-Vietnamese war, ended in 1979.) Southeast Asia has endured a measure of internal strife—in Myanmar especially—but on the whole, the region has remained remarkably peaceful, avoiding interstate conflict despite significant ethnic and religious diversity. Southeast Asia has also prospered. As the living standards of Americans and Europeans have languished over the last two decades, Southeast Asians have achieved dramatic economic and social development gains. From 2010 to 2020, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), made up of ten countries with a combined GDP of $3 trillion in 2020, contributed more to global economic growth than the European Union, whose members had a combined GDP of $15 trillion. This exceptional period of growth and harmony in Asia is not a historical accident. It is largely due to ASEAN, which despite its many flaws as a political and economic union has helped forge a cooperative regional order built on a culture of pragmatism and accommodation. That order has bridged deep political divides in the region and kept most Southeast Asian countries focused on economic growth and development. ASEAN’s greatest strength, paradoxically, is its relative weakness and heterogeneity, which ensures that no power sees it as threatening.
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Indonesia and India lead the Global South

Jakarta and New Delhi chair ASEAN and G20 in 2023. By strengthening cooperation they can promote the vision of a steadily rising part of the world

Among the many ambitious goals of Indonesia's rotating chairmanship of ASEAN is to strengthen the role of Jakarta and the Southeast Asian bloc in the Global South. And, moreover, support the role of the Global South in world affairs. The intention was made explicit by Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia's Finance Minister, in a relevant interview with Nikkei Asia. "We will work very closely with India," Indrawati said. "India and Indonesia are among the few big emerging countries that are performing very well on the economy, so this relationship provides us with more influence and more respect globally." Then again, Jakarta and New Delhi share a common perspective on international affairs and crucial diplomatic engagements in recent years. In 2023, India inherited the rotating presidency of the G20 from Indonesia itself, which in turn precisely holds that of ASEAN. Countries in the Global South tend toward political neutrality and avoid taking sides during conflicts. Despite the tensions, many consider the G20 summit in Bali in November a success, with leaders issuing a statement condemning Russia's aggression in Ukraine. While proposing a peaceful solution that protects not only security but also the resilience of trade and globalization. A perspective that will also be supported by India. "The G7 is admitting that it needs a counterpart that can provide a balanced view ... providing greater inclusiveness and diversity within the global community, which is healthy, I think," said Indrawati, who argues that countries in the global South are "contributing constructively to the global agenda," she said. "They have also become a source of solution for many global problems in terms of climate change, financial crisis, pandemic or even now global economy." This is precisely why the 10 ASEAN countries can play a "very important role," not only economically, but also politically and in terms of regional security "because of the tensions between the United States and China." And in Jakarta’s view, deepening cooperation with another regional player like India can strengthen the role of a rising part of the world in all aspects.

Climate diplomacy: where is the green light for change?

Political tensions and economic competition are slowing down the race towards the green transition. The war in Ukraine is changing Russian fossil fuel routes, but supply agreements are particularly advantageous for partner countries such as China

2022 was a black year for climate diplomacy. Although the 2021 Conference of the Parties (COP26) seemed to have rekindled decision-makers' focus on the climate crisis, the natural disasters that followed, the war in Ukraine, and a further slowdown in the markets have contributed to a completely different trend this year. COP27 saw presidents from some of the major global economies rushing past on their way to the G20 summit in Bali, while delegations from the most fragile countries only got the promise of funds for loss and damage, i.e. economic compensation for suffering the worst effects of climate change. Although not reaching the agreed quota of USD 100 billion, this decision was hailed by many as a first milestone towards climate justice. However, as new models by climate researchers demonstrate, the damage resulting from the climate crisis is far greater than has been calculated so far. Today, many of the world's most endangered cities are in Asia, including several major regional capitals such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila.

The meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the side-lines of the G20 summit has revived the rollercoaster of climate diplomacy, creating a sense of cautious optimism following commitments from the world's two biggest polluters. However, Washington and Beijing's actions are not yet consistent with their narrative of each country’s 'leading' role in the green transition. Looking east, China's promise to offer alternative models of sustainable development is still far from supporting the most urgently needed reforms. Neither the more heterogeneous ASEAN bloc nor the advanced East Asian economies seem ready for a rapid energy transition and achieving carbon neutrality. The first target is 2030, when Japan promises to have cut emissions by 46 per cent compared to 2013 figures, China aims to peak its emissions, and South Korea is bound by the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent compared to 2020. China is missing from the latter mechanism, and has also released itself from the loss and damage fund.

South-East crossroads of interests 

Another interpretation of China's decisive role sees Beijing as the leader of a 'positive competition' with Washington, where the two countries seek to gain status (and budget) from their dominance in multilateral forums and in the market for energy transition technologies. But recent US manoeuvres targeting the semiconductor sector and manufactured goods produced in Xinjiang (which mainly include solar panels) risk turning competition into rivalry. What is certain is that China's promises combined with economic interest are having an impact on the countries most dependent on Chinese funding in the fossil fuels sector. One example is Vietnam, which must now consider whether to build new coal-fired power plants in the absence of Chinese capita due to Beijing's promised ban on foreign investment in the sector. Nevertheless, Southeast Asia's energy demand continues to rise, having grown more than 80 per cent in less than twenty years, and the easiest and most immediately available options are the most polluting energy sources, which continue to occupy more than 80 per cent of the region’s energy mix. Financial incentives also accompany the more practical availability of cheap natural resources, as in the case of Indonesia, which is the world's third largest coal exporter. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine is changing Russian fossil fuel routes, with supply agreements which are particularly advantageous for partner countries such as China.

Southeast Asia is at the crossroads of the interests of new investors avoiding China and older relationships rooted in the economic fabric of different countries. Japan, the main investor in Thailand in 2022, has long been eyeing the opportunity to build electric cars and components necessary for the energy transition. There is also a strong interest in new sustainable agricultural supply chains, as well as in businesses that can transform the tourism sector according to parameters more consistent with the UN agenda for sustainable development. In this case, the challenge is much broader than merely addressing the energy dossier, because it requires deep reflection on the environmental and social impacts of sectors that have driven the economies of several countries in the region over recent decades.

The challenges of sustainability between India and Central Asia

Far from the spotlight of climate diplomacy, but extremely important for its economic and demographic weight, India has to reckon with the challenges of uncontrolled modernisation. The unbridled growth of its cities is not matched by reasoned urban planning (think, for example, of private vehicle traffic), while water resources and soil health have plummeted since the 1950s. The evidence on the ground is not yet matched by an awareness of playing a proactive role at the climate negotiation table. Even for New Delhi, competition with China is a priority. Furthermore, while on the one hand the Indian government forms new working groups for the enforcement of multilateral agreement directives, on the other hand it moves to repress environmental organizations and activists.

Finally, Central Asia focuses on climate change adaptation measures rather than demanding more responsibility from the big polluters. While in some places like Kazakhstan the race for economic leadership in the region seems to overshadow environmental promises, in other countries such as Kyrgyzstan there is a strong concern about extreme climate phenomena and food security. The competition over water resources, which has recently emerged with clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, also opens dangerous scenarios of climate change as an accelerator of conflict in the region. The main promise, as stated by the leaders involved in the UN environment agency's project on climate security in Central Asia, is to work together with international organizations to build a socially and economically sustainable adaptation strategy. Here too, however, the role of a prominent player like China could influence the design and electrification choices of newly urbanized areas. Looking at the resources in the area (water sources along the border with Xinjiang, natural gas wells), another side of the coin becomes visible: predatory scenarios that are not new in Asia, such as the case of the Chinese dams along the Mekong Delta.

World moves closer to ASEAN

China, Japan, the United States, Europe, and Italy: relations with Southeast Asia are increasingly being seen as globally strategic

If there is a clear trend in the global commercial and geopolitical landscape, it is the willingness of the major powers and all the more developed or emerging countries to deepen their relations with ASEAN. Southeast Asia is increasingly seen as an indispensable center of economic and diplomatic cooperation. Just look at what has happened recently and what may happen in the near future. In 2022, the first year of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) coming into effect, China recorded a 15 percent year-on-year increase in trade with ASEAN, which firmly holds the position as China's top trading partner. In 2023, it is foreseeable that the pace may even increase, in step with Beijing's accelerating growth. President Joe Biden's participation last November at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia, on the other hand, confirmed that the United States has also stretched the pace in a region that is also crucial for strategic reasons. The investment plan announced by the White House is finally moving in the direction of U.S. involvement not only on the defensive and military side, but also on the infrastructural and environmental side, given the focus on energy transition involving all ASEAN countries. Moving very decisively are certainly not only the superpowers. Japan, for example, has long been an established presence in Southeast Asia. Ever since 1977 and the launch of the "Fukuda Doctrine," named after the then prime minister who during a famous trip to the Southeast expressed Tokyo's commitment not to become a military power and to build a relationship of mutual trust with ASEAN and its member countries. Since then, Japan has become one of the bloc's major trading partners and investors and a major source of infrastructure funding. Now the country is seriously considering elevating its relationship with ASEAN to a comprehensive strategic partnership, putting it on par with China and the United States. South Korea recently launched its first Indo-Pacific strategy, which reserves deepening relations with ASEAN as one of its pillars. The region is also set to become the largest destination for foreign direct investment from Taiwan. The European Union, for its part, has realized that its interests increasingly coincide with those of ASEAN, and the possibility of a free trade agreement between the two blocs no longer seems so remote. A development that would also benefit Italy, whose businesses are looking with increasing interest toward the Southeast.

The results of the EU-ASEAN summit

Editorial by: Alessandra Schiavo, Deputy Director General/Central Director for Asia and Oceania Countries at MAECI

The 1st EU-ASEAN Summit at the level of Heads of State and Government was held in Brussels on December 14. The event celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Dialogue Partnership between the then EEC and ASEAN, as well as its gradual strengthening. Since 1977, the bi-regional relationship has grown exponentially, with the respective members now facing multiple risks and a radically changed international framework: climate change, health vulnerability, post-Covid recovery, energy crisis, food security, as well as intense competition on the political and security fronts.

Against this backdrop, ASEAN has emerged as a key player for the European Union, interested in promoting the values of pluralism and tolerance against crises that undermine stability, such as the aggression in Ukraine and the heinous coup in Myanmar.

The gained realization that only by working together can peace be preserved and shared prosperity generated, the EU became ASEAN's Strategic Partner in 2020, with an increasingly fruitful dialogue on security matters. The EU is also the Association's third largest trading partner. In October, the EU-ASEAN Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, the first interregional air transport agreement, was signed. At the Summit, the Team Europe Initiative on Sustainable Connectivity with ASEAN (joined for Italy by CDP) was presented; Partnership Comprehensive Agreements with Thailand and Malaysia were also signed.

The Summit concluded with a Joint Final Communiqué, which emphasized economic cooperation and on connectivity, sustainable development, green and digital transition, and identified a point of consensus on some of the thorniest international issues. It was attended by the Presidents and Prime Ministers of EU and ASEAN countries (except Myanmar), as well as the heads of the two Regional Organizations. With the participation of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy intended to renew its growing attention to ASEAN, a pivot of stability in the Indo-Pacific and a part of the world that is increasingly essential for geostrategic balances and to which we are increasingly committed. Not surprisingly, the Summit was also an opportunity to enhance the Development Partnership between Italy and ASEAN (in its political-security, economic, cultural and development cooperation volets). A bond that is cultivated through concrete and capacity-building initiatives, and that finds in the annual "High Level Dialogue on ASEAN-Italy economic relations" (whose next edition, in 2023, will be hosted by Thailand) a crucial moment of synthesis.

The EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit

The leaders of the two blocs meet in Brussels to celebrate the partnership and find new spaces for cooperation

By Chiara Suprani

The 14th of December 2022, the heads of state and national leaders of the ASEAN bloc countries and the European Union will meet in Brussels for the first time, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the formalization of the bilateral partnership, elevated to "strategic partnership" as reported by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell in a speech of August 4th 2022. All the heads of state will be present, with the exception of the Burmese leaders, while the response of the freshly appointed Malaysian Prime Minister is still awaited. In view of the events that have characterized recent years, the occasion, preceded by two meetings on December 13th, the Youth Summit and the tenth EU-ASEAN Business Summit, is of great importance. Given the international climate, security will be one of the key themes of the event. Brussels could try to get a clearer position from the ASEAN countries on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in order to receive more guarantees on compliance with EU sanctions imposed on Russia. The event, co-chaired by Cambodia, which holds the ASEAN presidency until the end of the year, will address key issues in the bilateral relationship between ASEAN and European countries such as trade and sustainability, renewable energy, investment and connectivity. Some of these key junctions have already been preceded by bilateral agreements between member countries such as the "Partnership for Sustainability" between Sweden and Indonesia. Jakarta, which will hold the ASEAN presidency for 2023, has gone through 11 rounds of negotiations to draft a free trade agreement with the EU, which has not been reached yet. According to The Diplomat, the EU should aim for a negotiated compromise with Indonesia, in order to get the latter to sign the treaty, a compromise similar to the one granted to Vietnam and Singapore, countries with which it closed negotiations by also lowering development and ecological standards. However, on December 6th, Brussels passed a new law to prevent the import of goods responsible for deforestation. The law has been strongly criticized by Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Among these products there are: coffee, soya and palm oil, crops that in 2020 recorded exports of 2, 17 and 27 billion US dollars respectively. According to Nikkei Asia, the EU at the 45th Anniversary Summit will encourage Southeast Asia to assume important roles in global supply chains, following the logic of the "friend-shoring". The neologism of the "friend-shoring" takes up the idea of the previous on-shoring and off-shoring, but linking the relocation in countries that are considered friends. Additionally, ASEAN and the EU signed a new level of connectivity cooperation in October with the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA AE), the world’s first agreement of this kind. The agreement not only benefits travellers with direct access to new destinations, but also calls for a greater level of coordination, managerial as well, between ASEAN countries. With 2023 just around the corner, a general easing of the pandemic containment measures, and the signing of the CATA, there are conditions for new business opportunities for European companies, which guarantee fair and transparent market conditions. Finding the right channel of communication between interests, needs and sustainable standards could be one of the hot spots of the December 14th dialogue. Yet, between the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war, amid slowdowns in supply chains, the strategic export bans of individual member states to prevent further economic crises the perceptions of the bilateral relationship appear to be positive. According to the EU-ASEAN Business Sentiment Survey, the Southeast Asian region is considered first for better economic opportunities in the next 5 years. Not only that, in general all the prospects for trade and investment have obtained in the survey positive growth expectations. In conclusion, on the 14th December, many eyes will turn to Brussels and the still untapped potential of the ASEAN-EU bilateral relationship.

The success of the Indonesian G20

The Bali summit concluded with a joint statement expressing unease over the war in Ukraine. And it showed the first signs of a thaw between the West and China

Now we can say it. The G20 summit in Bali was a success. The Indonesian rotating presidency had to deal with the most complicated year in recent times. With the world still grappling with the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine further complicated the plans of world economies. Not only that, it has also exacerbated the climate between Russia and the West, but also between the United States and China. With these premises, the risk that the summit would turn out to be a flop was high. Instead, it did not. It is true that the discussion was largely dominated by conflict, but it is equally true that everyone present was ready and willing to engage in dialogue. After the preamble of the bilateral between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, it kind of all came cascading down, with the Chinese president meeting with all the various European leaders. The Indonesian rotating presidency secured the signing of a joint statement in which leaders of the major economies hoped for cooperation to address the various challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, pledging to provide necessary support to the world's most vulnerable countries. Jakarta celebrated three "concrete outcomes" of the summit. The first: the creation of a health fund, which will help countries prepare for future pandemics. The fund has received pledges totaling $1.5 billion from member countries and international organizations. The second, welcomed by the entire ASEAN bloc: the creation of a trust fund to help low-income, small states and vulnerable middle-income countries deal with macroeconomic problems, including those caused by pandemic and climate change. The third, more domestic: the commitment of $20 billion in public and private funding from the United States and Japan over the next five years to help Indonesia accelerate its transition to renewable energy. The final declaration marks an important step of cooperation by the entire G20, including China and India, and perhaps opens a window of dialogue with Russia, which welcomed the "balance" of the summit's conclusions. Southeast Asia is confirmed as an indispensable platform for advancing global diplomacy.

The Third Asian Defense Way

Acronyms for policies in the Indo-Pacific are multiplying. But as China and the United States seek to consolidate their influence in Asia, countries on the continent try to shield themselves from the consequences of this antagonism by setting up bilateral agreements that help maintain a certain degree of interoperability without being forced to openly take the side of one or the other power

Article by Lucrezia Goldin

Either with me, or against me. Unless we find a third way to consolidate defense. In the increasingly polarized competition between China and the United States, bilateral security relations are growing between several Asian countries, which, with an approach made up of individual military cooperation agreements, are trying to free themselves from the magnetism of Washington and Beijing, exploiting regional interoperability as the key to independence from the two powers. An approach that, operating without clamor and without obvious anti-China or anti-US aims (as some multilateral initiatives such as Quad and Aukus on the Chinese side and the Global Security Initiative on the US side are perceived to be), takes the form of an alternative architecture that allows Asian countries to equip themselves with deterrence tools without the risk of annoying the two powers.

From Japan to South Korea, via Singapore and the Philippines, bilateral exchanges on security technology and defense equipment show an Asia that would rather not get caught in the crossfire of high-sounding acronyms between China and the United States. A move to the rear made up of apparently second-rate but strategic agreements, especially if conceived as an instrument of long-term independence from the viewpoint of the large antagonistic blocs.  

The undisputed leader of this trend is Japan. For several years, Tokyo has been trying to revive its defense industry, and to do so, it is intensifying its relations with several South-East Asian countries. As early as 2016, Japan and the Philippines signed a defense agreement, whereby Tokyo pledged to supply security equipment and technology to Manila. Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte then, an update to the same agreement in the summer of 2020 led to the sale of radar control systems from Mitsubishi Electric to the Philippine government, marking the first sale of fully Japanese-made defense technology to a Southeast Asian country. With Malaysia, on the other hand, there is the Japan-Malaysia Defence Pact of 2018, while on relations with Indonesia and Vietnam, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's focus has led to the signing of two agreements for the transfer of defense equipment and technology (in March and September 2021 respectively). Even trying not to draw too much international political attention with these agreements, Tokyo's stated aim is to promote its vision of a 'free and open' Indo-Pacific. This vision was also confirmed by Defence Minister Kishi Nobuo last September during a visit to Hanoi, in which he spoke of cooperation with Vietnam as being aimed at 'contributing to peace and stability in the region and the international community as a whole'.

On this front, the new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is also wasting no time. Last May, the Japanese Prime Minister and his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha signed an agreement for the transfer of military equipment to Thailand, which was shortly followed by the Japanese government's announcement that it would reform its regulations on the export of military equipment so as to allow the export of missiles and fighter jets to 12 countries including India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia from 2023. Also with Singapore, as announced during a meeting on the sidelines of the Asian security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, negotiations will soon begin to reach an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, which also includes the areas of cyber security and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRNE) explosive weapons. An enhanced Defense Exchange Memorandum, signed by the respective Defense Ministers Kishi Nobuo and Ng Eng Hene, complements the one signed between the two countries in 2009. The aim: to move towards 'more concrete security cooperation'. Less talk, more agreements. Without China and the USA in the way.

Active participation also on the part of India, which with the India Act East Policy created platforms for dialogue and joint maritime exercises with Singapore and Thailand, the SIMBEX and SITMEX, with the aim of maintaining regional security. To the Philippines, New Delhi provided its Brahmos missile systems and arranged for the movement of several ships of India's Eastern Command to facilitate bilateral exercises with the Philippine Navy. Dialogue with Vietnam has also been productive and free of US or Chinese interference. In 2016, a $500 million line of credit was established between Hanoi and New Delhi for the purchase of new defense platforms, and today most Vietnamese pilots are trained at Indian training bases in exchange for access to naval and air bases in Cham Ranh Bay. Finally, with Thailand, India shares maritime objectives related to issues such as illegal fishing, drug trafficking, smuggling, and piracy, confirming an interoperability that remains strong between the two countries both because of their historical and cultural backgrounds and because of their common interests related to the maritime border in the Andaman Sea, a key access point for trade in the Strait of Malacca.

South Korea has also given signs that it wants to join this 'behind-the-scenes' strategy. The Moon Jae-in administration had started to intensify relations with India and ASEAN countries through the New Southern Policy of 2017, but failed to materialize many agreements and cooperation independent of existing security platforms. The case of the Indonesian non-participation in the realization of the new Kf-X/IF-X fighters is an example of this. After a defense agreement between South Korea and Indonesia concluded in 2013, the two countries "encountered several complications" in the joint realization of new equipment, but to date they maintain good relations and at the presentation of the new 2021 Korean KF-X fighters, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto had also been invited. Also as part of the Shangri-La Dialogue sideline meetings, on the other hand, Singapore and South Korea updated their Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation, adding cybersecurity and maritime cooperation as collaboration priorities.

Asia is also moving without China and the United States, aware that excessive dependence on either side in security matters can prove counterproductive. For existing disputes with Beijing on the one hand, for the recent unpredictability shown by Washington from Donald Trump onwards on the other. Small agreements in times of big multilateral pacts thus mark a third way to try to maintain regional stability without being mere pawns in the game of others. But the agreements are beginning to be many. And when viewed as very thin threads of a broader, more expansive strategic canvas, the formula of the bilateral agreement as an inoffensive means of maneuver could be called into question. 

The Chip4 alliance and its impact on ASEAN semiconductors

The semiconductor game gets political and becomes a team sport. At least on one side of the field. The four-party alliance wanted by the US aims to contain China. On which side will the ASEAN countries play?

Semiconductors are essential to the life and growth of digital society. A secure supply of these products is now a priority - and a headache - for governments around the world. There is still a global crisis in this industry's supply chains - a crisis that is part of a broader context of 'globalisation in turmoil' - which makes it difficult for other sectors to procure the necessary components. The problem is made even more complex by its political fallout. Indeed, the United States and China compete in the data economy and the development of new applications of artificial intelligence. This leads the two giants to demand a huge amount of chips and try to limit their rival's grip on the market. In the last months, Washington has taken the first steps towards the formation of a four-way semiconductor alliance with its historical partners on the China Sea - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - in order to be able to develop 'democratic' supply chains, from the factory to consumers, without necessarily involving China. Beijing looks at the US initiative with concern, fearing being 'excluded' from the most important value chains in the globalised world.

The fragility and strategic importance of semiconductor supply chains have prompted governments to take action to secure their technological sovereignty. Many countries have taken steps to strengthen chip production in their own territory, in collaboration with the giants of the sector: just to mention two initiatives, Taiwanese TSMC is building a 12 billion production plant in Arizona with the support of the state and federal governments; Intel and the Italian government are closing negotiations for the creation of a production site in the Veneto region. Nevertheless, the semiconductor value chain cannot be enclosed within the borders of a single country, nor can it be so easily reorganised. Each stage of the production chain requires strong specialisation of entire industrial districts and high-tech equipment. At the moment, it does not seem possible to make chips without the involvement of East Asian countries. Therefore, governments are also trying to strengthen their international partnerships to secure supplies and overcome certain bottlenecks in production. Each of the Chip4 economies is particularly strong in one of the links of the chain and the alliance would be able to organise supplies between partners without relying heavily on external players. There are not only economic considerations behind Washington's initiative, however. The four countries are like-minded democracies that watch with some attention the growing Chinese influence not only in the region but also in the digital economy and some of its cutting-edge sectors. In a scenario of growing tensions with Beijing, the Chip4 countries might have an interest in not being dependent on the Chinese semiconductor industry.

Yet, it is not so easy to marginalise China from the value chain, especially for South Korea. Indeed, 60% of Seoul's chip exports go to its neighbour. Participating in an alliance that could be perceived as anti-Chinese would expose Korean manufacturers to trade retaliation, hence exclusion from a sizeable market. At the same time, Beijing might not be able to give up semiconductors made in Korea, as certain advanced technologies are only developed there or in the United States - and Washington has imposed sanctions and export control measures against Chinese companies as late as 2020. In other words, trying to exclude a country from the supply chain and, more generally, weaponising the sector for political objectives will always entail heavy costs and could make the semiconductor crisis even worse. Technological sovereignty could turn out to be an unachievable and, indeed, costly goal - there are not only duties imposed by governments, but also subsidies to attract private companies to their territory - as the disruption of the supply of even a minor component may paralyse the entire sector worldwide. The US initiative could also involve some ASEAN countries at some point. The semiconductor industry is developing fast in the region and some countries already play a key role - especially Malaysia and Singapore. In some cases, these are partners that Washington also recognises politically. Sooner or later, the US may try to involve them in initiatives like Chip4. All major ASEAN economies have an ambivalent relationship with China: on the one hand, a key economic partner; on the other, an increasingly assertive neighbour. Therefore, the same dilemma faced by Seoul today could arise for their governments. In any case, it must be remembered that the global semiconductor industry cannot prosper without a liberalised trading system shielded, as much as possible, from political tensions, due to the dense network of interdependencies between countries. The escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing in this field would, in any case, have profoundly negative effects on the sector and would make its crisis even more complicated.