In a fascinating geopolitical spectacle, some of the world’s economic titans are converging upon the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) during summits held this week in Jakarta, Indonesia. Notably, even China, entangled in territorial disputes with various ASEAN member states in the South China Sea, has launched a diplomatic charm offensive, evoking historical ties between the two sides.
ASEAN, a formidable 10-member bloc encompassing Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, has amassed a combined gross domestic product (GDP) reaching approximately $3.37 trillion, ranking it among the world’s economic giants, as per International Monetary Fund (IMF) data.
Beyond its economic prowess, ASEAN boasts a burgeoning population, estimated to reach 700 million. Projections by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicate that a staggering 70 percent of this populace will attain middle-class status by 2030, positioning ASEAN as a pivotal player in the global economic landscape.
Moreover, the region holds significant sway in the global semiconductor industry, contributing to 30 percent of worldwide semiconductor testing and packaging, a fact highlighted by Caixin Global, a Chinese news outlet.
With emerging markets and a strategic location in the Indo-Pacific, both the United States under President Joe Biden and China under President Xi Jinping have intensified their efforts to secure influence within ASEAN, effectively transforming the bloc into an arena for their geopolitical rivalry.
These high-stakes summits unfold in the wake of China’s contentious release of its “standard map, 2023 edition,” which reasserts territorial claims not only over Indian territory but also extensive portions of the South China Sea. This move has elicited condemnation from numerous nations, including ASEAN members such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Notably, last month, the Philippines accused China of violating international law by employing a water cannon against one of its vessels near the Spratly Islands, a disputed atoll.
The efforts to court ASEAN have seen Chinese Premier Li Qiang emphasizing Beijing’s enduring relationship with the region, underlining the principles of mutual benefit and open markets. Premier Li noted the substantial growth in two-way trade volume, which surpassed $970 billion last year, more than doubling the volume of a decade ago.
Further underscoring China’s commitment, Premier Li embarked on a test ride of the $7.3 billion Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail, a landmark project funded by China, albeit marred by significant delays.
Japan, on its part, led by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, made promises of collaboration in transportation infrastructure development during the 26th ASEAN-Japan Summit, spotlighting the competition between China and Japan in the realm of infrastructure investment within ASEAN. Japan has sought to elevate its relationship with ASEAN to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,’ a request formalized in March, with discussions slated for a forthcoming ASEAN-Japan summit in December 2023.
Meanwhile, Vice-President Kamala Harris, representing the United States, announced the establishment of a US-ASEAN center in Washington during the 11th ASEAN-US Summit, signifying America’s commitment to the region’s stability and prosperity.
Indian Prime Minister Modi will also participate in the ASEAN-India Summit and the East Asian Summit on September 7, 2023, in Jakarta, further underlining the pivotal role of ASEAN on the global stage.
Despite China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, ASEAN, as a bloc, has refrained from issuing strong condemnation. However, Philippines President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., in his remarks during the ASEAN-China Summit, emphasized the necessity for maritime cooperation within a framework of regional peace, security, and adherence to international law.
The ASEAN Chairman expressed concerns about land reclamation activities and incidents in the South China Sea, underscoring that these actions had eroded trust and confidence while heightening tensions, potentially jeopardizing peace and stability in the region. To address these challenges, ASEAN called for the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a crucial agreement that reinforces the commitment to international norms governing state-to-state relations.
In addition, the Chairman welcomed the progress made in negotiations for a ‘Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC),’ emphasizing the importance of an effective COC in line with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
President Marcos, during his intervention, commended Japan for supporting peace efforts in the Indo-Pacific and opposing the militarization of the South China Sea, subtly criticizing Chinese policies.
In a significant declaration following the ASEAN Summit, leaders of the bloc pledged to collaborate in fortifying the region’s status as an “epicentrum of growth.” To achieve this vision, ASEAN leaders committed to bolster the bloc’s resilience against future shocks, harness new growth drivers, and embrace a forward-looking, future-proof agenda.
One of the pivotal initiatives for fostering new growth within ASEAN is the establishment of a Digital Economy Framework Agreement, with the goal of its conclusion by 2025. However, the challenge of Myanmar’s membership, whose military rulers have been excluded from ASEAN summits since the 2021 coup, continues to loom large.
In this intricate dance of diplomacy and geopolitics, the world watches as ASEAN’s importance ascends on the global stage, becoming a nexus for international cooperation and rivalry alike.