U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan from late Tuesday night to Wednesday afternoon prompted China to conduct a series of nearby live-fire drills beginning on Thursday. Those drills mark a direct challenge to what Taiwan claims as its territorial waters and airspace.
While Pelosi’s visit delighted Taiwanese, it infuriated Beijing enough to place the entire region in danger through China’s military retaliation. In the midst of the increasing tension, ASEAN’s foreign ministers called for all parties to exercise “maximum restraint, refrain from provocative action and for upholding the principles enshrined in United Nations Charter and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC).” The statement was released just before Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his ASEAN counterparts in Phnom Penh on Thursday, August 4.
Amid high tensions in the region, at the China-ASEAN meeting, Wang emphasized his country’s effort to promote close ties with Southeast Asian countries, which appeared to be China’s attempt to bolster its influence in the region. The group of ASEAN ministers’ “strong statement” issued earlier the same day elicited an allegation that China was taking advantage of debts to achieve political gains. China’s Foreign Ministry seized on the statement as evidence that ASEAN was supporting Beijing’s position in the crisis.
Southeast Asian countries have long felt the strain of living in the shadow of China-U.S. rivalry, but that stress was especially acute in the days following Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. The one-page statement said that “ASEAN is concerned with the international and regional volatility, especially in the recent development in the area adjacent with the ASEAN region, which could destabilize the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers.” Obviously, governments in Southeast Asia are cautious about the escalation of China-U.S. tensions, which highly likely to jeopardize the interests of all regional countries.
Owing to the sensitivity of the issue, ASEAN governments did not mention by name Pelosi’s contentious visit to Taiwan or China’s response in their statement. Instead, the ASEAN ministers highlighted that “the world is in dire need of wisdom and responsibility of all leaders to uphold multilateralism and partnership, cooperation, peaceful-coexistence and healthy competition for our shared goals of peace, stability, security and inclusive and sustainable development.” The region clearly does not want to become an arena of major power conflicts.
Additionally, the Southeast Asian foreign ministers were trying to seek ways to calm rising tensions over Taiwan. They said that the regional bloc “acts together and stands ready to play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful dialogue between all parties including through utilizing ASEAN-led mechanisms to deescalate tension, to safeguard peace, security and development in our region.” The 10-member bloc is internally divided between countries having close ties to China – such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos – and others that are suspicious of China due to its aggressive international behavior. Nevertheless, no ASEAN country formally recognizes Taiwan.
More importantly, it is unclear what ASEAN nations might do to alleviate the crisis between two superpowers, despite the bloc’s offer to mediate.
Back in July, U.S. President Joe Biden said publicly that the U.S. military believed Pelosi’s trip was “not a good idea right now.” Indeed, Pelosi’s visit created a problem not only for Taiwan itself, but also for ASEAN countries, which are terrified of the possibility of a much larger confrontation over the region.
The economy of Taiwan largely relies on China, which is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. For its part, ASEAN also remains China’s largest trade partner, taking up 14.6 percent of China’s total overseas trade in the first quarter of 2022, while the EU and the United States ranked second and third. The impact of Pelosi’s trip could endanger the security and economic interests of both Taiwan and ASEAN countries.
Southeast Asian countries seek to stay away from the China-U.S. rivalry and do not want to pick a side between the two superpowers. More critically, in the long-term, ASEAN countries are likely to shy away from the United States’ geopolitical ambition to decouple them from China, since China has already outstripped the U.S. in terms of trade and economic involvement in Southeast Asia.
On the surface, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan despite China’s repeated warnings may seem like an American victory, bolstering Taiwan’s belief in its unwavering commitment to the self-ruled island. However, things are not that simple. Pelosi’s Taiwan bet did not make Taiwan more secure. Furthermore, her trip triggered China’s anger, which in turn endangered regional peace in both East Asia and Southeast Asia. That resulted in increasing concern among ASEAN countries and has inadvertently assisted Beijing to gain political leverage in Southeast Asia.
When considering regional policies, especially on the sensitive issue of Taiwan, the United States needs to take a wider view. U.S. moves toward Taiwan have the knock-on effect of jeopardizing ASEAN partners by putting them in untenable diplomatic situations, with the risk of damaging security and economic interests. Rather than reducing the equation to a simple China-U.S. binary, the U.S. government should think twice about how its foreign policies may negatively impact its partners, including those in Southeast Asia. The United States should work with its longstanding allies and ASEAN partners to promote a sustainable security and economic environment that avoids establishing a bifurcated region – one that involves China’s cooperative behaviors.
Additionally, the conventional understanding in the United States assumes that Southeast Asia shares Washington’s strategic view of the presumed China threat. That assumption might be too simplistic. Although Southeast Asian countries are indeed wary of the impacts of China’s growing assertiveness on the region, they do not necessarily consider China as an immediate danger that needs addressing promptly. Instead, they see China as a growing profound factor in the region that must be engaged, not contained, to maintain regional prosperity and peace. Southeast Asian countries do not want to be tied into any single-sided alignment. Therefore, Biden’s confrontational policy toward China is clearly in need of adjustment for the sake of U.S. relationships with ASEAN nations.
That said, instead of approaching ASEAN countries as a by-product of the U.S. rivalry with China, the United States should view them as real partners and proactively engage in the economic sphere in the Southeast Asia region, especially trade, investment, and technology. Specifically, the United States should bring a package of economic benefits and opportunities for technological advancement to Southeast Asian countries and attract them to participate. In doing so, the United States can gain the belief and support of ASEAN countries in order to remain an influential power in Southeast Asia and foster the interests of all regional countries simultaneously.