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ContributionCan Korea learn from ASEAN to navigate US-China tensions?

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Bala Ramasamy
Bala Ramasamy
By Bala Ramasamy

The increasingly difficult U.S.-China relationship has left many East Asian countries caught in the cross-fire. Recent geopolitical developments have brought a clash of interests as far as trade and traditional security partnerships are concerned, and highlight the tightrope that many countries have to walk.

One of the most pertinent questions today for many East Asian states is: How to maintain good relations with both the U.S. and China without jeopardizing economic links with either?

Perhaps Korea can take a look at Southeast Asia's recent history and current challenges, in particular how individual neighboring countries can place emphasis on cooperating with each other, to try to plot a way ahead for itself.

An important factor that has contributed to the economic success of countries in Southeast Asia has to be the peace and stability in the region, mainly brought about by their membership in ASEAN.

For a region that is so diverse in terms of political systems, religion, economic development and culture, this achievement is unparalleled. But it should not be taken for granted.

Political upheavals in member countries, including the recent military coup in Myanmar, as well as regional disputes in the South China Sea, can destabilize regional peace. Nothing will hurt ASEAN more than allowing an external power to tear apart this deep-rooted unity by forcing member countries to take sides. Politically, this is foolish. Economically, it is trouble.

Recent developments pose a challenge to ASEAN - the sudden elevation of the Quad ― the U.S., Japan, India and Australia ― from a security dialogue to one that forces countries to divide along ideological lines i.e. Cold War 2.0. Similarly, AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, brings added tension to the region.

Meanwhile, if the creation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP and its modification, CPTPP) to rival the emergence of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was not enough, the aims of the Quad and AUKUS are to balance the influence of China in the Indo-Pacific.

However this risks damaging the decades-long peace and stability in the region. In addition, vaccine diplomacy initiated by both parties in Southeast Asia as reported in the media recently is taking the pandemic into an international relations dimension.

From an economic perspective, China and the Quad (particularly the U.S. and Japan) are important for the Southeast Asian countries. Quad countries are particularly important export markets while China is an important import source.

Damaging the relationship with one at the expense of the other will negatively affect the economic prospects of all countries in the region. As a whole, 27 percent of ASEAN's total exports head to the Quad while China takes about 14 percent.

But on the import side, China accounts for 22 percent compared to 20 percent from the Quad. The picture is even more obvious at a country level. Indonesia exports 29 percent of its goods to the Quad but imports 26% from China. Thus both the Quad and China are equally important trading partners, showing how much ASEAN countries have to lose by siding with one power or the other.

Perhaps remaining neutral to both parties and taking a stand that ASEAN will be non-aligned to any superpower would protect the unity of ASEAN.

This would not be new as such ― all 10 ASEAN countries are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that was established by former leader of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito in 1961.

While the idea then was to avoid taking sides between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the realities of the present day order have to be acknowledged as the concept has new relevance in a U.S.-China context. The global trade situation today is a very much more complex and inter-connected one compared with that of the Cold war era which ended over 30 years ago now.

Further afield, since Britain has taken sides by joining AUKUS, it would be advisable for the EU to remain neutral so that ASEAN and other developing countries in Africa and South America have an economic ally to rely on to promote the idea of neutrality.

No doubt, an ideal situation would be when each country is able to maintain its own sovereignty and international relations based on mutual benefit without fear or favor.

However, the current situation calls for ASEAN to act as one entity and refrain from taking sides ― a strategy other countries across the region, including Korea, may wish to consider to maintain a balance in a vital area for the world's economy.

The writer is the Director of GEMBA Programme at China Europe International Business School

Lee Kyung-min

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