Illustration: Craig Stephens
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

Asean must choose peace to keep US-China tensions from spilling over into war

  • Though reluctant to choose sides, Asean must preserve its centrality and Indonesia’s leadership will be important
  • With like-minded counterparts, the bloc can regalvanise the non-aligned movement into a consequential third force, espousing conciliation to mitigate US-China rivalry

The US and China are edging closer towards a dangerous showdown. Asean and its like-minded counterparts must take the side of peace to save the world from the unthinkable consequences of such a war.

Following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial Taiwan trip in early August, six other American delegations have visited the island, aggravating the delicate cross-strait dynamics. Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has warned that America and China may “ sleepwalk into conflict” if they do not de-escalate tensions over Taiwan.
For Southeast Asians, the deterioration in US-China relations is worrisome; foremost at stake is the principle of centrality for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Aukus alliance, for instance, is seen as undermining Southeast Asians’ determination to shape their own destinies. There is growing concern that territorial disputes in the South China Sea may be exploited by extra-regional powers to wage a proxy war, reducing Asean to a mere pawn on someone else’s geopolitical chessboard.
That is a fate that may have befallen Taiwan. The island’s future and how Taipei should negotiate with Beijing is likely to be dictated by Washington from now on. And, to save their country, Ukrainians are also fighting someone else’s battle, namely Nato’s campaign to contain Russia. If and when the Ukraine war ends is, in all likelihood, contingent on decisions made in Washington and Moscow.

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According to ancient Malay folklore, an astute ruler must move with the agility of a mouse deer to keep bigger foes at bay. Southeast Asians need similar dexterity, and neutrality is key to safeguarding Asean’s centrality. To preserve self-rule, Asean members cannot afford to lean too heavily on any side.

There is a tacit understanding that Beijing will tolerate Asean working alongside the Americans on the condition that it is not aimed at stymieing China. For the United States, however, China’s rise has morphed it into an existential threat that must be contained. And, according to Washington, the world has no choice but to take a resolute stance in what the Biden administration is casting as a battle of democracy versus autocracy.

In a recent interview, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger warned Washington about engaging in “ endless confrontation” with Beijing, on pain of risking a global “catastrophe comparable to World War I”. The escalating tension is raising fears that the two nuclear-armed superpowers could stumble into war, with disastrous consequences for the world.

Though reluctant to choose sides, Southeast Asians can ill afford to be mere bystanders in this looming crisis. Thus, Asean must make a choice, and indeed has done so: to stand up for peace over war, coexistence over confrontation.


Between two superpowers: Indonesia’s position in the US-China rivalry

Between two superpowers: Indonesia’s position in the US-China rivalry
This year, Indonesia assumed the G20 presidency and is hosting the summit in Bali in November. Right after that, Bangkok will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation ( Apec) forum. This year presents Asean with a rare moment on the world stage and, more importantly, a unique opportunity to mediate the tense rebalancing of global powers.
Indeed, despite objections from the West, President Joko Widodo has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Bali summit. Also in the works is a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the summit’s sidelines. But Indonesia’s leadership is crucial for two other reasons.
First, the nation represents a vital constituency, namely, the non-aligned movement. In 1955, at the Bandung conference hosted by president Sukarno, Asian and African leaders, including Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, came together to formulate a “middle way” concept as a counterbalance to the polarising Cold War.
Zhou Enlai (second from right), at the Bandung Conference on April 18, 1955. The meeting, hosted by Indonesia, was the birthplace of what later became known as the non-aligned movement. Photo: Roger-Viollet

Widodo should reinvigorate the Bandung spirit. More than ever, the global community needs the non-aligned bloc as a buffer against an increasingly bitter superpower contest.

Second, as the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia represents another key stakeholder in the US-China rivalry. The Muslim world has a complicated history with America and China. Underlying tensions notwithstanding, Muslim countries have largely maintained a working relationship with both and refrained from taking sides.

On the Xinjiang Uygur crisis, for example, most Muslim states are hesitant to join the US-led condemnation of China. There is apprehension that the Uygurs have become yet another hostage in the US-China conflict. Under Indonesia’s leadership, Islamic civilisation can be a moderating force in a rivalry that some have framed as a clash between the Christian West and Confucian East.

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When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US reigned supreme as the world’s sole superpower. As contenders have emerged to challenge America’s primacy, some analysts expected a multipolar world to replace the US-led unipolar order. Instead, the world is once more in the grip of a dangerous bipolar stand-off.
Southeast Asians should strive to make the multipolar world a reality. With like-minded counterparts, Asean can regalvanise the non-aligned bloc into a consequential third force, a middle-power movement espousing moderation and conciliation, as a means to mitigate the perilous US-China showdown.

Over a month has passed since Pelosi’s controversial visit but the danger of open hostilities across the Taiwan Strait has not abated. And, even as they continue to face pressure to pick sides, Asean members have made their choices: peace over war.

From Southeast Asia’s vantage point, no matter how existential a threat, there is no moral justification to subject the world to the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict. The US and China have to step back from the brink, to save themselves from a mutually assured destruction and spare the rest of humankind.

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia