Linda Quayle writes:
Much as I admire Hugh White’s work, I have to take issue with his piece on ASEAN and the infamous non-communiqué (and, indirectly, with the piece by Ernest Bower that he endorses).
I'm not sure what is to be gained by taking a 'blame China' approach. Rather, this stance risks exacerbating the very divisions that caused the trouble in the first place. This is not to exonerate China, which seems to have turned diplomatic mis-steps on this issue into an art form. But other players, both in Southeast Asia and further afield, are not lily white hens, either, as much regional commentary and opinion perceptively recognises.
To address Prof White's specific points, firstly, I don't think it is the case that 'China does not much like' ASEAN. What it probably doesn't like is the idea of an ASEAN that might unequivocally line up against China and with the US. And as things currently stand, the majority of ASEAN members wouldn't like that ASEAN either.
China actually has a lot of grounds for 'liking' ASEAN, and not only because it has every reason to wish it success with its economic integration and connectivity plans. ASEAN and its way of doing regionalism gave the suspicious China a way in to Asian forums when its distrust of multilateralism was still very apparent. ASEAN offered China a regionalism that was palatable, precisely because it was dominated not by a large power, but by unthreatening ASEAN. That kind of ASEAN still has a lot going for it.
Secondly, I'm not sure how Asia can be understood to have been 'free of serious great-power strategic rivalry' since ASEAN's existence, so that 'ASEAN solidarity has not had to battle against the efforts of competing great powers to create spheres of influence'. When the Soviet Union, the US, and China were slugging it out in Indochina, ASEAN was hardly immune. In fact, reading the ins and outs of the negotiations over the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality and other treaties in the early 1970s, I am often struck by how relevant the underlying concerns still sound.
Thirdly, Prof White argues that we should not be optimistic about ASEAN's solidarity because 'in the long run it will be very hard for ASEAN to preserve a united front against China'. But surely we can be more optimistic if ASEAN-the-organisation — regardless of the recalibrations of individual members — continues to steadfastly resist this objective.
Renewed US attention to Southeast Asia has been very much welcomed in the region. But the US needs to be careful not to smother ASEAN in an all-too-possessive embrace. Ernie Bower's advice to the US — to 'redouble its efforts to engage and support ASEAN's goals for integration' because 'ASEAN's unity is not supported by China' — rings alarm bells for me. If anything, the US needs to temporarily back off, and give ASEAN space to recover its footing.
Prof White often argues, quite rightly, for a more grown-up relationship between the US and China. Southeast Asia, I would argue, has a part to play here. The region's inbuilt variegation and historical experience predispose it to want to maintain a pragmatic balance among the major powers it has to contend with. Without that balance, it becomes another part of the problem. If the balance continues, however, the region can be a key player in the search for a mature China-US relationship in the future. It is in all our interests to help it do so.