Asian dialogue through Asian leaders

The constructive ASEAN voice of Peace and Cooperation with China, is Australia listening?

11 June 2021 | CCCA
(Supplied Image: ASEAN Sec-Gen, Lim Jock Hoi)

A recent article which appeared in the Asia Peace Program affiliated with the University of Singapore carries the title “Can Biden bring peace to Southeast Asia?” by Dino Patti Djalal who is the founder and chairman of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States, and a former Indonesian deputy foreign minister. 

Ambassador Djalal’s message is important to Australia because (1) Indonesia is Australia’s closest neighbour; (2) It is one of the largest Muslim country in the world; (3) an ally of the US during the cold war with USSR) and (4) potentially the most influential and populace country in ASEAN.  

Although US President Joe Biden has announced to the world that “America is back, the mood in ASEAN is simply that the US is playing catch-up again. She has much to recover from the last four years of dwindling diplomatic and political influence in the region from the “America First” foreign policy. 

The absence of US in ASEAN countries has been notable according to Ambassador Djalal and can be summarized as:

(1) the US excluded herself from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Progressive Agreement on Trans Pacific Partnership in 2017;

(2) Trump did not attend the ASEAN-US summit in the Philippines and missed four East Asia summits during his term;

(3)  US embassies in four ASEAN nations, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and Philippines had no ambassadors;

(4) No permanent representative in the ASEAN Secretariat;

(5) In the Philippines and Indonesia, getting too close to Trump was seen as a political liability; and

(6) U.S. support for the region during the COVID-19 crisis has been modest at best. 

The Biden administration is now undertaking steps to reverse course, repair the damage, and restore U.S. credibility. His first step in foreign policy, Biden has said, is to win back allies and partners while pushing back adversaries. Policies are being recalibrated across the board.  ASEAN countries would certainly welcome a robust U.S. engagement in the region—but in the right way. 

The right way includes:  

(1) ASEAN nations do not wish to be polarized by US against China as it would undermine the cohesion of the ASEAN community; but would rather see US toning down the rhetoric;

(2) It is in the national interests of the ASEAN nations to maintain good relations on both sides (US & China); and

(3) ASEAN members would like to preserve their region’s unity of purpose and harmony and most importantly their peaceful development with China. 

ASEAN nations see China in a different light to the US.  Whilst US policy is to contain China, ASEAN members remain rightly anxious about China’s moves in the South China Sea but they have also recognized that China will be a big part of their future—bilaterally and regionally.  

US declares trade war and cold war with China whilst ASEAN countries play the inclusive game. 

ASEAN nations do not share the alarm sounded by the Biden administration on the danger of “democracy and human rights” from China.  ASEAN does not mind about China’s political system nor have interests in China’s domestic politics. Some of them even copy China’s ways of governing.

Ambassador Djalal wrote: “Not a single ASEAN country has echoed the US State Department’s claim that China is committing “genocide” against Muslims in Xinjiang.

Not one Southeast Asian country—not even Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country—considers China an ideological foe. In fact, ASEAN’s leaders would sympathize with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that every country has a right to choose its own path of development, because this is being practiced in ASEAN itself”. 

ASEAN nations are getting more vocal about the current policy of US containment of China.  Their message is simple: they are a united regional body who policy is not to be partisan to the US’s China containment policy but to express their welcome to US participation in the economic activities which include China.  Indonesia is telling the world that, on solidarity with other ASEAN nations, they would prefer to drink “two cups of tea” one from each side.  Such inclusiveness can only bring peace and prosperity to ASEAN countries. 

Prof Kishore Mahbubani speaking at a Malaysian Chamber of Commerce video conference online

will further illustrate the problems and solutions for the US-China conflict.  

Readers should watch this video and will gain greater understanding of the thinking of the ASEAN countries on the US-China conflict which have the potential of starting World War Three if we don’t take a few steps backs or not attempting to defuse the conflict. 

Prof Mahbubani and Ambassador Djalal are considered friends of the US and their messages are helpful advice to the US if they wish to take it. 

The rise of ASEAN economic power will surpass Japan and South Korea in the next 20 years and both these East Asian countries are aware of the potential outcome and in the long term, they will choose to side with the ASEAN nations.  Australia will be left alone in the island. 

Australia, being a close neighbour of ASEAN countries, could benefit economically and politically, if we join hands with our northern neighbours to accommodate a rising China in a peaceful and mutually respectable way. Australia has a lot to lose otherwise. Is Australia listening?

This commentary is supplied by the Chinese Community Council of Australia Incorporated: Founding President, Dr Anthony Pun OAM, President, Mr Kingsley Liu. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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