The partnership between China and ASEAN countries has seen its ups and downs.
The period between 2003 and 2013 was hailed as a “Golden Decade” of Sino-ASEAN relations, where the two parties built political trust and strong economic ties. Concurrently, the decade between 2014 and 2024 was optimistically introduced as the “Diamond Decade”, with ambitions to further promote partnership and friendship between the two. However, events did not proceed as either had hoped. Instead, during the so-called Diamond Decade, the once prosperous relationship has become a rocky marriage. Geographical neighbors with an ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN nations have recently grown mutually suspicious and, after the harmony of the Golden Decade, the Diamond Decade seems to have ended in a vicious cycle of distrust.
Dialogue between ASEAN and China began in 1991. By 2002 the two began to work towards a free trade agreement. Eventually established in 2010, today the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) is the world’s largest FTA by population, and the third largest by economic size, after the North American Free-Trade Area (USMCA) and the European Union (EU). China and ASEAN countries have also proved highly complementary in energy cooperation, with ASEAN countries richness in natural resources met by China’s insatiable demand for enormous amounts of energy to power its economic machine. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei are abundant in oil and gas, while Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar boast hydropower resources. China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), and Sinopec, have participated in oil and gas production since the 1990s in countries like Indonesia, from land and shallow water to deep sea. Thus, where ASEAN countries lack proper infrastructure, China provides oil and gas exploration technology.
Unfortunately for both sides, economic cooperation is not enough to tie together a geopolitical relationship. Over recent years, having become the dominant regional power, China has implemented a “Push and Pull Strategy” towards ASEAN countries. Through the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, China “pushes” and advances its position at the expenses of ASEAN interests, displaying growing assertiveness. While, on the other side, China “pulls” ASEAN countries towards its orbit, using massive development projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Thus, in the eyes of ASEAN countries, Beijing today represents an emerging threat while remaining a key trading partner – a source of opportunities, and a source of challenges. The union between China and ASEAN countries continues, yet in the Diamond Decade the spectre of doubt starts to creep in.
The intervention of major powers in the region has added a new layer of complexity to the situation, dividing the region even further. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, has recently been revitalized, as anti-Chinese sentiments have hardened not only in the United States, but also in Australia, India, and Japan. Additionally, the navies of France, Germany, UK, and the Netherlands are deploying naval forces to the South China Sea to support Quad activity. Recently, the warships of India, Japan, Australia and the US have been exercising near the Strait of Malacca, which is a key waterway for Beijing, with 80% of its oil supply passing through it. If tensions in the region were to escalate, this narrow passage could be strangled by China’s rivals, affecting Beijing’s energy security, a possibility that former Chinese President Hu Jintao branded the “Malacca Dilemma”. In order to reduce its dependence on the Strait, today China is searching for new land routes for its energy imports, especially through its Belt and Road Initiative. To achieve this, Beijing has turned to ASEAN countries, planning huge investments in Southeast Asian infrastructure. Myanmar, for example, will host the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a section of the Belt and Road Initiative that is intended to connect the oil trade from the Indian Ocean to China via Myanmar, thus reducing Chinese dependence on the Strait of Malacca.
“Don’t force us to choose”, ASEAN countries have repeatedly asked. Unfortunately, as US-China tensions flare up time and again, neutrality doesn’t seem a viable option. The bloc seems to follow an ambivalent policy. Some of the 10 member states, like Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines, opted to stay in the Chinese orbit, hungry for economic gains. Others, like Vietnam and Singapore, appear more interested in Western protection against a rising China, and tend to align with Washington. Although these positions are likely to shift over time, the only certainty is that ASEAN is now trapped in the middle of a power struggle. However, there might be a way for Southeast Asian countries to escape the trap. ASEAN nations could choose to collaborate with middle powers such as Australia and Japan, thus creating middle-power agency and reducing the need of a binary choice between the US and China. They could therefore keep their security ties with the US, while at the same time maintaining their economic relations with China.
ASEAN originally emerged as a response to the tensions of the Cold War, when a confrontation between capitalism and communism could threaten the balance of the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. Quite ironically, today the ASEAN region, and the South China Sea in particular, are again becoming a proxy for great power competition. This could split ASEAN countries along different ideological lines once again, just as happened during the first Cold War. Trapped in the power struggle of the 21st century, they now find themselves walking a tightrope. Unlike the Golden Decade, the Diamond decade seems to be one of uncertainty, where the union between China and ASEAN nations is increasingly vulnerable to the forces of geopolitics.
Carlotta is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.