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ASEAN’s Dilemma: The South China Sea Dispute and COVID-19

ISSUE 2021
No 06
Release 04 March 2021
By UM Kaknika*

With abundant natural resources and a key strategic trading route, the South China Sea (SCS) plays a crucial role in international trade and world affairs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tension between the US and China over the SCS has escalated once again. Such a contestation put ASEAN Member States in increasingly challenging situations. Already burdened by the global economic slowdown due to the pandemic, the escalating rivalry means further strategic calculations for ASEAN members. On top of that, under the new Joe Biden’s administration, the US will likely pursue relations with ASEAN countries to deal with China in the SCS dispute, prompting each member to re-examine their relations with the US.

Given these circumstances, ASEAN countries find themselves in two major dilemmas. First, they will need to balance between pursuing unity among ASEAN countries and maintaining a strategic partnership with China. Second, they will need to re-examine their relationships with the US, given its foreign policy change under the Biden’s administration.

The Balancing Act

The SCS dispute has forced ASEAN countries to walk a thin line between their unity and their economic well-being, which is especially important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regional cohesion is extremely essential because it defines ASEAN’s strength as a regional organisation and its effectiveness to deal with disputes. Without unity, ASEAN will lack consensus-based decision making, a defining feature of the organisation, and its capacity to settle disputes among members will be significantly weaker.

A strategic partnership with Beijing is also crucial because China has long been one of ASEAN’s largest trading partners and vice versa. Any damage to this economic partnership means ASEAN would have to forgo the benefits gained from trading with China, which is a huge risk considering the current global economic situation. Therefore, ASEAN countries’ challenge in dealing with the SCS dispute during the pandemic is to navigate this narrow line between unity and economic well-being. The claimant and non-claimant states in ASEAN will have to navigate this narrow path to ensure that ASEAN can still function effectively as an organisation, while also continuing the trade flow with China to sustain the region’s economy.

Embracing America’s Return?

Another dilemma for ASEAN countries in the SCS dispute during COVID-19 is the US’s return to multilateralism. First, ASEAN members may find themselves having to choose sides between Washington and Beijing in the SCS dispute. Joe Biden’s “America is back” slogan presents a stark contrast to Donald Trump’s “America’s first” approach, signalling the US intentions to move back to a version of foreign policies similar to those pursued by Barack Obama. Biden’s multilateralism approach to foreign policies may prompt the US to build a US-led group among ASEAN members to pressure China in the SCS dispute. It is a continuation of the Obama’s approach to dealing with China. Thus, ASEAN neutrality in this context will be challenged, since both major powers, given every chance they have, will try their best to gain ASEAN support.

Second, the renewed US interests in the region may come with pressure for ASEAN members to make reforms. While ASEAN members welcome economic reforms, many are wary of other reforms, particularly in democracy and human rights. ASEAN members need to rethink their strategies in cooperating with the US. Collaborating with Washington on the SCS while fighting off pressure to undergo political reforms may be the central theme for many ASEAN members’ relations with the Biden’s administration. Hence, under the current contexts of the SCS dispute and COVID-19, ASEAN has difficulty in maintaining neutrality while dealing with the pressure resulting from embracing the US return. Nonetheless, with the US’s reengagement with Asia, ASEAN will gradually regain the relations that was degraded during the Trump’s administration.

In conclusion, the SCS dispute during COVID-19 has put ASEAN in a dilemma, where its members need to contemplate their relations with the two major powers. They need to balance between their unity and economic interests and to stay neutral while welcoming the US’s reengagement with the region. While ASEAN may have to unite in addressing the SCS dispute, they have to make sure that their decisions will not turn China away from their strategic partnership. With Biden controlling the White House, America’s return to Asia will surely benefit ASEAN. However, this will also pressure ASEAN to rethink their positions in the SCS dispute. To maintain its interests and relations with the two major powers, ASEAN should remain neutral and focus more on economic cooperation with the two major powers. The SCS dispute should be kept a low profile.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.