Safer Together: Why South and Southeast Asia Must Cooperate to Prevent a New Cold War in Asia

The Quincy Institute is republishing this article as part of its partnership with the Asian Peace Program at the National University of Singapore

As China’s rise continues unabated, it is hardly a secret that the United States is reorienting its grand strategy to counter China in all domains, with the AUKUS announcement as its latest manifestation. Washington’s goal is to prevent the emergence of China as a peer competitor and retain (or recover) U.S. global dominance. The steadily militarizing U.S.-China rivalry threatens to roil South and Southeast Asia and could convert it into a set of “frontline states.” However, such a dystopian future can be prevented if India and ASEAN led by key ASEAN states such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore, succeed in forging a common strategic intent. They must do so before it is too late.

The international system has become economically more multipolar but remains very much unipolar in the military sphere. The United States spends more on defense than the next 11 countries combined (seven of which are American allies), maintains hundreds of far-flung bases, and has by far the largest set of treaty allies. This peculiar structure of uni-multipolarity, combined with the anxiety of decline, is tempting Washington to prioritize hard security as a counter to China. The United States has steadily whittled away at the One-China policy and persuaded treaty allies Japan and South Korea to wade into the Taiwan question. AUKUS has catapulted Australia into the status of a “frontline state.” NATO has also recently portrayed China as a military challenge. The U.S. Congress is in the process of passing legislation replete with cold war-era language on China. And aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) only serve to provoke Beijing in a region where there is little threat to sea trade and travel.

The United States has also helped construct a new China-balancing geography termed the “Indo-Pacific,” and is doubling down on the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) also including Japan, Australia, and India. Though the Quad’s recent rhetoric has focused on non-traditional security, military inter-operability and war-fighting exercises between these same four states are intensifying.

Meanwhile, China is also expanding its military footprint across the region. This includes seeking new naval bases in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean regions. Beijing’s excessive maritime claims and military exercises, especially in the South China Sea region, have given rise to allegations of incursions from countries in Southeast Asia.

Next to Taiwan, it is in the largely unallied South and Southeast Asia that the encroachment of the “great power competition” generates the greatest risks, which AUKUS only heightens. The intensifying US-China rivalry may be the biggest longer-term threat to the cohesion of ASEAN, a grouping with an enviable record of promoting peace and prosperity. Despite Washington’s denials, there could well be tremendous pressure on ASEAN states to take sides, threatening the region’s dream of peaceful rise. A crisis in the seas risks conflict in the shorter term as well. It is patently in the interest of Southeast Asia to prevent these scenarios. Key countries – Vietnam and Singapore among others – already recognize this.

Matters are more complicated in South Asia. India’s relations with China have worsened substantially since their clash in June 2020 in the wake of alleged Chinese intrusions into Indian-controlled territory. New Delhi is also upset at China’s increased support for India’s arch-rival Pakistan and a lack of sensitivity to Indian concerns in the Indian Ocean. But, from Beijing’s perspective, India has departed from the “Wuhan Spirit” by signing military inter-operability agreements with the United States and participating in joint armed forays into disputed waters off its coast. Beijing has concluded that the United States and India have constructed an informal anti-China alliance. This is a classic case of the security dilemma in action. Meanwhile, smaller South Asian states such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka find themselves pressured from all sides in this brawl.

How could South and Southeast Asian states prevent a new cold war from roiling their regions? If they have a chance, it is only by acting together. The crucial prerequisite for the South and Southeast Asian states is to agree to a common strategic understanding of the principal geopolitical threat, which is not so much a particular great power’s rise or decline, as the emergence of military rivalries and a cycle of blocs and counter-blocs in Asia. Once this recognition is arrived at, it can then lead to specific policy prescriptions toward each other and with respect to the great powers.India has spoken of the centrality of ASEAN to Asian security and the “inclusive” nature of the Quad. But it has failed to translate this into a meaningful strategy. Its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative appears to be aligned with the Quad’s China-countering agenda. New Delhi’s walking away from the ASEAN-led RCEP trade agreement was also a strategic error.

Southeast Asia, for its part, too needs a shift in its strategy towards South Asia. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is too broad for this purpose. In general, ASEAN states have tended to engage South Asia more in the economic sphere. But Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore are well-suited to lead a new strategic outreach. Indonesia is the region’s largest power, Vietnam is a major player with a historically close alignment with India, and Singapore is ASEAN’s most prosperous member with deep ties to New Delhi. Smaller South Asian states will likely join this coalition if larger countries lead.

When it comes to the great powers, South and Southeast Asian states should publicly encourage the U.S. and China to focus on non-military, positive-sum competition in their regions. They should also jointly propose confidence-building measures in the maritime domain to curb intrusive incursions and aggressive FONOPs. The Quad should expressly stay away from militariztion and bloc formation, howsoever informal.

At the same time, the countries in Southeast and South Asia should look to maintain good relations with both China and the United States, even as some of them retain preferential bilateral partnerships with either.. Greater trade and investment ties with the great powers should be encouraged. Non-traditional security is another important focus area – combating the grave threat of climate change ought to be an anchor of cooperation.

Will Beijing and Washington get the message? There are no guarantees. But China might be willing to meaningfully de-escalate if it sees New Delhi pushing to reverse the ongoing militarization of the Quad.. Washington too might step back if it sees the “Indo-Pacific” pushing back against the politics of blocs and alliances. This would be consistent with the increasingly resonant case being made within the United States for a grand strategy of Restraint.

A South and Southeast Asian strategic convergence, as outlined above, is best attempted sooner rather than later. If the U.S.-China rivalry militarizes further and pressures on nations escalate, South and Southeast Asia will lose a major opportunity for enshrining a future of peace and prosperity in their region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.