Ministers from Singapore, Indonesia speak up . . .
Speaking at a business webinar on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Tuesday, top officials from Singapore and Indonesia re-affirmed that ASEAN will not align itself geopolitically with either China or the U.S. Singapore’s Senior Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, stated that ASEAN is “not a pushover” and has its own international leverage as an economic and strategic bloc. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, similarly stated that Indonesia will remain neutral and is not “a small country.” These remarks came amid increasing attention to ASEAN’s positioning in the growing U.S.-China rivalry, once again demonstrating that ASEAN’s diplomacy toward both Washington and Beijing is not merely a matter of choosing sides, but will depend on particular contexts and issues.
Hotspot for COVID-era diplomacy . . .
The webinar on Tuesday immediately followed a virtual conference on Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a platform that includes China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam (‘Lancang’ is the Chinese name for the river referred to as the Mekong in Southeast Asia). During this conference, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang employed ‘vaccine diplomacy’ by promising its LMC partners priority access to a future Chinese-developed vaccine. Meanwhile, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, during a recent visit to the region, offered medical assistance to Southeast Asian countries to combat COVID-19, showing Japan’s own ‘medical diplomacy’ in an attempt to counter China’s influence over the 10-member ASEAN bloc.
A looming economic crisis . . .
As ASEAN faces internal pressure to walk the middle path between the U.S. and China, the region is also grappling with a looming economic crisis. In the second quarter of 2020, all of the region’s major economies recorded their worst economic performances in decades. While most ASEAN members have seen a huge contraction in their GDP, Vietnam managed a 0.4 per cent increase in the second quarter, although this is still well below its pre-COVID growth rate of roughly seven per cent. During the webinar on Tuesday, the ministers from Singapore and Indonesia did express optimism about the region’s economic prospects, suggesting that ASEAN can use the pandemic as an opportunity to become more competitive and pursue stronger regional integration.
- Nikkei Asian Review: Japan’s ‘medical diplomacy’ in ASEAN aims to sap China clout
- South China Morning Post: ‘ASEAN is no pushover’: Top Singapore, Indonesia officials dismiss talk of choosing US-China sides
- South China Morning Post: China promises its Mekong neighbours priority access to a coronavirus vaccine developed in China