The worsening US-China tensions over Taiwan have serious implications for ASEAN as it struggles to uphold its centrality in regional affairs.
This article is part of a series of articles authored by young, aspiring China scholars under the Future CHOICE initiative.
On August 3, the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meetings and related activities took place in the host country Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Originally, the internal situation in Myanmar, the conflict in Ukraine, and the related food and energy crises, as well as economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic were to top the agenda. However, it was the visit of a delegation led by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and China’s response that dominated the Phnom Penh meetings.
ASEAN’s reaction to the situation around Taiwan was swift. On August 3, the member states’ foreign ministers issued a statement “On the cross-strait development.” Significantly, this was the first time that ASEAN issued a statement on the issue.
The statement expressed concern about recent development in the area adjacent to the ASEAN region that could contribute to the destabilization of the situation, leading to open conflict between major powers with unpredictable consequences. Moreover, the document reiterated support for the “One-China Policy” of ASEAN member states. At the same time, the ministers managed to avoid any direct references to the visit of Nancy Pelosi, Taiwan, or China.
The changes in the China-Taiwan-US triangle directly impact the region’s strategic environment and Beijing’s response is an excellent lesson for ASEAN in the face of still-unresolved disputes in the South China Sea. The Chinese government has shown that it does not tolerate opposition when core interests are at stake and is ready to use all means necessary, with power projection included. Given the vital importance of the South China Sea disputes for both China and the Southeast Asia region, it is worth taking a closer look at the response to the Taiwan Strait crisis of claimant states.
View from Manilla
From a geographic perspective, the Philippines comes to the fore, with its northernmost islands located just 190 km from Taiwan. The Philippine government took a position on Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan during the US Secretary of State’s visit to Manila on August 6, which included talks with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Foreign Secretary Enrique A. Manalo.
Macros Jr. notably remarked that the Pelosi visit to Taiwan did not exacerbate the tensions in the region, but only “demonstrated how the intensity of the conflict has been at that level for good while now, but we sort of got used to the idea and then put it aside.” President Marcos’ words seem to fit into the pro-US narrative, according to which it was not the visit of Nancy Pelosi, but the Chinese military activity that contributed to the destabilization of the region.
However, at the same time, the head of Filipino Diplomacy emphasized that the region cannot afford to exacerbate tensions between the US and China at a time when most countries are still struggling with economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Chinese diplomatic mission in the Philippines also contributed to the heating up of the atmosphere thanks to Ambassador Huang Xilian’s remarks calling on Manila to adhere to the “One-China Policy.” The comments were criticized as unfounded by Senator Risa Hontiveros, given that Beijing steadfastly refuses to comply with the 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, other Filipino politicians have been more conciliatory towards China amidst the crisis. For example, Senator Ismee Marcos (the sister of the incumbent President), called for Manila to comply with the “One China Policy” and to take steps aimed at de-escalating tensions in the region.
“One-China Policy” vs. “One-China Principle”
Before moving on to the response of the other parties to the disputes in the South China Sea to events in the Taiwan Strait, it is crucial to distinguish between “One-China Policy” and “One-China Principle,” as these terms are not unambiguous.
In general, the first term assumes recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the only legal government of China and is also associated with the acknowledgment that the government in Beijing treats Taiwan as an inalienable part of China. The second term was coined by Beijing, and its acceptance boils down to the recognition of the Chinese position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, with the only legal government in Beijing under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.
Although most governments adhere to this distinction (including claimants to the South China Sea dispute), it is also worth underscoring that there are some exceptions. They are also prominent in the countries of Southeast Asia, such as in the case of Laos. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR issued a statement on the tensions in Taiwan Strait, according to which the government declared its support for the “One-China Policy.” However, the same document states that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and the Lao government opposes any intention aiming at creating a situation for “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan.” This example proves that despite referring to the “One-China Policy,” Laos actually supports the Chinese narrative expressed in the “One-China Principle.”
The significance of these differences is best demonstrated by the analysis of the statements issued by China and Vietnam on the sidelines of the series of foreign ministers’ meetings in Phnom Penh. According to a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son reaffirmed Hanoi’s firm commitment to the “One-China Policy” in light of recent tensions around Taiwan. Admittedly, this position is in line with the statement issued by the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, the same statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry also states that Wang Yi appreciates the adherence of the Vietnamese side to the “One-China Principle.” The chief Chinese diplomat also used the meeting to emphasize that the American side contributed to the tensions by violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.
The statement from Wang Yi’s meeting with Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs, another country involved in the dispute in the South China Sea, was even more manipulated. According to the Chinese version of the statement from the meeting, Minister Erywan Yusof assured his counterpart that Brunei adheres to the “One-China Principle,” which is also the broad consensus among ASEAN countries. However, the Ministry, as well as the statement issued by the ASEAN foreign ministers, referred to the “One-China Policy.” This example clearly shows how the Chinese side imposes a narrative on the weaker states in Southeast Asia, which serves the particular interests of the government in Beijing.
Last among the ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea, Malaysia, exhibited an ambivalent attitude in its response to the situation over Taiwan, betraying internal differences. Malaysian Prime Minister’s special envoy to China, Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing, stated that Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan added fuel to regional instability, whilst the world is working hard on economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic and maintaining peace despite the ongoing war in Ukraine. He also drew attention to the supposed inconsistency of US policy: “On the one hand, [the US] condemn Russia, protest Russian aggression against Ukraine, and call for Ukraine’s sovereignty, but on the other hand, they intend to interfere in the internal affairs of the Taiwan Strait region and use Taiwan to divide China,” the envoy claimed. Moreover, the special envoy recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and stated that Malaysia adheres to the “One-China Principle,” where Beijing represents all parts of China.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Foreign Minister, Datuk Seri Saifuddin, denied that the special envoy’s comments represented the official position of the Malaysian government and referred to the content of the joint ASEAN statement. Still, adding to the confusion, in relation to the status of Taiwan, the head of Malaysian diplomacy referred to the “One-China Principle” and not “One-China Policy” as mentioned in the ASEAN statement.
A Distant Prospect of De-escalation
Examples of just four Southeast Asian countries show that despite the statement issued by ASEAN Foreign Ministers, governments’ views on the situation in the Taiwan Strait vary, ranging from adopting a more pro-American perspective, through a neutral stance, all the way to favoring Beijing’s position.
Everything indicates that the matters related to the Taiwan Strait will be another field of competition between the United States and China over influence within ASEAN. The intensity of this rivalry can be demonstrated by the fact that despite the increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait the United States and China carried out additional maneuvers.
The US conducted the largest ever Super Garuda Shield 2022 joint exercise with Indonesia from August 3 to 14. The armed forces of Singapore, Australia, and, for the first time, Japan, were also involved in the exercise. While before, the Garuda Shield exercises involved only the army and paratroopers, this year’s edition also featured the navies of the expanded pool of participants.
Meanwhile, China conducted air operations-oriented exercises Falcon Strike with Thailand, a US treaty ally. The Chinese contingent in Thailand consisted of fighter jets, bombers, and airborne early-warning (AEW) planes.
The increased activity of the armed forces in the region in such a short period is certainly not conducive to the de-escalation of tensions but increases the chances of miscalculation leading to an incident.
Unfortunately, the coming months are unlikely to see any cooling down of Sino-US rivalry, with the upcoming US midterms and the 20th Communist Party Congress.
Anti-China sentiment in the US Congress is particularly strong on both sides of the aisle. Therefore, both the Democrats and Republicans will strive to build their political capital on being tough on China.
Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is likely to secure his third term in office at the upcoming Party Congress. Considering several domestic challenges including economic troubles, the costs of the anti-pandemic policies, and the related social discontent, China’s helmsman cannot afford to show any signs of weakness in the international arena, especially in matters related to core national interests. That being the case, Beijing will continue its adamant posture toward Washington’s attempts to undermine China’s regional position.
Homework for the South China Sea Dispute Claimants
China’s reaction to the Pelosi visit, including extensive military drills in areas encircling Taiwan which demonstrated the capability to enforce a blockade, also has worrying ramifications for the South China Sea claimant states. In the event of another demonstration of strength in the form of large-scale naval maneuvers or an attempt to implement a blockade, China could take advantage of the situation to further secure its presence in the disputed areas, for example, by taking control over new features. Washington would most likely respond by sending its navy to the region, which would run the risk of miscalculation leading to a severe incident in the immediate vicinity of Southeast Asia.
Taking the recent tensions around Taiwan as an example, Southeast Asian states should realize that, from the perspective of intensifying Sino-American rivalry, the best solution is to build a coherent position to prevent major powers from dividing the ASEAN member states. This is primarily a matter of Chinese efforts to shift the narrative on the status of Taiwan from the “One-China Policy” to the “One-China Principle.” On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries should also not get involved in US efforts to boost the island nation’s international status. For instance, the comment of the president of the Philippines can be seen as an encouragement for the American side to continue the visits of high-level representatives to Taiwan, which ultimately threatens to destabilize the whole region.
The best scenario for ASEAN is to maintain the status quo while trying to build a platform for talks to ease tensions between Beijing and Washington around Taiwan. Any disturbances in the status quo will lead to multi-level consequences which, due to their geographic location, will primarily affect the countries of the South China Sea basin.
More broadly, South China Sea dispute claimants should introduce a comprehensive reform plan for ASEAN so that it ceases to function only as a talk shop and takes more responsibility for the development of the situation in the region. Indeed, ASEAN was not created to deal with this type of challenge. Still, if the bloc wants to be a viable actor in the Indo-Pacific and maintain its centrality, it should adapt to the evolving geopolitical environment.