October 2023

Deceptive diplomacy?

At the latest G20 forum, India’s star shone as a representative of the Global South. But, warns  Tanya Vatsa, ongoing rivalries in Asia pose challenges to a reset in the current world order

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dashed to Jakarta to participate in the ASEAN-India Summit on September 6-7,even as New Delhi was all set to host the G20 conference. But US President Joe Biden chose to skip the US-ASEAN Summit, instead flying to Vietnam on September 10, soon after attending the G20 in New Delhi (although the US was represented by Vice-President Kamala Harris at the ASEAN summit). The actions of the two leaders signal significant changes in the geopolitical priorities of the world’s superpowers and emerging powers.

Describing US-Vietnam relations as a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’, Biden told a news conference in Hanoi that his administration has been making all efforts ‘to demonstrate to our Indo-Pacific partners and to the world that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we’re not going anywhere’. Earlier, in June, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had visited Vietnamto finalise what he too had termed asa ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ between the two countries.

Modi, on the other hand, minced no words when he stated that India regarded ASEAN as a central pillar of India’s Act East policy, adding: ‘ASEAN occupies a prominent place in India’s Indo-Pacific initiative. Our history and geography connect India and ASEAN. Along with shared values, regional unity, peace, prosperity and a shared belief in a multipolar world also binds us together.’

Pic of the G20 leaders at the summit
G20 leaders at this year’s summit

Least perturbed by talk of the ten-nation grouping losing its relevance was Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who declared: ‘ASEAN has agreed to not be a proxy to any powers. Don’t turn our ship into an arena for rivalry that is destructive’ Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, another powerful Southeast Asian leader, also emphasised that the bloc must guard against ‘divisive’ actions of major powers.

The 43rd ASEAN Summit, held in Jakarta from September 5 to 7, had a diverse agenda to tackle. Among topics that generated intense discussion at the meeting were the continuing crackdown by the junta on Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement; China issuing a new map to stake its claim to territories claimed by various nations in the South and East China Seas, and extending its boundaries with India in the southwest, and with Russia in the northeast; and Timor-Leste’s pending membership. In August, Myanmar’s military regime expelled Timor-Leste’s top diplomat, who had held discussions with representatives of the National Unity Government (NUG), an opposition coalition leading the movement for restoration of democracy in the country. 

Delhi proudly stood as the sole torchbearer for the developing world

Current chair Indonesia hosted the main summit,as well as several other key regional meetings, including the ASEAN Plus Three and East Asia summits. At these meetings, held after the main summit, ASEAN heads of states met their Asian and Western counterparts to discuss issues like free trade, climate change and global security. Chinese Premier Li Qiang, US Vice-President Kamala Harris, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Prime Minister Modi were among those who attended.

Formed in 1967, ASEAN abides by the principle of non-interference in each member state’s domestic affairs. Like most multilateral organisations, decisions are taken by consensus, restraining it from taking unfavourable decisions and implementing punitive actions such as sanctions and expulsions against member-states.The bloc’s members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, and the chair is rotated among members alphabetically.

On the global front, the Asian rivalry will only engage the attention and resources of two influential economies

Marty Natalegawa, the former foreign minister of Indonesia, maintains that ASEAN has of late not only failed to effectively restrain Myanmar’s military government from committing atrocities against pro-democracy protesters, but has also maintained a ‘deafening silence’ over, for instance, a recent incident of a Chinese coast guard vessel using a water cannon to block a Philippine supply boat in the disputed South China Sea. Member states, he said, have no option but to seek protection from either the US or China to defend their national interests.

A five-point plan drafted by ASEAN leaders in 2021 to help bring peace to Myanmar has remained on paper. Indonesia presided over meetings, engaging more than 145 times with 70 stakeholders over nine months. This included engaging with Myanmar’s military regime, according to Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, but to no avail.

The five-point plan calls for immediate cessation of violence; constructive dialogue among all parties; a special envoy of ASEAN to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, with the assistance of the secretary-general of ASEAN; provision of humanitarian assistance; and visits by a special envoy and delegation to meet with all parties concerned. But the deadlock remains unresolved. All that the ASEAN secretariat could do was to not recognise the military government and stop inviting them to ASEAN meetings,which is symbolically visible in Myanmar’s chair being kept vacant.

Southeast Asian leaders have now set up a ‘troika mechanism’, comprising the immediate past, current and incoming chairs of association to deal with the situation, while the Philippines will replace Myanmar as the ASEAN chair in 2026.

TORCH BEARER: Indian PM Narendra Modi
TORCH BEARER: Indian PM Narendra Modi

One of the major concerns of the region’s leaders is the superpower rivalry between China and the US – both have strong links with ASEAN economies – jeopardising peace and security in the region. The US has been keen to proactively draw Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, which prefer neutrality, into its ambit. Indonesia and Malaysia, among others, have shied away, although they maintain a delicate balance between the two feuding superpowers. Jokowi was expected to participate in the BRICS Summit at Johannesburg on August 22-24, but he stayed away, keeping his application for joining BRICS on hold.

The Chinese have, as usual, been going about their wolf warrior games of threatening every possible neighbour. On the very eve of important summits like the G20 and ASEAN, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued the ‘China Standard Map Edition 2023’. The new map lays claim over large areas of the South China Sea, which Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim as their own, as well as several border territories belonging to India and Russia. China’s new map also uses the term ‘ten-dash’ line instead of its earlier ‘nine-dash’ line – with an additional dash to the east of Taiwan, expanding its claimover larger swathes of the South China Sea.

The governments of India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have formally lodged their protests with the Chinese government. Indonesia, which has its Natuna Islands within the nine-dash-line, has sought clarification from China.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, however, stressed the issues ‘must be managed in a peaceful and rational way through dialogue and consultation’, in accordance with international law.ASEAN members want to hasten finalisation of a long-pending code of conduct (COC) to address disputes in the South China Sea. The COC on the South China Sea is an agreement that is to be drawn up between ASEAN and China. Sidharto Suryodipuro, director-general of ASEAN cooperation in Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, stressed that speeding up negotiations on the code of conduct was ‘increasingly urgent’ in view of the situation in the South China Sea.

For their part, the Chinese want to keep up the pressure. Southeast Asian countries should not follow in the footsteps of Ukraine, and should beware of being used as geopolitical pawns by foreign forces that are sowing discord in the region for their own gain, warned China’s top diplomat Wang Yi. He was speaking in a video address at a think tank conference hosted by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in Jakarta during the ASEAN meet.

By and large, the summit reaffirmed ASEAN’s role as a key regional player and a catalyst for growth and progress, and that it seeks to shape the evolving dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, placing itself at the centre of growth and stability. A commitment to combating illicit drugs, maintaining a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, and upholding international maritime law in the South China Sea was reiterated by the leaders.

Could ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), adopted by the summit, show the way for regional and global players to resolve contentious issues through dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry?

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the DiplomatistInternational Policy Digest and The Kootneeti