India is set to host a landmark summit on the country’s Republic Day, welcoming the heads of state and government from all of the ASEAN nations. For India, the meeting is a thinly veiled attempt to boost its influence in South East Asia which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, because India’s ambitions in South East Asia are clearly aimed at reducing Chinese influence based on the often chaotic zero-sum mentality of the government of Narendra Modi, India’s conference will clearly carry a subtext more potent than the stated aims of the summit.
A deeply negative tone has already been set by the traditionally pro-western Thai government. Sam Gongsakdi, Bangkok’s Ambassador to India has stated that one of the key goals of the meeting will be to improve “maritime security” and secure “freedom of navigation” in South East Asian seas, under the guidance of India. Despite the flowery language, “freedom of navigation” is the preferred expression used to denote US led attempts to challenge China’s sovereign claims to the waters and islands of the South China Sea. If China’s economic partners in ASEAN are not careful to strike a balanced tone at the Indian summit, there is a danger that New Delhi could essentially usurp ASEAN’s sovereign prerogative and turn the group into a body which merely parrots Indian propaganda vis-à-vis China–propaganda whose original authors are in Washington.
One of the key elements for ASEAN will be to frankly come to terms with the fact that while the US has traditionally been a master of soft-power in the region, China is the clear economic leader not only of Asia but of the wider world. Thailand for example now trades more with China than the US and likewise, Vietnam and Cambodia also have their number one trading partner in China.
In spite of its indelible post-1979 ties with Vietnam, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has made it clear that rapidly expanding relations with China are a key priority. The recent dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party by Hun Sen was as much about strengthening a spirit of good will towards China as it was about quashing the pro-US tendencies of a dubious opposition group from shaping official state policy.
In respect of Vietnam and Thailand, China needs to combine soft-power with its undeniable economic weight. While China is vastly important to the economies of both Vietnam and Thailand, both countries, albeit for different reasons, do not think of themselves as political partners with Beijing. In the case of Vietnam, millennia of struggles with its neighbour, combined with the more acute split during the Cold War of the 20th century have been difficult to overcome at a political level, even though in respect of economic interactions, there is very much a highly interconnected road leading from China to Vietnam.
In the case of Thailand, centuries of western political influence have meant that some Thai elites have not entirely come to terms with the potential for greater economic growth that is implicit in forming a deeper and more meaningful trust based relationship with Beijing. That being said, Thailand in spite of its pro-western modern history, is actually embracing the new realities of a Sino-centric Asia more than Vietnam which now has better relations with the US than its historically hated neighbour.
Bridging the gap between economic realities and the inevitable political future of South East Asia is going to be the key challenge for China in the region. Decades of US power in the region have given South East Asian countries a false sense of grandiosity in terms of how readily certain states dismiss the importance of positive and deep diplomatic relations with China. This is where Russia and Philippines can lead the way.
President Rodrigo Duterte has radically realigned the geopolitical goals and outlook of his nation since winning the Presidency in 2016. Since then, Duterte has engaged in an historic opening up of relations with China, something that Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed as a “golden era” of bilateral ties. Since then, Philippines has effectively renounced confrontation in the South China Sea, vowing instead to cooperate with China over historic disputes in return for further Chinese investment in what was once America’s closest partner/dependant in the region.
At the same time, Duterte has opened up a new security and economic partnership with Russia which in turn will help facilitate a clear yet criminally underreported goal of Russia. Russia seeks to use the economic and multicultural potential inherent in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to build new economic, political and security bonds with the ASEAN group of nations.
While Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand continue to forge closer ties with the EAEU, Philippines is in many ways the biggest success story, even though ties with the EAEU remain in their infancy. Philippines under Duterte, has made it clear that for both economic and political reasons, Manila seeks to build closer ties with China and One Belt—One Road as well as Russia and the pro-One Belt—One Road EAEU bloc. For Duterte, it is a matter of economic rejuvenation as much as it is about political empowerment for a nation whose people have long resented the lingering colonial attitude of the United States.
By the same token, Duterte is not closing the doors to the US. He is instead stating that future ties between Washington and Manila must be based on the principle of respecting the sovereignty of Philippines and furthermore, the US must not dictate any preconditions to Manila when engaging in cooperative endeavours. While this attitude has caused much consternation in Washington, ultimately the US has had to adapt to the new realities in Manila. Despite much of the US elite heaping scorn upon Duterte’s administration, Duterte has not allowed the implied and manifest intimidation coming out of Washington to make him pivot away from his new Chinese and Russian partners.
This method can become not only a wider model for ASEAN’s relations with the US, but perhaps more importantly, it can help ASEAN to form a “win-win” relationship with India at a time when Modi is hell-bent on turning ASEAN into a playground for his zero-sum brinksmanship aimed at Beijing.
Modi’s first meeting with Duterte at a recent ASEAN summit in Manila has proved that Duterte is willing and able to engage in “win-win” relationship with a diverse set of nations. Duterte’s message to the wider world is that Philippines is open for business and his preferred method of expressing this is by demonstrating that his anti-oligarch and anti-drug crime domestic reforms are making Philippines a more open, transparent and forward thinking place for the world to do business. At the same time, by holding high level meetings with world leaders from all continents, Duterte is also making it clear that today’s Philippines is not taking anyone’s side, but is instead willing to work on a respectful basis with all current and potential partners. This is the embodiment of the “win-win” attitude of Xi Jinping.
Duterte while welcoming discussions with India, will clearly not be wooed by the anti-China rhetoric that is sure to dominate the rhetoric of New Delhi’s officials during the forthcoming ASEAN summit.
Duterte’s ASEAN peers ought to take a lesson from Duterte’s attitude. If India wants to invest money in the ASEAN bloc and if India wants to enhance investment links with ASEAN nations, this can only be a good thing. But if India wants to use these ties as an opportunity to coerce ASEAN states into closing doors to China, this is ultimately a bad thing for ASEAN, as China is realistically a far more advanced economy and a far more powerful nation than India. Consequently, China is more important to the long-term prosperity of ASEAN than India could reasonably hope to be. Because of this, ASEAN states stand to gain nothing from alienating China, especially if they do so while blatantly serving an Indian geopolitical goal.
The Duterte model for approaching countries like India is one that will force Modi to adopt a more pragmatic line towards ASEAN. The message is as follows: Yes to trade and friendship—no to participation in India’s devious zero-sum contests with China, contests which are one sided as China is clearly the winner and as such, does not seek to prove this point using the overt geopolitical stunts that have come to define the Modi Premiership.
The Soviet Union was a staunch ally of Vietnam, Laos and, later Cambodia during much of the Cold War. Likewise Moscow tended towards positive relations with Myanmar. While the 1990s meant that Russia’s interaction with the region was reduced, today’s Russian government is keen to restore old ties while building new ones.
Russia’s friendship with China has crucially not come at the expense of the former’s continued partnership with Vietnam, nor has it prohibited Russia from making inroads into Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia.
Russia has been able to maintain good relations with Cold War era allies, while building powerful bridges to the Cold War era allies of both the US and China through a combination of energy deals, trading deals incorporating the EAEU, security agreements and the good will built up in parts of the region dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War.
Those are good reasons for why Russia ought to quietly help to offset Indian ambitions in the region vis-à-vis China. Russia must use a combination of soft-power and diplomatic channels to both show and tell ASEAN that while Russia welcomes increasingly warm relations between its old Cold War partner India and South East Asian nations, Moscow will nevertheless frown on such relations taking shape under the guise of Modi’s anti-Chinese soft-power crusade. In this sense Russia can help China while helping ASEAN nations to help themselves, all the whiling showing India that expanding its economic horizons can been mutually beneficial, but not so long as India plays geopolitical chess with the economic fortunes of other states.
Russia has the ability the gently nudge ASEAN into a position that is more similar to that of contemporary Philippines than that of contemporary Vietnam, the ASEAN nation now most susceptible to being seduced by Modi’s Sinophobic rhetoric, but also the nation which consequently could benefit the most from using its Russian partner to engage in a much needed détente with China.
This method, far from being devious, is actually a way to manifest a “win-win” dynamic that would ultimately be economically beneficial to India as well as to ASEAN. India’s brinkmanship with China will cost India in material and diplomatic terms whereas reaching accords with China will be to the material benefit of India, just as it is with every nation in the world, owing to the reality of China’s economic might and Beijing’s penchant for an anti-ideological and anti-prejudiced approach to deal making. The fact that much of South East Asia is home to both ethnic Han Chinese and ethnic South Asians, is all the more reason for Russia to highlight a model for cooperation rather than competition among the two most populous states of Asia.
Convincing India to abandon its antagonistic policies toward China is one of the tallest orders in contemporary geopolitics, however, showing potential partners of India that one can work with both India and China, will help to move the zeitgeist in South East Asia from one that is unsure about embracing China’s “win-win” model, into one that actively pioneers such a model, even when doing so with India as a trading partner.
In order to accomplish this, Duterte’s Philippines must lead by example and Russia must lead through diplomatic manoeuvring around the region in order to show both pro-western and anti-Chinese ASEAN states, that in the 21st century, such self-induced political labels are not only undiplomatic but are costly in economic terms.