(Bloomberg) -- Asian powers are in a position to avoid choosing between the U.S. and China as they build deeper ties with each other, a panel of regional politicians and experts said, amid a battle for influence between the world’s two biggest economies.
“Asia is not either China centric or U.S. led right now, it’s between orders and looks like staying that way,” former Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said on Thursday during the Asia Society’s Asia Briefing Live 2020 forum, presented in partnership with Bloomberg. “If you look at what’s happened in the last 15 years, middle powers are doing much more together than they’ve ever done before.”
With the U.S. and China sparring on fronts from trade and maritime security to the coronavirus and 5G networks, Menon said their growing competition had paved the way for middle powers in Asia to play a bigger role in transnational issues.
The 10-nation bloc that makes up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a strategy of non-alignment at the core of its foreign policy, and has maintained strategic autonomy while not becoming too dependent on either the U.S. or China.
That includes its move to not adopt the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, amid a wider pushback against Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. Asean instead developed its own strategy, with a focus on regional centrality.
“What we have always tried to do is to prevent Southeast Asia from becoming a theater of conflict,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences’ politics research center. “That’s why we have to strengthen ASEAN cohesion on the one hand, and then also enhance ASEAN agency as a regional convener.”
Inter-Asian ties have been further strengthened by Covid-19, as countries strike deals with one another to build travel bubbles, said Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large for the Singapore Foreign Ministry.
While the pandemic has forced countries to look inward to resolve the devastating economic consequences of lockdowns and restricted movement of supplies and people, she said, a mutual understanding has also formed in which they need one another to fix those issues.
Travel bubbles in Asia “may become some kind of grouping and you have a permutation set,” she said. “If you deal with each other, there are lots of visits and exchanges. Well, you have a new space to work with.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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