Asean needs to maintain a 'dynamic neutrality' between US & China: George Yeo

Yeo was speaking at the launch at the second book in his Musings series.

Tan Min-Wei | February 19, 2023, 01:14 PM

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On Feb. 16, former Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo launched the second book in his Musings series, where he draws his varied personal experiences to expound on geopolitical and regional issues.

During the event held at Mothership's Matchbox, Yeo spoke on a panel along with Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, anthropologist Professor Ho Eng Seng, and author and Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt.

The panel took several questions, including what lessons should young and upcoming leaders of China learn in regards to South East Asia and Asean; and the response from Asean nations should they be forced to choose between the United States and China.

Dynamic neutrality: George Yeo

Yeo started by saying that there was a good historical basis for good relations between China and Southeast Asia.

Where China historically has had to consider threats emanating from its north and its west, and presently from the sea, Southeast Asia has never threatened China.

Yeo suggested that Southeast Asia should continue to take advantage of China's strategic thinkers being preoccupied with other regions.

Southeast Asia's long relationship with China means that the region has seen the country through various incarnations, and has, over time, developed the skills needed to manage its China relationship.

Yeo said that China wanted "face" and to be respected, something that Southeast Asia as a region understood.

But he also said that China, for its part, understood that Southeast Asia had its own, independent interest. Those interests had to be registered and be made known to China; to make sure that China knows Southeast Asia did not want to be pushed around.

 "So if China presses on us too hard, we should lean a little more in other directions, so that China knows that it can't push us too far.

Then we'll be okay. We'll be able to maintain a certain dynamic neutrality in Southeast Asia."

Yeo has also spoken on Asean neutrality remaining dynamic and not static in his keynote address at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Regional Outlook Forum 2023 in January.

In his book, Yeo also brought up the example of former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who was "surprisingly sensitive to this Asean sensitivity".

Yeo observed that when the Framework Agreement of the Asean-China FTA was signed in Phnom Penh in 2002, Zhu said that China did not seek an exclusive position for itself in Southeast Asia.

Yeo noted that Zhu did not have to say this but that he did showed a certain understanding of Asean.

Choosing not to choose: Chan Heng Chee

Chan, who is one of Singapore’s three ambassadors-at-large, followed up by saying that the position of Asean countries is that "we do not want to choose. And we really do not want to choose".

Asean, however was willing to engage with both the U.S. and China on initiatives on the basis of the benefits those initiatives brought, with Asean countries signing up to some, but rejecting others.

Chan cited some examples of initiatives welcomed by Asean states. They include the U.S.'s Trans-Pacific Partnership, now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative.

But in others, she noted, such as the Quad, no Asean country has signed up to. Chan added that certain Asean countries were more open to consider if they "redefine Quad".

But Asean countries did consistently feel pressure with both the U.S. and China saying "you must do it with us, don't do it with the other side".

But Chan said that the process had to be taken "step by step", "initiative by initiative", and Asean nations had to create and build their own space.

Asean for its part has a "very good relationship with China", welcoming its opening at the end of the Cold War and normalising their relationships with it, Chan said.

For all individual Asean nations, China was either the first or second most significant trading partner, and for Asean as a whole, its most significant trading partner.

But there remained issues, such as the South China Sea.

Chan said that Asean - China relations would be helped by a resolution to the South China Sea Code of Conduct, an Asean initiative, and that as China was the bigger country facing Asean's small countries, that bigger countries should be magnanimous, which would lead to better results.

But failure to do so will see those smaller nations seeking "assurances from other big countries for protection."

Yeo then set out his take on balancing between the two superpowers.

If we try to use America to get more from China, we'll get less. But if we don't make use of America, and deal with China directly, we'll get more.

And we must have that wisdom in Southeast Asia. But we'll get more with the Americans around beyond the horizon, than if the Americans are not around. So there is a sweet spot, which we must find.

Bracketing off big problems

Ho said that over the years, the U.S. had turned against various groups in times of difficulties, whether it was Japanese during the second world war, or Muslims after 9/11. But he was surprised and shocked in terms of how fast China had come to be vilified.

He said that the U.S. will have a much harder time vilifying the Chinese to peoples in Southeast Asia, as the peoples of Asian nations have gone through a process of rediscovering each other, especially in the past 20 years where Asia has done more trade within itself than with those outside of Asia.

Ho also said that Asia had been at war for almost three quarters of the 20th century, and in that time had grown fatigued with war.

Rather than solving its large problems, such as the partition of North and South Korea, or the issues between Taiwan, Japan, and China; Asia had decided to "bracket off the big problems", and instead work on together on common goals, such as trade.

And as that process continues, along with the aforementioned rediscovery of each other, Asia will realise that it can actually "work across unsolvable nationalistic rivalries".

This would make it more difficult for rival superpower such as the U.S.  to gather up allies against China.

"To put it in old fashioned terms, the people to people relations have become so thick, it is hard to say 'China is bad'."

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Top image via George Yeo/Facebook