China should factor the West’s strong response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into its own calculations on Taiwan, a former Singaporean diplomat told CNBC on Friday.
“I hope that the major powers in our region, China in particular, have noted the very united and strong Western response and [China] will take that into its calculations vis-à-vis Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands,” Bilahari Kausikan, former permanent secretary at Singapore’s foreign ministry, told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, even though the island has been governed independently from China since 1949.
Beijing also has a number of territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea, including with Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China also claims the Senkaku Islands – known on the mainland as the Diaoyu Islands – which are under Japanese control.
The former diplomat was speaking as part of President Joe Biden’s meeting with Southeast Asian leaders which ends on Friday.
Southeast Asian nations are not tools of the West, and relations with the United States act as a counterpoint to relations with China, a senior Singaporean diplomat has said as leaders of the ASEAN, seen here being welcomed to the White House by US President Joe Biden, hold a special summit meeting with the United States (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Anger | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Speaking about the special two-day ASEAN summit in Washington DC, Kausikan said the meeting was evidence of a “return to normal” for US diplomacy after Trump’s “erratic” years.
“Trump was a bit of an outlier because the United States has been pretty consistent in its engagement in Southeast Asia for many decades,” said Kausikan, who is now president of the Middle East Institute at the University. National University of Singapore.
He also dismissed suggestions that ASEAN is a “tool of the West” in its rivalry with China.
“We are nobody’s tools.” he said, referring to the Southeast Asian bloc made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and from Vietnam.
“We see China as a way to manage relations with the United States and Europe; and we see Europe and the United States as a way to manage our relationship with China,” he said, noting that Southeast Asia had been a great power arena. competition for centuries.
He said the timing of the ASEAN summit – where a US trade framework is among the topics expected to be discussed – also proves the US is not distracted from its focus on the Indo-Pacific.
“Trade is a very sensitive issue in US domestic politics and ASEAN leaders understand that,” he said. “In our part of the world, trade is a strategy.”
On the US-China rivalry, Kausikan said it was unrealistic to expect a “decoupling” between the West and China, a term that refers to the gradual severing of economic and trade ties between China and the West.
The United States and Europe are currently trying to reorient supply chains to reduce their dependence on Chinese manufacturing.
“I think it’s a fantasy. No one can decouple from China, not even the United States,” he said, adding that a “partial decoupling” in areas with implications for the national security might be possible.
Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Arsjad Rasjid told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia that Indonesia and other ASEAN countries don’t want to have to choose sides.
“We want to be friends with the United States, we want to be friends with China,” Rasjid said.
He also acknowledged that “the United States has been absent from the action” and said the summit marked a new beginning.
On Southeast Asian countries having to choose sides, Kausikan said: “I don’t think any of the ASEAN countries view the choice as a simplistic, binary choice between the US and China. China. There’s no reason why we don’t have good political relations, not just economic relations.”
Kausikan said there is a growing awareness that close relations with China “would compromise autonomy” unless accompanied by close relations with the United States.