ASEAN caught between Washington and Beijing

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo supported a statement issued by ASEAN during the 11-member South East Asian regional organization’s virtual summit held in June, which had alluded to China’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis the South China Sea Issue, and resolution of the dispute under the UNCLOS 1982 (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).


More recently, Pompeo stated that Washington would back any country which felt that its sovereignty was being violated by Beijing.

Said the US Secretary of State: ‘We will go provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in ASEAN, whether that’s through legal responses, we will use all the tools we can.’

Pompeo had also accused Beijing of seeking a ‘maritime empire’.

Statements by US diplomats stationed in ASEAN countries

It is not just Pompeo, senior US diplomats stationed in the ASEAN region have lashed out at China’s stance on the South China Sea, and its aggressive intent as well as hegemonic designs. Chinese diplomats were dismissive of the assertions of US diplomats.

The US Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, had extended support to the Philippines in the ‘West Philippines Sea’ (a term used by Manila for the portion of the South China Sea which it claims is part of its Exclusive Economic Zone). In an article titled ‘The Philippines’ Future Floats in the West Philippine Sea’ the US Ambassador said that Washington would stand with the Philippines and other southeast Asian nations to maintain a rules-based order which upheld the ‘sovereign rights of all states’

The US Ambassador also stated that scientists of both countries should enhance scientific collaboration in the ‘West Philippines Sea’ under the US-Philippines Science and Technology Agreement signed in 2019.

The claims of the US Ambassador received a strong reaction from the Chinese Ambassador in the Philippines, Huang Xilian. In an interview with the Manila Times, Huang Xilian argued that Southeast Asian countries should seek to resolve their disputes with China, and not fall into a US trap. The Chinese Diplomat also stated that the US was trying to create instability in South East Asia.

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An opinion piece by a US Diplomat, George N Sibley on July 18 based in Myanmar led to a war of words. In his opinion piece, the US diplomat had accused China of taking advantage of the pandemic, and running roughshod over other countries, by impinging upon their democratic rights as well as their sovereignty (the US diplomat was alluding to China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea)

Said the Diplomat: “Instead of island-building, it takes the shape of infrastructure projects and special economic zones that pile on debt and cede regulatory control, and benefit China far more than they do the people of Myanmar.”

China dismissed these allegations, stating that the US diplomat was trying to create a rift between Naypyidaw and Beijing, and that both countries shared cordial relations. The diplomat also stated, that in past Washington had not stood by Myanmar when it was in trouble.

China-Myanmar relations

It is true, that there have been differences between China and Myanmar over the Myitsone Dam (which had to be shelved due to fervent opposition of locals) and the strategically important Kyaukpyu deep-sea port (which was renegotiated), as also on security issues. Yet during Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar 33 agreements were signed, with the focus being on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), an important component of the Belt and Road Initiative. Economic ties between both countries have strengthened. Myanmar’s crucial geographical position makes it an important component in China’s goal for regional connectivity.

Similarly, ties with the Philippines are complex. While on the one hand, Duterte is supposed to have veered towards China, Manila had backed Vietnam in its dispute with China in the South China Sea in April 2020 ( The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coast guard ship had led to rising tensions between Beijing and Hanoi).

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr also expressed concern over Chinese naval drills in the Paracel Islands (the drills were held from July 1-July 5).

Can ASEAN afford to make a choice

In spite of being aware of China’s aggressive behavior ASEAN does not really want to choose between Washington and Beijing and this point was emphasized by Singapore PM, Hsien Loong in an article titled, The Endangered Asian Century: American, China and the Perils of Confrontation published by Foreign Policy in June 2020.

Days after his re-election, the Singapore PM spoke to the Chinese President, and both reiterated the importance of bilateral cooperation for dealing with covid19, as well as reducing the economic consequences of the pandemic. The progress related to connectivity projects, as well as under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was also discussed by both leaders.

More recently during an interaction with a US think-tank, Singapore PM called for a stable US policy in Asia, where it worked closely with allies.

Duterte in an address to the nation also stated, that the Philippines could not afford a war with China and needed to resolve the issue diplomatically.


In conclusion, while it is true that ASEAN countries may be wary of Beijing’s expansionist tendencies, they can not overlook their economic interests, as well as geographical proximity to China. Like other regions, there is also a feeling in ASEAN that the Trump Administration does not have a clear vision for Asia.


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About the author

Tridivesh Singh Maini

Consulting Editor, Geopolitics with The Dispatch, Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana. He is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (Winter 2016) with the Stimson Centre, Washington DC. Mr Maini was also an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-14), and a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai (November 2013-March 2014). His research interests include; the role of Punjab in India-Pakistan ties, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the changing nature of Indian federalism.