As Southeast Asia’s leaders met with each other and other major powers at the annual ASEAN and East Asia summits this week, much media attention was focused on the Myanmar crisis and the grouping’s decision to bar the Myanmarese junta from attending the event. But unfavorable trends in geopolitics centered on Asia were likely even more on the leaders’ minds.
We are at an inflection point in Asia at which regional security is endangered like it hasn’t been in decades. The militarization of the Quad since its rebirth in 2017, the formation of AUKUS involving (among other things) the building of offensive submarine capability and enhancing U.S. troop presence in Australia, and a series of gaffes (that may not be gaffes) by President Biden on Taiwan are widening fault lines in Asia. Recent hints of an expansion of AUKUS and raising its ambition are even more problematic. This process is being aided in significant measure by China’s stepped up intrusions in disputed maritime zones and the rapid expansion of Chinese naval capabilities.
Extra-regional powers beyond the United States have not been shy of showing up in unhelpful ways either. These include the assertive entry of the United Kingdom through AUKUS and its naval sails through the Taiwan Strait, the robust armed presence of France, and recent joint Chinese and Russian naval activity circling Japan. If current trends of me-too militarization and obstreperous chest-thumping continue, there can be no good outcome for the region and the world.
Southeast Asia has until now mostly managed these pressures by artfully hedging against the United States and China. Hedging has meant active engagement rather than neutrality, and a deepening of ties with both. Preferential tilts by individual ASEAN states are allowed, but entering into new military alliances, formal or informal, has been generally avoided in the post-Cold War era. Southeast Asian hedging also involves proactively putting an economic foot forward to give a stake to all powers, great and not-so-great, so that all may benefit from its success. The ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is the most visible example of this approach.
The question is whether a policy of security hedging is sustainable as the U.S.-China dynamic enters fraught terrain. The United States says that it is not asking Southeast Asian states “to choose between the U.S. and China.” But AUKUS is just the latest sign that Asia’s tectonic plates are shifting in ways that will require Southeast Asian states to adopt a proactive policy precisely to prevent such choices being thrust on them in the future.
From one standpoint, ASEAN is an ideal forum for fashioning a retooled strategy. It has an enviable track record of integration of a vastly diverse region with a history of ethnic conflict and, in recent decades, a story of stellar economic rise. It has been friend to most and foe to none. Its low-key approach of non-intervention and decision-making through consultation and consensus can be seen as, well, Restraint, Asian style.
But ASEAN’s time-tested formulas may need to be adapted to what’s coming. Non-intervention is hard to sustain in its absolute form while Myanmar burns and state failure within the ASEAN family looks like a distinct possibility with all its spillover effects. Externally, ASEAN seems helpless to curb the emerging Great Power Competition that could, in a dystopian scenario, turn the region into a theater for coercive sanctions, periodic military crises, and even proxy wars. Hedging works up to a point, but if zero-sum framing becomes the norm in Washington and Beijing, then Southeast Asian omni-directionality will be seen by both sides as more provocation than bridge-building.
ASEAN may need to shed its historic reticence and avoidance of difficult topics and adopt a denial policy of its own — albeit, a diplomatic, rather than military version. Denial, ASEAN-style, would mean at its core rejecting and opposing the emerging bipolarity in Asia organized along so-called “coalitions,” which are really contemporary, informal forms of military blocs of the old.
What does this mean in terms of specifics? ASEAN states should consider collectively and clearly opposing AUKUS and especially its dangerous potential for expansion. Indonesia and Malaysia have already come out in this vein, individually, and most significantly, also jointly. ASEAN states might also wish to support the Quad’s evolution into a space for non-military, positive-sum activities such as health and climate action, while discouraging its militarization, symbolized by China-oriented exercises such as Malabar, featuring anti-submarine warfare.
At the same time, Chinese intrusions and pressure tactics in the maritime domain could be highlighted more explicitly, and no ground yielded on Chinese demands to impose a veto on security relationships with extra-regional powers in the Code of Conduct negotiations over the South China Sea disputes. Such a veto is opposed by most ASEAN states due to their concerns about Chinese hegemony. But these states would also not like to give each other similar veto power, according to Singapore-based academic Chong Ja Ian. Russian-Chinese bloc formation on Asian matters, though currently at an embryonic stage, should also be viewed unfavorably.
These moves carry risks of displeasing both great powers simultaneously — and Southeast Asia suffering short-term consequences as a result. But it is better to make a serious attempt to exercise restraint on the great powers before darker scenarios become a fait accompli. Admittedly, getting a consensus on these positions within ASEAN, with all its diversity of views, is highly challenging. But there’s nothing to stop a subset of Southeast Asian states stepping up. Perhaps this could encourage the rest to follow in due course. Indonesia and Malaysia may be well-suited to lead such an effort. If they are ambitious, they could also engage South Asia in evolving such a new consensus.
The United States, for its part, has already acted provocatively and unwisely in initiating AUKUS, is taking huge risks on the Taiwan issue by eroding the time-tested One-China policy, and has needlessly militarized the Quad. But it can stop making things even worse. Washington should be true to its word and stay away from using strong-arm tactics, overt or covert, to push ASEAN states to pick sides or decouple substantially from China. Such tactics risk generating regional blowback. The United States appears to be avoiding this course at the moment, but coercive options will be increasingly tempting as the rivalry with China heats up.
Instead, a turn toward greater incentives to strengthen the U.S. position and influence in the region would be much more productive in the longer run. The United States has been a robust investor in Southeast Asia, but China is by far ASEAN’s largest trade partner. Observers have long pointed out that the United States lacks an economic game in Southeast Asia — a major shortcoming. President Biden’s announcement of support to the tune of $100 million at the ASEAN summit for health, environmental, education and other efforts in Southeast Asia, was a constructive step. But a nation that can muster trillions of dollars at will to deal with a pandemic and a financial crisis, can do better in Southeast Asia. Climate change ought to be central to U.S. efforts in the region, and the Quad’s stated intentions to focus on this arena must be translated into action. If the United States plays its cards wisely, consistent with a grand strategy of Restraint, it can still retain much of its influence and goodwill in Southeast Asia.
Sarang Shidore is Director of the Global South Program at the Quincy Institute, and member of the adjunct faculty at George Washington University. He has published in Foreign Affairs and The New York times, among others. Sarang was previously a senior research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and senior global analyst at the geopolitical risk firm Stratfor Inc.
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.