The Taiwan Crisis Could Spill Over Into Southeast Asia

Even after her departure from Taiwan, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi controversial trip early this month has revived tensions in the Taiwan Strait, escalating the already tense relationship between China, Taiwan, and the United States. The visit to Taiwan of the third highest-ranking U.S. politician marked a reaffirmation of Washington’s recognition and acknowledgment of Taiwan and has strengthened the relationship between the two governments. It also presented an image of strength in the face of pressure from China that could have geopolitical implications for countries in Southeast Asia.

The widespread condemnation of Beijing’s belligerent response to Pelosi’s trip from the U.S., Japan, Australia, and G7 nations, along with calls for all sides to exercise restraint from South Korea and the European Union, could theoretically encourage member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to foster closer ties with Taiwan. This could take place through deeper cooperation with Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, the flagship foreign policy initiative of the Tsai Ing-wen administration, or the purchase of more Taiwanese products to fill the hole created by the recent import ban imposed by China in response to Pelosi’s visit.

For this scenario to eventuate, however, ASEAN would need a strong determination and long-term perspective that is presently far from apparent. In its recent statement on cross-Strait tensions, ASEAN made no mention of Taiwan, China, and the U.S. Instead of voicing support for or criticism against the parties involved, ASEAN expressed its concerns “with the international and regional volatility,” called for “maximum restraint,” and demonstrated its willingness “to play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful dialogue between all parties including through utilizing ASEAN-led mechanisms.”

ASEAN’s official stance reflected the bloc’s desire to maintain a balancing posture amid the simmering tensions between Washington and Beijing, while seeking to uphold its status and centrality by offering to play a facilitating role. But ASEAN’s ability to maintain this balance will continue to be put to the test. At last week’s 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, representatives from China and the U.S. engaged in a tit-for-tat game over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the Chinese reactions as “a significant escalation,” and said China “should not use the visit as a pretext for war, escalation, for provocative actions.” For his part, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the U.S. for “playing the dirty tricks to encroach upon China’s sovereignty under the guise of ‘democracy.’”

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The heightening of regional tensions is also appreciable in military activities, with China conducting provocative military exercises adjacent to Taiwan in response to Pelosi’s visit, prompting a U.S. carrier strike group and two amphibious ships to make their way to the waters east of Taiwan. Though multiple American warships in the Pacific could “arrive near Taiwan within a day if the need arises,” China will most likely take this opportunity to establish a new baseline for its military actions around Taiwan, thus increasing its ability to threaten the island at will in response to what Chinese leaders deem “provocations.” Wang, during his meeting with Southeast Asian counterparts, called Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan “manic, irresponsible, and irrational.”

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Not only does this turmoil put even more strain on U.S.-China relations and the perceived U.S. commitment to the “One-China Policy,” it also decreases the security and stability of the wider region, including the South China Sea. Just before Pelosi’s visit, China announced that it would hold military drills in the disputed waters from August 2 to 6. As China’s coercion has been accelerating, as can be seen from its aggressive actions during the Taiwan crisis, Chinese leaders could deploy simultaneous and massive exercises in the contested sea to showcase Beijing’s unwavering might and win domestic support, an option that threatens the ASEAN claimant states – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines – and widens the power asymmetry between China and these smaller states.

ASEAN states that are more vulnerable to Beijing’s power and have maritime disputes with the giant neighbor should be learning at lessons from Taiwan’s situation. Basically, with the ongoing changing dynamic in relations between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, China – with its ascending power – could set a precedent to curb foreign support for smaller and weaker states with its anti-access area denial strategy.

But the continued polarization between Taiwan and China could see Southeast Asian policymakers choosing to distance themselves from Taiwan in order to avoid potential economic retaliation from China. Hence, an escalation of Sino-Taiwan tensions creates a complicated situation for ASEAN countries, in which the safe economic choice could be to side with China. The more unstable the relationship between China and Taiwan becomes, the less likely countries in Southeast Asia will be willing to support the island democracy at risk of damaging their own countries’ relationship with China.

Additionally, something that will be telling on how ASEAN states continue to respond to an increasingly aggressive China is their response to the current human rights violations in Myanmar, most recently the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s junta. ASEAN has been criticized for its lack of a strong condemnation of Myanmar’s actions and for failing to take concerted action to navigate the humanitarian crisis across the country.

But if ASEAN does toughen its stance on Myanmar, it would demonstrate a heightened priority for human rights, something that could pose a problem for China as it has received international criticism for its repressive treatment of the Uyghurs. Myanmar and China are very different situations, not least because ASEAN countries do not economically rely as heavily on Myanmar as they do on China, but it could make China more wary of the potential repercussions if it created another human rights crisis over Taiwan. Hence, the closer that ASEAN states become to Taiwan through social, technological, cultural, and economic initiatives, the more likely they are to express opposition to China’s attempts to subjugate the government and people of the island. Amid lingering geopolitical uncertainties, the chance of any diplomatic moves or adjustments by ASEAN, though slim, should not be undermined.

Confronting simultaneously its three main challenges – that is, the U.S.-China rivalry, the South China Sea disputes, and the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar – is undoubtedly daunting for the COVID-19-weary grouping. Yet, given ASEAN’s aspiration of bolstering its centrality while preserving its neutrality in the midst of great power competition, there seems to be no better way to overcome these tests than strengthening its internal unity and solidarity, focusing on post-pandemic economic recovery, strengthening cohesion among ASEAN economies to mitigate external challenges, and expanding and deepening ASEAN’s ties with growing important external partners such as the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and the EU. All things considered, having marked its 55th birthday this week, there are both opportunities and challenges looming over ASEAN’s horizon.