China should factor in the West’s strong reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into its own calculations on Taiwan, a former Singaporean diplomat told CNBC on Friday.
“I hope the major powers in our region, especially China, have done that noted the very unified and strong Western response and [China] will factor this into its calculations towards Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands,” Bilahari Kausikan, a former undersecretary at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia.
China claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory, although the island has been governed independently from China since 1949.
Beijing also has a number of territorial disputes with its South China Sea neighbors, including 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 in connection with President Joe Biden’s meeting with Southeast Asia leaders, which concludes on Friday.
Southeast Asian nations are not tools of the West and ties with the US act as a counterpoint to ties with China, says a top Singaporean diplomat, while ASEAN leaders, here welcomed by US President Joe Biden at the White House, a Special Event to Hold Summit with US (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer | News from Getty Images | Getty Images
Referring to the two-day ASEAN special summit in Washington DC, Kausikan said the meeting was evidence of a “return to normal” for US diplomacy after the “erratic” Trump years.
“Trump was a bit of an aberration because the US has been engaging Southeast Asia fairly consistently for many decades,” said Kausikan, who is now chair of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
He also rejected 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 Vietnam.
“We see China as a means of managing relations with the US and Europe; and we look to Europe and the US as a means of managing our relationship with China,” he said, noting that Southeast Asia has been an arena of great power competition for centuries.
He said the timing of the ASEAN summit – where a US trade framework is among the issues expected to be discussed – also proves that 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 strategy.”
“Decoupling” between the US and China
On the US-China rivalry, Kausikan said it is not realistic to expect a “decoupling” of the West from China, a term that refers to the progressive severing of economic and trade ties between China and the West.
The US and Europe are currently attempting to redirect supply chains to reduce their reliance on Chinese manufacturing.
“I think that’s a fantasy. No one can decouple from China, not even the United States,” he said, adding that “partial decoupling” could be possible in areas with national security implications.
Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Arsjad Rasjid told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia that Indonesia and other ASEAN countries do not want to choose sides.
“We want to be friends with the US, we want to be friends with China,” Rasjid said.
He also acknowledged that “the US in action has been missing,” saying the summit marked a fresh start.
On the Southeast Asian nations who must choose sides, Kausikan said, “I don’t think any of the ASEAN countries see the election as a simplistic, binary choice between the US and China. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have good political relations, not just economic relations.”
Kausikan said there is a growing recognition that close ties with China would “endanger autonomy” if not accompanied by close ties with the US