Forum: Amid superpower attrition, Asean will continue to hedge bets

The national flags of the various countries attending the 35th ASEAN Summit are displayed in Bangkok on Nov 4, 2019.
The national flags of the various countries attending the 35th ASEAN Summit are displayed in Bangkok on Nov 4, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

It is moot whether tariffs, trade sanctions and embargoes on scientific know-how transfers by the United States and its staunch allies will stop the seemingly inexorable rise of China as a technological giant, but they sure will put a dent on its rate of progress (Decoupling too late to stop China's tech rise, Nov 22 ).

Chinese innovation has improved by leaps and bounds over the mere two decades that China joined the World Trade Organisation.

It will not happen so readily in the future when creativity must come from within the trenches of China and not borrowed or copied.

The US, home to some of the most advanced and creative companies, the foremost financial service institutions, the most potent military force, the greatest influential soft power entity and the biggest consumer market, still carries unparalleled massive clout.

As the Thucydides trap closes, Asean members will sensibly hedge their bets, superficially commit while being intentionally non-committal, remain diplomatically neutral and bend where the wind blows stronger.

As an organisation, Asean is more known for well-meaning rhetoric, but incapable of making an actual united stand against global titans when each nation's interests part company with the others.

The territorial conflict in the South China Sea bears strong testament to this, when Asean could not come to a united consensus which could have made a difference.

It is estimated that 5G technology will add US$147 billion (S$200 billion) in value to Asean industries, and whether the US or China emerges as the winner in the technology war, the conclusion will be similar, with each Asean member nation making its individual choice in recognition of its own deals with the superpowers.

In the end, Asean must be resigned to be snooped on.

Yik Keng Yeong (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2019, with the headline 'Amid superpower attrition, Asean will continue to hedge bets'. Print Edition | Subscribe