ASEAN-US and China Triangular Model

In the 21st century, the South China Sea has become one of the most strategic and conflict-prone regions. This is due to the traditional security perspective that the South China Sea area as an important part of the Asia-Pacific.


In the 21st century, the South China Sea has become one of the most strategic and conflict-prone regions. This is due to the traditional security perspective that the South China Sea area as an important part of the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be contested by several countries, which can result in tensions between countries. This is emphasized by Mikael Weissmann in (Weissmann, 2015) that this region has long been predicted as a potential place to become a conflict area because of its strategic position in terms of geography and geopolitics. The LCS, estimated to have reserves of eleven billion barrels of petroleum, five trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and about ten percent of the world’s fish population lives in this region. Apart from being a potentially large extractive resource, the LCS also acts as a strategic trade corridor used to transport commodities worth $5.3 trillion annually. Its strategic geographical position makes the LCS an ideal location for military bases. China itself has used several islands in the SCS region as transit points for their navy, this action has caused concern among countries bordering the SCS, especially Southeast Asian countries (Darmawan & Kuncoro, 2019).

This situation is a challenge for ASEAN in particular, which acts as a forum for cooperation for its ten members. In responding to the South China Sea issue, ASEAN has an important role as a Balance of Power in the midst of many foreign interests that continue to threaten the region. ASEAN’s attitude is in line with the main purpose of its formation, where the unity stands on the strong aspirations of its founders to create a peaceful, secure, stable, and prosperous Southeast Asian region (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, 2015).

Recognizing the speed of change, ASEAN, which is the center of attention amid various interests in the SCS, has agreed to emphasize three pillars as a proactive measure to respond to geostrategic changes and create stability in the SCS region. The three pillars include (Pangemanan et al., 2021):

1.  ASEAN Political and Security Community;

2.  ASEAN Economic Community; dan

3.  ASEAN Sosio-Cultural Community.

The three pillars are an integral part of the ASEAN Community framework, which is the main vision pursued by ASEAN today. The ASEAN Community reflects efforts to build and enhance the integration process, which aims to enable people in the region to enjoy fundamental human rights and freedoms, improve their quality of life, and benefit from community development. It also seeks to strengthen a sense of solidarity and shared identity, guided by the goals and principles contained in the ASEAN Charter (Pangemanan et al., 2021). However, in the face of the presence of great powers operating  in the South  China  Sea,  ASEAN  uses  a  diplomatic approach  within the framework of the ASEAN Political and Security Community (APSC), known as defense diplomacy. The concept has evolved rapidly since the end of the Cold War. According to Andrew Cottey and Anthony Forster, defense diplomacy is a form of diplomacy that aims to improve relations and prevent potential conflicts with parties considered as threats, as well as learn lessons from other parties (Cottey & Forster, 2013). According to (Chalid et al., 2016) through APSC, it is expected that member countries and their residents are able to live together harmoniously in a democratic atmosphere. The concept of democracy that promotes transparency is expected to organize various forms of interaction between actors, both state and non-state, in various aspects of international, cross-country, and global relations.


Chinese leaders have long voiced the view that the world is heading toward a multipolar state, in which America’s unipolarity will decline in the long run. Since 2008, they began to feel that the United States was in a faster decline than they had predicted, while China was climbing higher. Significant changes in power shifts in China’s favor were noted at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Working Conference on Foreign Affairs held in July 2009. The conference emphasized the importance of Chinese soft power, while still following the views of Deng Xiaoping. This view is known for its principle of “Taoguang Yanghui (low profile), and emphasizes more on “getting something accomplished.” In other words, the Conference encouraged a Chinese foreign policy that was more proactive than assertive (Yahuda, 2013). This was certainly before Xi Jinping came to power.

After the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017, there were frequent statements that Mao Zedong liberated China, Deng Xiaoping made China prosperous, and now Xi Jinping made China strong. For nearly four decades, rapid economic growth has made China more confident and more open to becoming a model worth following. At the 19th Party Congress, a meeting held twice in a decade to establish new leaders and future policy directions, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that the country had entered a “new era” and declared that the time had come for China to become a “center stage in the world” (Smith, 2018).

In October 2013, the CCP held a working forum focusing on peripheral diplomacy, the first to specifically address peripheral diplomacy since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The forum was attended by seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s most influential decision-making body, as well as State Councillors,  various  bodies  of  the  Central  Committee,  and  Chinese  ambassadors assigned to neighboring countries. At the forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping presented his vision for Asia’s future, “a Community of Common Destiny.” (Smith, 2018).

The economic foundation for the new regional order, centered on China, is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It was first announced by Xi Jinping in a speech in September 2013 at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. BRI is a series of major infrastructure projects, such as oil and gas pipelines, seaports, hydroelectric dams, airports, and railway lines, spread across Southeast Asian countries, Central and South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. This ambitious geopolitical project is now a core element in China’s foreign economic policy, in addition to linking the interests of developing countries with China’s domestic market, Beijing also receives significant benefits, namely the power to promote new global norms (Zhang, 2018).

While the Chinese leader refers to the Construction of a Community of Common Destiny (CCD) as a comprehensive view of the world involving both developed and developing countries, in reality, the situation is more complex. China tends to apply the CCD concept specifically to developing countries and multilateral institutions. During visits to developing countries, President Xi often uses this concept, calling for the establishment of CCDs between China and those countries in regions such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Zhang, 2018). On his first state trip to the Pacific region in November 2014, Xi Jinping affirmed China’s readiness to support joint development and prosperity with small island states.

David Arase in (Arase, 2016) describes the organizational structure of BRI on the following four aspects: (a) BRI does not go through a multilateral negotiation process, but is determined through bilateral negotiations between China and each country involved; (b) the BRI is not based on liberalization agreements that remove trade-related legal barriers, but rather facilitates trade  through specific infrastructure  development and coordination of state development policies; (c) Its qualifications and membership rules are not objective and non-discriminatory, but rather depend on negotiations with China on a case-by-case basis; and (d) the BRI does not rely on free market principles and private initiatives, but rather on national development plans and policy coordination between countries.


Indeed, the importance of maintaining close economic ties with China is critical for all countries in Southeast Asia, so this economic interdependence may be perceived more as a constant than a variable when trying to understand the countries’ relative strategic alignment options. Sometimes there are variations in how certain countries may choose short-term trade-offs, but all ASEAN countries are trying their best to keep different paths in both their security relations with the United States, as well as their economic ties.

At the same time, individually and collectively, ASEAN countries are responding to their increasing economic interdependence with China by continuing to diversify their relations with other economic powers. Even Laos, Southeast Asia’s poorest country, managed to capitalize on China’s interest in infrastructure investment to strike a bargain with the World Bank to fund a controversial hydropower megaproject. And increasing reliance on China helped push Myanmar’s isolated military regime toward reform from 2011 onwards, to diversify its strategic relationship. Along with many bilateral trade liberalization agreements, since ACFTA came into force, ASEAN has also ratified the Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Japan, free trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and goods trade agreements with India. The United States has so far signed FTAs with Singapore, and with ASEAN as a whole, the United States has had Trade and Investment Framework Arrangements (TIFA) in place since 2006 to boost trade and investment and promote liberalization of ASEAN rules. In late 2012, the Obama administration launched the U.S.-ASEAN Economic Engagement Expansion initiative, a new framework for economic cooperation to help lay the groundwork for ASEAN countries to prepare to join high-standard trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Understanding the importance of this suggests that China’s rise has brought significant strategic economic benefits to Southeast Asia. These considerations have put clear limits on how willing countries in the region are to antagonize China on various fronts, including by taking actions that show they are “conspiring” with outside powers to encircle China. Nonetheless, within those limits, China’s rise is proving strategically beneficial for Southeast Asia in terms of security: first, because it offers opportunities for strategic diversification and helps prevent reliance on U.S. strategic dominance in maintaining stability in the region. At the same time, China’s rise provides an important strategic rationale to draw long-term U.S. attention in Southeast Asia, thereby alleviating the region’s fear of American impermanence.

Showing Determination in the South China Sea

The historical context and discovery of ancient artifacts are often used as a basis by China to support its claims to the South China Sea. This action is usually followed by a show of force that tends to show its existence through provocative actions against other countries that also claim the territory. As seen in the policies that have been implemented from the early 1970s to the present, China has firmly asserted the symbols of its sovereignty, sometimes even showing an aggressive stance by attacking foreign ships passing through the waters of the South China Sea, in order to protect potential resources that could support its national interests.

China claims that islands and territories in the South China Sea have been discovered since the time of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC, and by the 12th century BC, the area had been incorporated into the domain of the South China Sea by the Yuan Dynasty. The affirmation of the boundaries of this region is seen in maps developed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, around the 13th century BC. In the 19th and 20th centuries, China asserted that the Spratly Islands were part of the Nansha Islands, about 1,100 km from Yu Lin port on Hainan Island. The Paracel Islands, located north of the Spratly Islands about 277.8 km from Hainan Island, are considered part of the Xisha Islands which are part of Hainan province (Junef, 2018 in (Matondang et al.,2022)). In 1930, the French began occupying one of the Spratly islands and in 1931, they sent a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Paris, claiming Vietnamese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands prompting protests from the People’s Republic of China. Despite these protests, France retained control of the Spratly Islands, including seven others, and declared them part of the kingdom of Vietnam from 1933 to 1939.

Japan replaced France in occupying the Spratly Islands from 1939 to 1945. After Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, France re-occupied the islands in 1946. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued a protest against France’s actions and a month later, sent senior officials on warships to occupy the Spratly Islands. In 1947, China declared the islands part of Guangdong province and issued a map of the South China Sea with nine dashed lines forming the letter U, signifying China’s territorial claims within the red line. Since 1976, China has occupied several islands in the Paracel Islands and in 1992, Chinese law reaffirmed that claim.

Figure 1. Continental Shelf

Since 2010, this claim has been ongoing and based on arguments about traditional fishing zones. China’s unilateral claims to the Natuna region have continued, stoking tensions between Indonesia and China in 2013 and reaching a peak in 2016. In March, May, and June 2016, Chinese fishing vessels entered Indonesia’s EEZ and carried out a number of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU Fishing) activities (Seran et al., 2023). Similar incidents occurred again in 2019 and 2020, involving not only fishing boats, but also the Chinese coast guard. The problem of violations occurred due to differences in views between China and Indonesia. The Chinese government argues that fishing boats have the right to sail and claims their coast guard patrol area is within the nine-dash line area. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government does not recognize this line nine and sees China’s actions as a violation of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), especially in the waters of the North Natuna Sea. But again, the nine-dash line is not legally recognized in maritime law. A July 2016 arbitral tribunal decision concluded that China’s claim to historic rights on the nine-dash line was invalid (Singh, 2023), which later changed to the ten-dash line (Tanamal & Loasana, 2023).

ASEAN-US and China Triangle Model

Empirically, conflicts in the South China Sea are also influenced by factors outside the region, such as tensions between the US and China on various issues. In some studies, ASEAN’s role tends to take a cautious stance by using various organizational mechanisms, such as the ASEAN+3 cooperation framework, to reduce potential incompatibilities with China’s policies. It is important to note that, although China strongly considers the region crucial in efforts to build a multipolar structure and limit the influence of the United States in the Southeast and East Asian regions, it seems to prefer a compromising approach rather than initiating open conflict, despite having the ability and options to do so (Chalid et al., 2016).

Through ASEAN’s principle of non-intervention, in this case China, which is very firm regarding its sovereignty, feels more comfortable in dialogue on sensitive issues such as the SCS For ASEAN, this Chinese stance can be interpreted positively or negatively. China’s openness to ASEAN mechanisms provides an advantage in managing tensions in the region. Nonetheless, it is important to always maintain vigilance against China, which has always viewed itself as a greater power than ASEAN.

In addition, some ASEAN member states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, tend to support the US, while Myanmar and Cambodia tend to support China, which then adds a level of complexity to regional security issues in the region. Furthermore, Malaysia as a country involved in the dispute is also part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) coalition. This is as emphasized (Itasari & Sudika Mangku, 2020) that Southeast Asian countries that are generally considered to have lower influence have several choices. First, they can seek an alliance with China to prevent conflict, or second, they can strengthen themselves by forming common regional ties to maintain balance against China. With such a high level of diversity, ASEAN is considered to still face challenges in handling the SCS problem, which until now has not produced an agreement that is acceptable to all parties involved.

The presence of one of the major powers in the South China Sea, namely the United States, is believed to arise due to concerns over China’s increasing influence accompanied by decisive action in the South China Sea, as well as diplomatic efforts aimed at several ASEAN member states such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Therefore, it is not surprising that the United States is again intensifying cooperation with its allies in the Southeast Asian region, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore, to reduce China’s influence. The competition for influence between these two great powers has posed a dilemma for ASEAN as a regional organization in the Southeast Asian region, as there are divisions among its members, with some countries more supportive of Beijing, while others are more inclined to support Washington (Chalid et al.,2016).

This situation was seen at the ASEAN summit in Cambodia in 2012, where ASEAN member states were unable to unite their views on resolving the conflict in the South China Sea which intensified after several incidents occurred between China and the Philippines. The difficult position for ASEAN arises because of the division of opinion within the organization itself. Some member states argue that China should be involved early on in the process of formulating a Code of Conduct (CoC), as proposed by Cambodia. While other member states, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, still believe that ASEAN must first ensure alignment of internal positions before negotiating on the draft CoC with China.

This disagreement among ASEAN members resulted in a decline in ASEAN’s power as an independent entity, as well as raising doubts about its relevance as a tool to achieve the national interests of its member states. It is evident that the assumption of China’s great influence over ASEAN over the South China Sea dispute is a reality. This is in response to the efforts of the United States to interfere in ASEAN affairs through its allies, especially in the case of the Philippines. In the end, the Southeast Asian region that should be the ASEAN region actually becomes a battlefield between the PRC and the United States, even potentially for military conflict between the two that could trigger a third world war, as analyzed by some experts. Meanwhile, ASEAN’s internal divisions related to disputes in the South China Sea, even at the CoC discussion stage, can cause distrust in the vision of realizing the ASEAN Community, especially in the APSC pillar.

Similar conditions have persisted in ASEAN’s history for a long period of time. For example, at an informal ASEAN Summit in 1999, the Philippines, with support from Vietnam, proposed a draft Code of Conduct (CoC) that essentially aims to change ownership status over disputed areas, contain more detailed provisions than the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, and propose joint development cooperation in the Spratly Islands. However, this draft was rejected by China. Malaysia also tried to propose a joint declaration on the Spratly Islands at the 35th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Brunei Darussalam in 2002. Malaysia’s efforts have been fruitless as the majority of ASEAN members feel it is not yet clear whether the agreement will result in a declaration or code of conduct. Finally, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea emerged as a middle solution to Malaysia’s proposal.

On the other hand, economically, the United States is increasing competition in the Southeast Asian region with China. China’s goods and capital presence is likely to increase in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia in particular. Although slowing somewhat, most signs suggest that China’s trade in the region, and particularly exports to China, will continue to experience substantial growth, especially as low-cost consumer goods manufacturing for the Chinese market moves to other regions of Asia, including the Southeast. Asia. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its “one belt one road” initiative can be crucial means for China’s economic engagement in the region. With increasing trade interdependence and China’s growing investment footprint in the Indo- Pacific, and particularly in Southeast Asia, greater Chinese political and diplomatic influence is likely to follow. Beijing has to face the fact that its promised investments are often not implemented or, when implemented, fraught with problems. Over time, however, Beijing  will  be  able  to  better  manage  the  negative  publicity  that  accompanies  its investments in Southeast Asia.

In terms of security, most countries in the region have an external environment that is relatively stable and free from real threats coming from their neighbors. Security issues that are top priorities for most nations in the Indo-Pacific tend to emerge from within the limits of their sovereignty: safeguarding economic growth and socio-economic stability, countering religious extremism, and quelling restive ethnic separatism. This is especially true in Southeast Asia. This would limit the willingness and capacity of many countries in Southeast Asia to open strong military-to-military ties with the United States. What’s more, many countries in the region fear provoking China through closer military ties with Washington.

China’s growing economic, diplomatic and military presence in the Indo-Pacific, and particularly in Southeast Asia, presents its own set of challenges to U.S. strategic engagement in the region. This does not mean that China has an advantage over the United States in Southeast Asia nor does it mean that China is destined to achieve regional dominance. But it is clear that China’s presence is a geopolitical fact on the ground that weighs heavily on regional countries’ calculations as they calibrate relations with the United States.

China is the number one trading partner for half of ASEAN countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand – and is the main trading partner for most of the other five member states, making China ASEAN’s largest trading partner. all. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area entered into force in 2010 and the ASEAN-China agreement on increasing bilateral investment was reached in 2009. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, accumulated bilateral investment between China and ASEAN reached $150 billion in 2015.128 In addition, China helped push forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement involving ten ASEAN member states plus six partners that have free trade agreements with ASEAN: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

China maintains an active diplomatic presence throughout the region and generally has positive political relations with most of its neighbors, including in Southeast Asia. Even as some bilateral political relations deteriorate in recent years — such as with Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines — those countries’ governments remain cautious to avoid open confrontation with Beijing. China is able to leverage its good relations with most ASEAN countries to guarantee a strong consensus within the organization that may conflict with China’s interests. Beijing could do the same in large ASEAN-centered groups in the region such as ARF and EAS.

China has also raised its military profile in the region through continued modernization efforts, joint military-to-military activities with regional partners, and greater investment in defense diplomacy. China’s land reclamation and construction of facilities in the South China Sea has received the greatest attention, including at Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Cuarteron Reef, and resulted in a stronger military presence, in and around the Spratly Islands in the south. part of LCS. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, if the mainland features of the Spratly islands are not included, the mainland Chinese feature closest to Mischief Reef is Hainan Island, which is 599 nautical miles (roughly 1,100 kilometers) away. China’s deployment includes airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, docks, and air defense systems.

China faces many serious obstacles in seeking greater influence in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, China’s economic, diplomatic and military activity in and around Southeast Asia is likely to pose a major challenge to U.S. strategic engagement in the region. Countries in the region do not want to be dominated by a single hegemon and therefore welcome a strong and sustained US presence across its dimensions. Despite concerns about China’s rise and its long-term intentions, they have no choice but to pursue constructive relations with Beijing to the fullest extent possible. Importantly, while China’s growing power is alarming, concerns about increasing competition between the United States and China and possible conflict between the two are also worrisome — an outcome that would be disastrous for the region. Beijing is well aware of these concerns and will carefully manipulate them for the greatest benefit over time.

Sri Yaumil Habibie
Sri Yaumil Habibie
Sri Yaumil Habibie is a master's student at the Defense University of the Republic of Indonesia. His research interests include defense science, national security, and maritime security issues.