With China and the US vying with each other for geopolitical influence in the region, analysts say that ASEAN has no reason to choose one superpower over another, but needs both.

Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that when conflicts between the superpowers arise, small regions and small countries always suffer. When elephants fight, ants die, as the old adage has it. Respect for the principles of the ASEAN charter and centrality matter. ASEAN cannot allow itself to be divided.

He offered his insights at a roundtable talk titled “ASEAN is between China and US in a new context” at the royal academy.

“ASEAN does not have any reasons to choose one over the other, and cannot join with one against the other. The nations of the bloc must avoid having to make the choice. ASEAN needs both China and the US in terms of economic, strategic, security and commercial aspects,” he added.

Phea urged ASEAN nations to express solidarity for one another by adhering to a clear principle of not making themselves a location of exclusive influence from any one superpower in the future. However, this would not be easy, he said.

He added that ASEAN was not a pawn of the superpowers. Playing a competitive game with the superpowers was difficult because it was like “carrying a basket of tigers”.

He also said ASEAN is a major trading and economic partner of the US and China, noting that China has become the largest trade partner of the bloc over the last 10 years, followed by the US – while ASEAN was the fifth largest trade partner of both China and the US.

Phea added that although ASEAN could resolve serious issues in the region, the US was using every means at its disposal to protect its role as the first superpower, while China was trying to usurp it in the role.

“From the US geopolitical point of view, ASEAN could be a shield it could use to maintain the balance of its power in the Indo-Pacific region and curb China’s influence in Southeast Asia. China has used its soft power to implement a win-win policy and expanded its influence and reputation – China places value on development and the economy rather than political ideology,” he said.

Phea added that China had provided assistance and massive investment in Southeast Asia, with each country benefiting from investment capital. China is now the largest trading partner of Cambodia, he added.

As part of efforts to enhance relations, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink this week met Cambodia’s top diplomat Prak Sokhonn to discuss bilateral and regional cooperation. Kritenbrink touched down in Cambodia on July 12 for his first official visit.

Puy Kea, a prominent Cambodian journalist, said: “The US and China are almost like the parents of ASEAN. China is the mother of the economy, while US is like the father, and we know is capable of flexing its financial muscles. ASEAN needs both to continue its growth,” he said.