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The following is a guest post by Ann-Kathrin Merz, intern in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather in Singapore this week (April 25–28) for the thirty-second ASEAN Summit, under the theme of resilience and innovation. The range of issues to be discussed include economic development—notably Singapore’s “smart cities” initiative—the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya people, and territorial rivalry in the South China Sea. But the gathering will miss a major opportunity if it fails to acknowledge the changing power dynamics fueling geopolitical tensions in the region—which, if dealt with, would demonstrate that ASEAN is prepared to play a central role in moderating these rather than being the object of growing great power competition.
Asia is increasingly caught in a tug-of-war between China, on the one hand, and major regional democracies, on the other. In November 2017, the United States, Australia, Japan, and India revived quadrilateral cooperation, or “the Quad.” The scope of this four-nation partnership extends beyond naval issues and regional security to embody a zone of shared values (implicitly excluding China) and a source of infrastructure development (intended to reduce dependence on Chinese funding).
In parallel, the Donald J. Trump administration has resurrected the term “Indo-Pacific,” in an effort to enlist India in constraining China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first employed this phrase in 2006 and 2007, in the context of a “broader Asia” strategy promoting India-Japan ties. The Trump administration has since breathed new life into the term, notably in its 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), which identified the Indo-Pacific as a focal point for clash between “free and repressive visions of world order” (the latter a clear reference to China).
The term “Indo-Pacific” has gained prominence in India, too. Indian strategists increasingly accept the geopolitical connection between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. China’s dependence on African energy resources, for example, provides the Indian Navy potential leverage over Chinese behavior.
This tug-of-war between great powers to define the geopolitical landscape of Asia threatens to divide ASEAN. Trump’s bellicose language has transformed the United States into a sudden source of instability, as nations question the depth of U.S. commitment to Asia. Not only do U.S.-centric military alliances compete with ASEAN-led initiatives in the region, but the Quad cooperation coexists uneasily with the ASEAN Security Community, challenging its centrality on regional issues like maritime security.
Likewise, while China formally supports ASEAN, it weakens the group by selectively picking off members with trade, infrastructure, and other forms of assistance through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. ASEAN’s weakest members, including Laos and Cambodia, are especially vulnerable to China’s leverage, and limit themselves to ASEAN initiatives that China supports.
ASEAN is inherently vulnerable to great power dynamics, given its modest power and internal divisions. Even when counted together, ASEAN countries remain smaller economically than the United States, China, and Japan. Their combined military expenditures are dwarfed by the United States, China, Japan, and India. ASEAN’s relative size to other Asian powers makes it vulnerable to their strategic aims.
Rising internal divisions also weaken ASEAN, which clings to a consensus-building form of decision-making. This so-called “ASEAN way” requires unanimity for an initiative to proceed, effectively allowing the preferences of reluctant states to dominate. The ASEAN way also sanctifies the principle of national sovereignty, which prevents stronger responses to crises, such as the ethnic violence in Myanmar or the government crackdown on Cambodian opposition.
Nevertheless, ASEAN’s modest size and power carry advantages, leaving it uniquely positioned to mediate and foster cooperation among the great powers. Its nonthreatening nature and historical legacy of non-alignment allows ASEAN to serve as an arbiter of what is legitimate in the region’s geopolitics. Indeed, managing great power rivalries in Southeast Asia arguably remains ASEAN’s raison d’être, just as it was in 1967, when Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines founded it to help moderate Cold War tensions.
Following the end of the Cold War, ASEAN took on a central role in the region’s multilateral security and economic arrangements and facilitated dialogue among the region’s powers. An entire institutional architecture has followed, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN plus three, and the East Asia Summit. Australia has recognized the need to give ASEAN space in the Southeast Asian geopolitical landscape. On March 18, Australia and ASEAN issued the Sydney Declaration, reaffirming the centrality of ASEAN-led mechanisms for a “rules-based regional architecture.”
At this week’s Singapore summit, ASEAN should pursue additional measures that strengthen its facilitating role. This includes supporting Indonesia’s proposal to reinforce the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). The reinforced treaty would strengthen the “code of conduct” intended to govern interstate relations in Southeast Asia, at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.
ASEAN must also present a unified front with respect to the South China Sea. ASEAN cannot maintain its role as the champion of a rules-based regional architecture while remaining silent on aggressive Chinese behavior. ASEAN’s failure to support Vietnam when China threatened military action in July 2017 undermined its centrality. While ASEAN is eager to affirm the importance of a free and open Pacific, it needs to be willing to speak out against countries when they violate these principles.
The United States should support ASEAN’s regional initiatives, while avoiding the temptation to use it to undermine China, which would exacerbate ASEAN’s internal divisions. ASEAN is on track to become the fourth largest economy by 2050. Supporting ASEAN now will pay off in the future, as ASEAN’s impartiality and desire for openness stabilizes a tense geopolitical jigsaw puzzle.