Since its establishment in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has fostered unprecedented levels of regional economic, political, and security cooperation. While disputes and contradictions still exist among the nations, ASEAN has helped to prevent bilateral differences from turning into major conflicts.
Yet despite these accomplishments, effective regionalism in Southeast Asia faces constraints. ASEAN cannot resolve chronic maritime territorial claims or avoid the influence of competition among major powers outside the region. The organization seeks the power to set norms for cooperation in the region (such as the ASEAN Free-Trade Area or Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with China), but it is still vulnerable on issues that involve great powers. The process of regional integration is limited by the emphasis on economic cooperation rather than on forming effective mechanisms to resolve crisis spots such as the South China Sea. Collaboration is based primarily on building confidence (by creating norms and opportunities for dialogue and expanding shared interests) rather than on developing security ties.
To solidify itself as a regional security bloc capable of addressing crises, ASEAN should develop greater security cooperation with outside nations, including the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. Presently, cooperation among nations within and outside the region is not strong enough to address the fundamental causes of territorial disputes or major financial or economic crises that endanger the region’s development.
In particular, South Korea stands out as an ideal non-ASEAN Asian power that has the potential to work with both the United States and ASEAN to foster greater regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. Japan, while a major U.S. ally and economy, has geopolitical, historical, and territorial disputes with China and would have difficulty adding to regional cooperation. By taking advantage of South Korea’s increasing diplomatic and economic capacity, the United States should seek to improve state of U.S.-ROK-ASEAN relations to promote regional security and stability in Southeast Asia.