The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has enjoyed considerable diplomatic attention in recent months. This is due in a large part to a courtship involving three major powers: Japan, China and the United States.
Japanese Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe has visited ASEAN three times since returning to power late last year, his latest trip a whirlwind tour that took in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. In all, he has to date visited seven counties in ASEAN.
China, too, has been ramping up its engagement and has also adopted a more conciliatory tone in recent high-level meetings with its ASEAN counterparts. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has visited ASEAN at least three times. Significantly, on June 2013, China agreed to hold talks with ASEAN on a proposed Code of Conduct governing naval action in the SCS. These advances are a contrast to its earlier stance, where it steadfastly refused to entertain ASEAN on maritime territorial issues, such as when it guided Cambodia to thwart a collective ASEAN effort to release a joint communiqué on the South China Sea disputes at the 45th ASEAN ministerial meeting.
Meanwhile, U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have both made trips to ASEAN countries, stressing the importance, relevance and ongoing strength of the American pivot. The Philippines and the U.S. have also begun discussions to extend access to more military bases for American troops in an important material consequence and manifestation of the American pivot.
While the cultivation of ASEAN by major powers is not new, the intensity of the recent courtship is unprecedented. Which begs the question: why ASEAN and why now? Two compelling reasons stand out, one practical and the other more strategic. First the utilitarian, as ASEAN becomes ever more coherent (not an entirely painless process) through initiatives such as a common market, it is becoming ever easier for major powers to cultivate ties with all of ASEAN simply by augmenting and amplifying relations with a few members. Case in point: Abe’s visit to three nations (out of 10 ASEAN countries) has been reported by numerous media outlets as a “tour of ASEAN” and as an act that would strengthen ties with the entire bloc. This is true for exchanges by the U.S and China as well.
But just because it is becoming easier to engage ASEAN is not sufficient reason to explain the recent attention. There is also an underlying strategic imperative, and that has to do with geography.
ASEAN has become the site for proxy power competition. For instance, galvanized by its East China Sea disputes with China, Japan has been busy generating support and political goodwill in Southeast Asia. For example, on a stopover in the Philippines (which has its own maritime issues with China), Tokyo sought to reenergize ties by way of maritime support, increasing economic exchange, an extension of a credit loan and, most notably, the provision of 10 petrol vessels to the Philippines Coast Guard in what is, surely, a pointed message for Beijing.
The U.S., on the other hand, sees its traditional dominance in the Pacific under growing pressure. With each new assertion of America’s decline and China’s rise comes a need to reiterate and reinforce its position in this part of the world. It is no surprise, then, that we are seeing redoubled efforts by Washington to engage and re-engage, assure and reassure.
ASEAN naturally stands to benefit from all this romancing, but it needs to maintain its composure and not be seen as leaning towards any one power. It also must not be bullied into submission. In an almost Machiavellian way, ASEAN should continue to cultivate an image of neutrality. That will ensure the region remains diplomatically and economically relevant.
Dylan Loh holds a Master of Science in International Relations from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.