Nevertheless, ASEAN has also been prodding Beijing to negotiate a Code of Conduct. While Chinese leaders have reiterated that they are in no rush to do that, there are efforts within ASEAN to get Beijing to commit to the process. Under Brunei’s chairmanship, ASEAN members were able to agree that they need to work together to make the code a reality. Singapore has also consistently called for a code of conduct and has raised the issue with multiple visiting Chinese leaders. Indonesia is keen to preserve ASEAN unity on the issue and has sought to create a middle ground that addresses the concerns of member states in any dispute with China, while avoiding outright schisms within the group. Even though Thailand is seen by some as aligning with China, Bangkok has nevertheless committed to working with other ASEAN member states on the code, even if it is not giving the issue too much emphasis.
Member states are keen to have ASEAN remain as the center of the regional architecture. For that to happen, the body must maintain a delicate posture between the U.S. and China while at the same time engage with other powers such as Japan, Russia and India, to ensure that it has a say in the direction the region will take.
ASEAN’s task is made all the more difficult because foreign policy coordination is not a major strength of the association. Given that the ten member states have different strategic outlooks and threat perceptions, the job of coordinating a regional position falls to the chair, which rotates among the member states. The ability to resist external pressure is often dependent on the relative power of the chair. In Cambodia’s turn in 2012, it was widely perceived that Beijing had a tremendous influence on ASEAN’s deliberations through its Cambodian partners. Brunei’s chairmanship, however, has been different this year because its economic and political standing gave it more freedom to resist external pressure. It was thus able to generate a consensus on sensitive issues like the South China Sea.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
For ASEAN to remain a credible facilitator of great power relations in the Asia Pacific, it must respond to two equally daunting challenges. First, it must create a true regional community that has a narrow development gap and a bustling economy. Only an ASEAN that can stand on and for its own will have the capacity to resist external pressure from the great powers. To achieve this, member-states must succeed in their goal of a united ASEAN community in 2015. This would further move them towards a community of states that take each other’s concerns as their own and that prioritize the rights of the peoples of ASEAN.
The second challenge is to move away from paper declarations, and avoid focusing excessively on process. ASEAN needs to demonstrate more progress in achieving its various goals, like the ability to absorb development assistance, implement agreements and introduce or sustain reforms for foreign direct investment. With more than four decades of evolution behind it, ASEAN cannot continue to hide behind noble, aspirational declarations while consistently failing to produce the goods. As citizens demand more accountability from their governments, increasingly aided by social media, ASEAN member states will need to reckon more and more with their peoples, whose interests may transcend state boundaries.
Centrality in the Asia Pacific’s existing regional architecture is something that ASEAN has earned, but can it keep it? If ASEAN member states realize that the period of papering over substantive issues such as territorial and maritime disputes is over and that these issues can no longer be separate from the overall exercise of community-building, then the body could indeed remain at the center of Asia-Pacific regionalism. If not, well, then the existence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership demonstrates that other regional arrangements can be set up sans ASEAN.
ASEAN’s central role in managing power relations in the Asia-Pacific is not a given, but must continue to be earned. Fail to do so and the great powers themselves will determine the future of the region. That would be a sad outcome for a regional body that has hitherto managed to keep a central position in the regional power web.
Julio Amador III is an Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and Fulbright Graduate Student at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.