President Barack Obama’s upcoming participation in the East Asia, APEC, and the ASEAN-U.S. confabs in Southeast Asia during his October trip to the region will highlight important challenges that the region faces, particularly the role that small states play in great power relations. While analysts and scholars are still debating the relationship between the United States and rising China, the countries of Southeast Asia, independently and as ASEAN, already understand that the ultimate nature of relations between the two great powers will directly affect them. For that reason, they do not want to wait passively for the result, but are actively engaging the U.S., China and other external stakeholders to help shape the evolving regional order.
China seeks a new type of great power relationship with the U.S. that would give it almost-equal status to the latter in the global arena. Beijing is seeking assurances from Washington that U.S. policy will take Chinese interests into account. In Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, this would mean that China will have unspoken primacy in the same way that the U.S. enjoys an unchallenged role in the Western hemisphere.
Thus, China’s actions such as disputing Japan’s administrative control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by regularly dispatching maritime surveillance vessels to the surrounding area, taking over the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal and attempting to take over Second Thomas Shoal, and maintaining a long-running dispute with Vietnam over the Paracels are alarming indications that it is willing to do what it takes to prevent violations of what it considers its sovereign territory.
Southeast Asia has generally enjoyed peaceful and productive relations with China. In fact, ASEAN and China have maintained a “strategic partnership” since 2003, which identifies numerous areas for cooperation. Earlier, in 2002, ASEAN and China concluded a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. As a geographic reality, ASEAN member states have had no choice but to find ways of working with China. The regional body has for that reason always sought to encourage China to play an active role in regional institutions in an attempt to “socialize” it to accepted norms.
Increasingly, though, China expects the respect due a great power, one that has now displaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Yet while China may believe that it is destined to dominate Southeast Asia, most countries in the region would naturally prefer to retain their autonomy. That doesn’t mean they will oppose China directly; indeed, they are prepared to make certain concessions in some areas that do not affect their national interests. Many East Asian countries respect China’s economic wealth and dynamism. Respect, however, does not mean obeisance. Southeast Asian states do not wish to rely entirely on Beijing’s goodwill so they try to balance their engagement with China by engaging external powers through ASEAN and by bilateral means wherever possible.
In contrast, Southeast Asia is much more accepting of U.S. primacy in the region. There are three important reasons for this: U.S. respect for freedom of navigation, its role in preventing other powers from dominating the smaller countries in the region, and its lack of territorial ambitions in that area. The general transparency of U.S. policymaking is also helpful to Southeast Asian states in that they have an idea of how the U.S. will react to certain policy decisions that they might make. The U.S. rebalancing has been welcomed by many ASEAN countries as both an affirmation of the region’s importance, and also as representing a formal commitment to deeper engagement in the broader Asia-Pacific region.
Still, ASEAN as a whole does not want to be in a position that would force it to choose between Beijing and Washington. First, it has always sought to position itself as a neutral and credible platform for dialogue among great powers through entities such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and various ASEAN Plus mechanisms. Second, there is always the fear that the U.S. commitment to the region will disappear once a new crisis erupts, especially in the Middle East. Even in the face of greater Chinese assertiveness in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea, ASEAN has refused to categorically take the side of its own members that have borne the brunt of Beijing’s displeasure. It is easy to imagine the chagrin this would cause the leaders of these member states, but ASEAN’s caution is also understandable.
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.
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.