The recent ASEAN Summit in Laos marked one of the final multilateral meetings U.S. President Obama will have with ASEAN leaders as his administration comes to a close in January next year. During this trip, Obama sought to reassure ASEAN countries of continued U.S. commitment to rebalancing in the region.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how the U.S. rebalance will turn out under the next president. This is a cause of concern for ASEAN, as U.S. rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific region has served as insurance for most ASEAN countries to enhance their security in the face of an increasingly assertive China. If the new U.S. president shifts his or her foreign policy focus away from Southeast Asia, the rebalance could be diminished to some extent.
In spite of such uncertainties, it is vital that ASEAN maintain its centrality and unity, no matter which candidate wins November’s U.S. presidential election. This would ensure that management of regional affairs in Southeast Asia would still be firmly within the ambit of ASEAN and not subject to vulnerabilities because of changes in future U.S. foreign policy.
ASEAN Centrality in the Midst of Great Power Rivalry
The importance of ASEAN centrality was best articulated by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when he mentioned to Malaysian media at the summit that ASEAN has must be seen as a “rules-based organization … that engages with major powers in a friendly way while maintaining certain principles.” His statement came after his earlier remarks that there are different countries who have differing views on how some issues are handled. Such statements are not surprising, as Malaysia is an outspoken advocate for ASEAN centrality in relations with the major powers
Najib’s comments appear to allude to the troubling South China Sea disputes, which have weakened ASEAN unity and strained China-ASEAN relations. By asserting ASEAN’s rules-based diplomacy, Malaysia was conveying that the South China Sea disputes, and for that matter, other important security, political, and economical issues, are to be handled through consensus-based diplomacy. Consequently, ASEAN must take the lead in steering how such issues are tackled.
While most ASEAN countries have welcomed the U.S. rebalance during Obama’s administration, it is not the case that ASEAN will entirely align with the United States to counter the assertiveness of China. First, doing so could trigger a negative response from China. As a prominent scholar in China-ASEAN relations has pointed out, China is still not a direct and serious threat to most ASEAN countries, and hence there is no serious urgency for these countries to bandwagon completely with the United States to balance against China. Secondly, by aligning fully with Washington, ASEAN may run the risk of allowing U.S. preponderance to overshadow ASEAN centrality in the region. This would defeat ASEAN’s overall aim of preventing Southeast Asia from becoming subject to great power rivalry.
During the summit, Obama warned China that the arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is binding, and emphasized the need for peaceful means to reduce tensions and maintain stability in the region. This is not the first time Obama has attempted to use multilateral platforms to put pressure on China and enhance U.S. predominance in ASEAN.
China, in response to Obama’s remarks, reiterated that the South China Sea issue should be handled without outside interference, which ostensibly refers to the United States. At the Laos summit, China also sought to influence Cambodia to block statements on the South China Sea issue. However, Cambodia did not comply fully and maintained that a statement be issued without mentioning the tribunal ruling.
Unfair Criticisms of ASEAN’s Centrality
Some analysts and several media reports have argued that a single paragraph in the joint statement, which does not mention the tribunal ruling or reclamation activities, is not an adequate rebuke to China. Such criticism, however, is unfair. There are many issues other than the South China Sea dispute that are discussed in ASEAN’s multilateral setting; these criticisms erroneously downplay ASEAN unity in these other matters.
These criticisms also fail to appreciate the nature of the joint statement. If the joint statement had been more detailed, to include China’s reclamation activities and the tribunal ruling, it would have triggered a diplomatic backlash from China and damaged China-ASEAN relations. It would have played into the hands of the United States to transform ASEAN into an American platform to pressure China.
Leaving the statement out is not an option either, as ASEAN member states, including Cambodia and Laos, have a common consensus that the South China Sea issue is a concern for the whole of ASEAN and should be communicated in the joint statement. If ASEAN had agreed to leave out the statement entirely, this amounts to allowing China’s agenda to jeopardize ASEAN’s centrality in steering how the maritime dispute is to be handled.
Future Developments After Obama’s Administration
The next U.S. president may continue Obama’s rebalancing efforts in the Asia-Pacific; ASEAN would definitely welcome this development. However, as noted earlier, ASEAN will not hew too closely to the United States, in order to avoid downplaying ASEAN centrality. ASEAN has little influence over who becomes the next U.S. president. What ASEAN member states can do is to stand as a unified and robust organization that the United States has to deal with in regional affairs.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in his speech accepting the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship in 2017, mentioned that Manila would seek to lead ASEAN in striving to maintain unity and solidarity while cooperating with global partners. This trajectory would bode well for ASEAN, given that ASEAN unity and centrality have been seriously undermined by internal differences in the organization and external pressures particularly from the China-U.S. rivalry in recent years. The more pertinent question is not whether U.S. rebalancing will remain after Obama’s departure, but whether ASEAN’s reinforcement of its own cohesion is sufficient to weather future regional challenges.
David Han is a Research Analyst with the Malaysia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.