Leaders of ASEAN member countries have consistently proclaimed and promoted the bloc’s “centrality” in the guidance, mitigation, and mediation of regional security issues. Since its founding in August 1967, ASEAN has had some successes — like playing a role in averting war or major crises between its members, including over territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN also hosts the most meaningful official multilateral security forums in the region. But the grouping has become ever more divided in regards to the South China Sea disputes. Indeed, for ASEAN, resolving or even mitigating the South China Sea issues between China and the United States may be a bridge too far. The contest between China and the U.S. for dominance there and in the region has exposed the reality that ASEAN is not sufficiently politically and militarily unified to be “central” to the region’s security when it is threatened by a clash between major powers.
However, some ASEAN leaders refuse to acknowledge this reality. They prefer to ignore it or paper it over and cling to hope. On August 6, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen urged ASEAN and China to “quickly conclude” the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea so that the regional grouping can maintain its centrality. He argued that there are at least three reasons that ASEAN must be “central” in regional security issues: “First the alternatives would be worse, collectively and for [larger powers] themselves. All countries understand that tensions would rise, if any large or even middle powers asserted themselves to change the status quo to gain central dominance.”
But that is exactly what is happening. The United States has been the dominant regional power since the end of World War II and now China is seeking to supplant it.
Ng’s second reason is that ASEAN member states border two key maritime domains — the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca — which are “vital to global trade.” The ASEAN states are indeed ‘central’ in a geopolitical sense. But that only means that they and the South China Sea/Strait of Malacca are the focus of major power competition and manipulation.
Ng’s third reason is that the values of ASEAN provide comfort and assurance to larger powers “as [the grouping] is neutral, inclusive, and open.” But that is not what China and the United States are after. They both want regional dominance.
The United States and China do pay lip service to ASEAN centrality, but that only encourages false hopes and deflects from their real objectives and goals. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at the early August ASEAN-U.S. Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore, “we remain committed to ASEAN centrality under America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.” But it seems that the United States and ASEAN members are not talking about the same thing. ASEAN members are wary of the Indo-Pacific strategy concept. They do not want to be drawn into great power competition that would likely submerge ASEAN centrality when it comes to decisions affecting the security of the region. As Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters: “Of course, any strategy and new framework are always welcomed, but we always want to maintain ASEAN centrality.”
For China’s part, its Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly said China supports ASEAN “centrality in regional cooperation.” But it is not clear that means “centrality” in addressing regional security issues. Moreover the stepped up military activities of both great powers in the South China Sea do not acknowledge nor help ASEAN “centrality.”
China and the United States have competing political narratives regarding the South China Sea. Washington has argued consistently and strenuously to its allies, friends, and any others that will listen that China wants hegemony over the South China Sea and that in its pursuit is “militarizing” the features it occupies; bullying its rival claimants; threatening freedom of navigation; violating as well as trying to revise the applicable international law and order; and generating instability.
China counters that it is only exercising its right to defend its territory, just as other claimants are doing; that it is not threatening and will not threaten commercial freedom of navigation; and that it is willing to negotiate any disputes bilaterally as agreed in the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea and to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature to harvest resources in the disputed areas (as called for in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). To Beijing, it is Washington — an outsider – that is creating instability with its provocative military presence and UNCLOS-violating intelligence collection probes, and that wants to continue its hegemony over the region, including the South China Sea.
The reality is that both China and the United States work arduously behind the scenes to lobby ASEAN members to support their respective positions in what amounts to competing quests for regional dominance. Here China has made great strides with some like Cambodia and Laos, and — much to U.S. chagrin — has even made inroads with U.S. allies like the Philippines and Thailand. For its part, the United States has made progress in drawing its “comprehensive partner” Vietnam to its side and is trying to salvage what remains of its alliances with the Philippines and Thailand.
One reason for ASEAN’s failure to maintain “centrality’’ in regional security is its great cultural and political diversity. It really never was and perhaps never could be a unified political/security body under the pressure of great power competition. The latest challenge for ASEAN “centrality” is achieving a robust, binding COC with China. This would reinforce its political and security centrality in the region. But such an achievement would require ASEAN to be willing and able to take a united stand against China regarding controversial provisions of a COC, and this is looking increasingly unlikely.
Indeed, ASEAN is being increasingly sidelined in the U.S.-China struggle and ASEAN ‘‘centrality’’ in security of the South China Sea is rapidly becoming ever more an unobtainable goal.
Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China