Renewed strategic competition between China and the United States has nudged Southeast Asia and its regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), toward center stage. Since the end of the Cold War, the organization has succeeded in positioning itself as an “honest broker” at the center of Asia’s diplomatic architecture. But the rising tensions between the two superpowers, with which Southeast Asian nations have close relations, have raised difficult questions about ASEAN’s future credibility and cohesion.
In his new book “ASEAN and Regional Order: Revisiting Security Community in Southeast Asia,” Amitav Acharya, a renowned scholar of Southeast Asian regionalism, discusses the evolution of the Southeast Asian bloc from the end of the Cold War into a new era of Sino-American competition.
Acharya, a professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., spoke to The Diplomat about the anti-colonial and Cold War origins of ASEAN, its present headwinds, and how Western observers get the regional grouping wrong.
In the West, much of the present commentary on ASEAN has focused on its various shortcomings, regarding human rights, the South China Sea, etc. Many of these are no doubt valid, but how do you see ASEAN in wider historical perspective? What was ASEAN’s core purpose, and what have its primary achievements been?
It is hard to understand and appreciate ASEAN when you are sitting in Washington, D.C., New York, London, Paris, Brussels, or Beijing.
Let’s keep in mind that a good deal of the critical commentary about ASEAN from the West is from media and think-tanks affiliates. Some of it is very well-informed, but a good deal of it is from people who have not studied Southeast Asia or ASEAN with any rigor or depth. Some of these commentators, especially in the U.S., are obsessed with the China-U.S. relationship and tend to view ASEAN as inconsequential or irrelevant or a nuisance, because it is not a great power in itself. In Europe, there is a long-standing tendency to view ASEAN from the prism of European Union. The EU is the “model,” and since ASEAN does not fit that model of deep integration, or supranational authority, it is dismissed. This may be changing a bit since the EU is struggling itself, but it still casts a long shadow in the Western mind about ASEAN’s credibility and contribution.
ASEAN’s core purpose and the main reason why it was created was, and remains, not to abolish or “tame” national sovereignty but to preserve and enhance it. Quite understandably so, since ASEAN nations were colonized (even Thailand, which escaped direct colonization, was a “semi-colony” or “second-level colony,” as Sun Yat-sen described China) or dominated by Europe and the U.S. (in the case of the Philippines) for a long time.
Against this background and looking at the question from the perspective of ASEAN countries, rather than the West, ASEAN’s achievement has been four-fold. First, it has helped to preserve the independence of its members and enhance their status of its members internationally. This would have been impossible without a regional platform like ASEAN, especially as ASEAN nations are in general are small (either in size or population) and weak (in terms of military and economic power), relative to the big players like China, the U.S., and India.
Second, after playing a crucial role in the settlement of the Cambodia conflict (Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia from December 1978 to 1989), ASEAN has helped to keep the region relatively free from inter-state war, involving ASEAN members themselves. This is a far cry from what we have in South Asia, Northeast Asia, or West Asia (the Middle East). ASEAN’s role in the diplomatic resolution of the Cambodia conflict is underappreciated in the West, where credit goes to Western nations, including France, not least because the final peace agreement was signed in Paris in 1991.
But the road to Paris went first through Jakarta, Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. When Vietnam attacked Cambodia, neither country was an ASEAN member. Since the settlement of the conflict, there has been no war among them. In reality, no existing ASEAN member has fought an outright war with another existing ASEAN member since ASEAN was established in 1967. The only minor exception to this were the border skirmishes over Preah Vihear temple area between Thailand and Cambodia, which escalated in 2011, but were quickly contained and then compromised through arbitration by the International Court of Justice.
Third, ASEAN has been able to engage all the major powers of the world, and I say all, in a process of dialogue on a sustained and substantive basis. This includes not just summits, which get lot of attention, but also senior and lower-level official dialogues on a broad range of economic, political, ecological, and other issues. Many of these meetings see leaders and senior officials come to the region, engage ASEAN and each other. Other regional organizations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America also engage outside powers, but no one does it as routinely and comprehensively as ASEAN. ASEAN may be a regional organization, but it is a United Nations in microcosm.
Let’s now turn to Myanmar, a nation that has highlighted what many of ASEAN’s critics consider to be among its greatest shortcomings: its policy of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. In particular, ASEAN has come under heavy criticism for its (non-)response to the military coup in February. How do you view the origins of ASEAN’s non-interference policy? Given how closely connected this idea was to the post-colonial origins of most modern Southeast Asia nation-states, do you think ASEAN can move toward a policy of more flexible engagement, as former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan once argued, without fracturing?
ASEAN’s non-interference policy is as old and stubborn as its authoritarian politics. The two are closely linked. Coups and democratic backsliding are a staple of ASEAN’s political environment since inception, and have sustained its non-interference mindset.
ASEAN has not done a credible job in responding to the crisis. Its poor response, which has been admitted by some of its leaders like Singapore’s, is partly due to tradition of non-interference, which is also linked to intra-ASEAN differences rooted in having very divergent political systems within the grouping. As we all know, ASEAN is far from being a club of democracies. Those ASEAN members which are not democracies or are controlled by the military direct or indirectly, like Vietnam and Thailand, have little interest in “interfering” in Myanmar’s politics because they are worried that it will create a precedent and come back to haunt them.
I have argued that ASEAN should have first insisted on sending an envoy to Myanmar to meet with all parties, including NLD leaders, before inviting General Min Aung Hlaing to Jakarta to meet with ASEAN leaders in Jakarta. Such a move gave the military leader “face,” if not outright international legitimacy.
But what is more disappointing is that ASEAN failed to act promptly even in areas where it could have acted more decisively and despite differences in national political regimes. For example, ASEAN took too long to appoint its special envoy as agreed in Jakarta. This was apparently due to failure among the members to agree on a candidate, even thought there was no shortage of good and readily available candidates for the job.
But one should not blame ASEAN only in considering how the outside response to the coup has unfolded. The fact is that the Myanmar coup took not only ASEAN, but also many outside observers and countries by surprise. There has been much outrage in the international community about the coup. But there is a real policy failure here, and that applies to both ASEAN and the outside countries despite the fact that the conditions of the coup and some signs were already evident. The fact is that the business community was too busy with economic opportunities in Myanmar, while the leaders in Asia and the West were too sanguine about democracy taking hold in the country.
After Myanmar’s democratization process set in, with the first two governments of the transition period, led by Thein Sein during 2011-16 and then the NLD from 2016 to 2021, the international community was too busy congratulating itself for its benevolence and feeling good about the positive change in Myanmar. Sanctions were lifted and Myanmar was welcomed into international stage and given the role of ASEAN chair, which had been denied earlier.
The Rohingya crisis from 2015 caused anger and disillusionment in the West with Aung San Suu Kyi, but it was seen as a breach of human rights, however massive, rather than of democracy. ASEAN of course cared less about human rights, and the West, while focusing on human rights, ignored the problems of democracy. In fact, I believe the West was willing to accept Aung San Suu Kyi’s tolerance or even defense of the military’s handling of the Rohingya crisis because this was seen as an attempt to on her part to accommodate the military to keep democracy going and herself in power.
At the heart of ASEAN’s most pressing challenges is China’s meteoric return to wealth and power. You have written that China has already “called into question the coherence and integrity of Southeast Asia as a region,” and for evidence of the strains it has placed on ASEAN, we need look no further than China’s use of the Cambodian government to block ASEAN statements critical of Beijing’s policy on the South China Sea. From ASEAN’s perspective, how does the current phase of strategic competition differ from the bipolar conflict of the Cold War?
ASEAN was created when China was down as an international or even a regional power. So was India. This created space for ASEAN to come into its own. This situation persisted till the end of the Cold War. But lest we forget, the economic and political destiny of Southeast Asia has historically been shaped by its two large Asian neighbors. Of these two, China has reemerged faster economically and militarily. It also has the more assertive policy in the region, fueled by territorial ambitions and revived nationalism.
Southeast Asia, as I have often written, is to some extent an artificially constructed region. The naming of Southeast Asia had much to do with the Allied South-East Asia Command and then the outbreak of the Cold War. Remember the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), created by the U.S. to prevent dominoes falling in the region? To be sure, academic writings and research centers, firstly in the West, did much to give more recognition to the concept of Southeast Asia. And then the creation of ASEAN was itself a response to a variety of geopolitical events. Signs of the U.S. being unable to stop Vietnamese communism, the major policy shifts by external powers, such as the British withdrawal from “east of Suez” and the Nixon Doctrine (which ruled out future involvement in a land war in Asia), either coincided with ASEAN’s establishment or contributed to its survival after an anemic birth.
Since Southeast Asia was a creature of geopolitics, one should not be surprised if it fades, if not dies, with the changes to geopolitics. The rise of ASEAN was helped by the U.S. military presence, the Cold War stalemate between the U.S. and the USSR, and substantial economic aid and investment by a U.S. ally, Japan.
This has changed. China is now a much stronger economic and military player, Japan is in decline, the fate of the U.S. military presence and diplomatic staying power in the region is uncertain or seen as such despite all the rhetoric about Obama’s “rebalancing” policy and the Trump-induced Indo-Pacific and Quad. This puts pressure on Southeast Asia’s autonomy and identity and capacity for independent action. Moreover, the Indo-Pacific concept and the Quad (Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue) are themselves a challenge to ASEAN. It is clear that the concept was pushed more vigorously by outside powers – the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India – than by Southeast Asian countries themselves. The latter are divided on what the idea means and how best to promote it. They are concerned about China’s opposition to the concept. They are divided over the Quad. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is a statement of norms and aspirations, not action.
Due to all this, the rise of China and the response to it from other great powers could create an existential crisis for ASEAN. It could further undermine ASEAN centrality, already under attack by intra-ASEAN disunity over how to deal with China and its sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
It is perhaps no surprise that ASEAN’s period of greatest diplomatic agency came in the interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the return of great power competition between China and the United States. One achievement of this period is that ASEAN was able to position itself at the center of the region’s diplomatic architecture, and to achieve buy-in from larger outside powers for its “centrality.” How do you interpret the elusive concept of “ASEAN centrality,” both in theory and practice? How will this be impacted by the rise of alternative minilateral groupings like the Quad?
Agree. I call it ASEAN’s “golden age.” It started with the end of the Cold War (and the resolution of the Cambodia conflict) and lasted till the late 2000s, although the 1997 Asian financial crisis did damage to ASEAN’s reputation as a cohesive group. But even then, ASEAN recovered and even consolidated with the creation of its three communities: economic, political-security, and socio-cultural.
This is also the period when the concept of ASEAN centrality emerged. But it was as much a product of ASEAN itself as of those outside actors who wanted ASEAN to be the driver of regional institutions in Asia-Pacific (this was before the Indo-Pacific became vogue). They pushed for ASEAN centrality for two reasons. The first was that no other power or existing regional group could be acceptable to every major player in the region as the leader or center of organizing region institutionally. A U.S.-led institution would not be acceptable to China, and vice versa. A Chinese-led institution would not be acceptable to Japan and vice versa. Only ASEAN could be the seen as a “honest broker,” so to be speak.
Second, proposals from Canada, Australia, and Russia for an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)-type of institution for the Asia-Pacific were deemed too Eurocentric and ill-suited to the realities of the region, which is larger in size, more maritime oriented (the heart of OSCE was continental Europe) and did not have a tradition of formal or legalistic confidence and security-building measures. So, these proposals did not fare well. Only the “ASEAN Way” of informal and non-legalistic measures would work in the Asia-Pacific. This was reinforced by ASEAN’s own credibility after decades of existence through which it not only survived, but matured, and helped to stabilize Southeast Asia, if not the wider Asia-Pacific.
ASEAN itself naturally welcomed the notion of its own centrality. But this idea of centrality created higher expectations and imposed greater burdens on a limited subregional grouping. ASEAN credibility was not matched by its institutional capacity. It’s one thing to manage relationships within Southeast Asia. It’s another to manage the affairs of Asia-Pacific; that involves much stronger powers and far more intractable conflicts. It was unrealistic and continues to be beyond ASEAN’s pay grade. This is one reason why I have proposed “downsizing” ASEAN: to focus on issues within Southeast Asia first and foremost.
At the same time, minilateral groupings like the Quad need not sink ASEAN if it stays united and committed to Southeast Asia’s identity and security. In fact, by staying focused on its own region, and staying reasonably united, ASEAN can minimize its vulnerability to outside influences, including the U.S.-China rivalry. Intra-ASEAN disputes exist, but they are not really of the scale or intensity that would trigger conflict on their own terms unless exploited by outside powers, including the U.S. and China. This is a lesson of the Cold War that still applies, which is that domestic or inter-state disputes in many regions of the world escalate only if they invite the intervention of outside big powers.
During the Cold War, ASEAN also faced intensifying great power rivalry. To cope with it, ASEAN developed a framework for Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) to shield itself from outside power machinations. While this was not perfect, it did give ASEAN space for its own diplomatic initiatives. Today, the equivalent of ZOPFAN would be a commitment not to take sides in the U.S.-China conflict. This would preserve ASEAN’s integrity, unity, and purpose far more than tilting to either China or the U.S.
The future of ASEAN centrality depends on two factors, ASEAN unity and ASEAN neutrality, although this is not a passive neutrality or a matter of avoiding engagement with any side, but engaging all sides, such as the U.S. and China, as well as other major powers that have an interest in the region. This would enable ASEAN to cope with worst-case possibilities such as the emergence of an even more assertive China and the return of geopolitics to the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region.
In the next decade or so, U.S.-China rivalry may intensify, although there is no so-called “Thucydides trap.” Nor do I think China is playing a “long game” out of a playbook hidden in its strategic closet to replace the U.S. in the region. China is smarter than that. It may be opportunistic, but no matter how organized and determined nations are, grand designs seldom pan out in reality. China realizes there are limits to competing with the U.S. with a view to creating its own world order. And sooner or later, the U.S. will come to live with China while realizing that its own world order, the American-led liberal order, has passed its use-by-date. There will be more actors, issues, and types of leadership beyond what either China or the U.S. can provide. That situation, what I call a Multiplex World, is the best outcome for ASEAN. ASEAN should work to realize it in its own admittedly small way, by staying focused on preventing major war in Southeast Asia and preserving its unity, and hence centrality.