ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Is ASEAN at Fault for Rising Indo-Pacific Tensions?

Through its dithering and lack of unity, the bloc has opened a space for further interference from outside powers.

Is ASEAN at Fault for Rising Indo-Pacific Tensions?
Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Eant Phone Aung

According to the Chinese government, the new AUKUS security agreement between the United States, Britain, and Australia is a threat to regional security. Some Southeast Asian states saw it along similar lines. The Philippines was a lone voice in publicly supporting AUKUS, and Singapore gave a tacit thumbs-up. But Malaysia’s newly-installed prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, claimed it could “be a catalyst toward a nuclear arms race” and might “provoke other powers to act more aggressively in the region, especially in the South China Sea.” Indonesia’s government released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” (A useful analysis of Jakarta’s stance can be found here).

Fears over an escalating arms race is only part of the explanation for Southeast Asia’s lukewarm response. A potentially more illustrative grievance stems from ASEAN’s feelings of its own increasing irrelevance. Evan Laksmana, of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, presciently argued that Indonesia fears that the new AUKUS arrangement leaves it as a “strategic spectator.”

Concern about becoming bystanders in their own domain is a prudent fear, given the havoc that the “First Cold War” played in the region. But it is worth considering whether the ASEAN states have allowed themselves to become spectators, watching on as decisions made in Washington and Beijing alter their region’s future. Indeed, can the ASEAN states offer up solutions to regional problems that will prevent involvement from outside powers?

And if the answer is that it cannot, then it begs the corollary question of whether it makes sense for ASEAN to keep on hoping the status quo holds.

Writing recently in The Diplomat, Sebastian Strangio noted that “it is not hard to view AUKUS as at least in part an expression of American frustration with the region’s perceived strategic fence-sitting.”  Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, told me: “ASEAN’s inability in recent years to adequately address ways to mitigate the negative effects of China’s economic and military rise in the Indo-Pacific have prompted countries external to the region to work together in picking up their slack.”

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A case in point is the long-stalled Code of Conduct (CoC) between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea, the key issue of global tensions in the region. First spoken of untold years ago, it has been postponed ever since, with little progress being made since early 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although discussions quietly began again in January. And with Cambodia taking the ASEAN chair next year, several governments have made it known (although not publicly) that they fear Phnom Penh could push Beijing’s agenda on the regional bloc, meaning the CoC negotiations tilt in China’s favor or stall once again.

Granted, the CoC is unlikely to settle the South China Sea disputes. And it will probably not be legally-binding, nor cover most disputes, due to the divided opinions of ASEAN’s 10 members, some of whom want nothing to do with these disputes since a bold stance might impair their own relations with China. “Even if ASEAN wanted to step in and help resolve the dispute, with member states depending economically on China, it would be difficult for the grouping to take a strong position against the issue,” Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, of the University of Indonesia’s Faculty of Law, argued this week.

Or take the region’s COVID-19 vaccination policy. Instead of arranging a unified plan on vaccination procurement and distribution (like the European Union did), each Southeast Asian country went it alone. That’s why we now have the situation where Singapore and Cambodia have fully vaccinated 79 percent and 66 percent of their populations, respectively, but Vietnam has achieved just 11 percent, Laos 28 percent, and the Philippines 22 percent.

Granted, there are myriad reasons for these discrepancies. But by not uniting, Southeast Asian states left themselves open to “vaccine diplomacy” from outside powers. China has made much about its support for Cambodia’s successful vaccination campaign, for instance, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently intoned: “If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask for help?” The U.S. and EU have also stepped up their vaccine diplomacy. If Vietnam can swiftly inoculate its people, no doubt the U.S. and European states will make much geostrategic capital out of this, especially as Hanoi has been very wary of accepting Chinese-made vaccines. Had ASEAN states come together, there wouldn’t now be this regional divide in “vaccine diplomacy,” which has only allowed the U.S. and China to gain more of a strategic foothold.

But arguably the most obvious case is ASEAN’s handling of the Myanmar crisis, one occasion on which the international community accepted the bloc’s customary demand that outside powers stay away from the domestic politics of member states and leave to the Southeast Asian nations to sort out among themselves. Granted, this was a tacit move from the international community that didn’t want anything to do with the Myanmar crisis, a fraught issue that will likely rage on for years.

There are some signs of toughening among some countries. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah this week put out a strong-ish statement about the junta’s representatives potentially not being welcome at the upcoming ASEAN summit. Indonesia has also sought to sound tough. Yet if ASEAN cannot sort out the crisis (and if it continues to escalate into 2022, as it likely will) it will further detract from Southeast Asian claims that things are better off when left to the region to its own devices. Not only would ASEAN show that it cannot handle its own affairs, but deterioration in the Myanmar crisis would create yet another moment when outside powers, mainly China and Russia, could gain an even bigger foothold in the region.

The root problem is that the ASEAN states don’t really know what they want, an uncertainty that is perpetuated by their own inability to agree on important issues among themselves. For sure, they are aware of what they do not want: conflict between the U.S. and China, as this could be fought as proxy wars in their region. Or escalation of tensions over the South China Sea that no Southeast Asian country could walk back from but which the U.S. might seek to fight on their behalf.

One apparent solution from the ASEAN states has been “not to take sides,” as the dictum goes. On the surface, it does seem in the best interests of Southeast Asian governments to hedge between the U.S. and China. On the one hand, by playing both sides off against one another they can extract better economic benefits from each, as well as deny either of the superpowers complete hegemony. On the other hand, by threatening to align more closely with China, Southeast Asian authoritarian leaders (who are in the majority) have been able to dispel U.S. criticism of their domestic politics.

But it isn’t that ASEAN states “don’t want to take sides.” Instead, they want to take both sides, an important distinction. The natural response to not taking sides would be to disentangle oneself from the two superpowers. But by taking both sides the Southeast Asian states further entrenched themselves in the superpower rivalry. Rather than more autonomy, it leaves them with less, having to constantly alter their positions between the two axes of the U.S.-China spectrum because of decisions made in Washington and Beijing, rather than by decisions made in their own capitals.

And all this has a snowball effect. Because ASEAN states cannot agree among themselves how to respond to the U.S.-China rivalry, nor offer up a regional response to regional problems, they have further eroded the bloc’s unity and its ability to assert its own authority. And as regional unity erodes, it makes it increasingly unlikely that ASEAN can take control of issues in its own area. This, in turn, convinces Washington and Beijing that they must further intervene in regional issues.