What Does ASEAN Centrality Mean to China? 

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

What Does ASEAN Centrality Mean to China? 

Beijing pays frequent lip service to the idea, but it also poses significant challenges to China’s Southeast Asian ambitions. 

What Does ASEAN Centrality Mean to China? 
Credit: Depositphotos

In his recent China policy speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that China’s strategic goal is to reshape the Indo-Pacific order. Indeed, China has not been shy about this objective. In a 2014 speech, Xi Jinping called for “Asian people to uphold Asia’s security,” a not-so-subtle sidelining of the Americans in the region. In a more recent speech, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proclaimed the building of an “Indo-Pacific Community of Common Destiny.” A thorough analysis of China’s attitude toward the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, however, demonstrates that China’s primary concern in Southeast Asia is preventing a U.S.-led regional alliance.

The ASEAN countries adopted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific during the Senior Officials Meeting in June 2019 as a response to then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, announced during the 2017 APEC Summit. The ASEAN Outlook adopted the concept of the “Indo-Pacific,” a term once ridiculed by China as meaningless and attention-grabbing. The ASEAN Outlook aimed to establish a coordinated foreign policy guideline for all ASEAN countries. Indonesia, the de facto leader of ASEAN, played a leading role in formulating the outlook. Thus, the outlook reflects Indonesia’s policy of pragmatic equidistance: of maintaining its strategic autonomy by keeping an equal balance with all great powers. 

The central theme of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is ASEAN centrality. The outlook declared that “it is in the interest of ASEAN to lead the shaping” of Southeast Asia. It also “envisages ASEAN Centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), as platforms for dialogue and implementation of the Indo-Pacific cooperation, while preserving their formats.”

ASEAN centrality aims to draw major powers, such as China, the United States, and Japan, into the ASEAN framework through different layers of multilateral organizations such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Southeast Asian states force these outside powers to play by the ASEAN rulebook and reduce their predatory behaviors through the focus on ASEAN centrality. In addition, Southeast Asian states can bring diplomatic mass and persuasion to outside powers by pursuing policy consensus among ASEAN states. 

China has expressed its support for the ASEAN Outlook in open statements and at diplomatic events. During the China-ASEAN Dialogue 30th Anniversary Summit, Xi declared that China supported the principle of the outlook and ASEAN’s pursuit of independent diplomatic policy. In a meeting with the Indonesian foreign minister, Wang claimed the ASEAN Outlook was fundamentally different from the American Indo-Pacific Strategy, which he said intensifies regional confrontation. 

For China, the outlook is a reassurance against the possibility of ASEAN states leaning to far to the American side. Xi’s speech linked the outlook to “independent diplomacy,” which means China wants ASEAN countries to pursue security policies different from Washington. China’s biggest concern is a U.S.-led military alliance in the Western Pacific. The ASEAN Outlook emphasizes connectivity and openness, which guards against closed military blocs.

In addition, ASEAN centrality and independent foreign policy also suggests a rejection of the U.S.-led regional order. In a telephone conference with the Indonesian foreign minister on March 15, Wang appealed to war in Ukraine as an example and stated that China supports ASEAN centrality to resist “military bloc confrontation” and “using small states for great power competition” in Southeast Asia. In another telephone conference with the Vietnamese foreign minister, Wang claimed that the American Indo-Pacific Strategy created regional confrontation and damaged ASEAN centrality. China opposes the U.S. alliance system in Asia to “prevent the tragic of Ukraine from happening in our neighborhood.”

Thus, Beijing aims to resist the encroachment of American security partnerships, such as the Quad and AUKUS, by supporting ASEAN centrality and ASEAN regional institutions. The lack of participation from Southeast countries in the Quad and AUKUS further encourages China’s support for ASEAN centrality. 

However, ASEAN centrality poses significant challenges to China’s own Southeast Asian strategy in the long run. First, China prefers a separated rather than a unified ASEAN. As the ASEAN Outlook indicated, a joint ASEAN with a unified strategic outlook would improve policy coordination among ASEAN states. The Southeast Asian states can bind together to bring diplomatic mass and persuasive pressure to bear on Beijing. China therefore wants to engage with ASEAN members individually to maximize China’s diplomatic and military leverage rather than engaging the entirety of ASEAN.

By taking advantage of ASEAN’s consensus-based decision making process, Beijing can use a “divide and manage” strategy by pressuring and flipping one ASEAN state to forestall the emergence of unwanted ASEAN joint policies. In addition, ASEAN-led regional organizations, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, force China to play by ASEAN rules. Thus, ASEAN centrality aims to tie China’s hands and regulate Beijing’s engagement with ASEAN by embedding Beijing in ASEAN-led regional organizations.  

Second, ASEAN centrality suggests that China cannot dominate Southeast Asia and push the U.S. and Japan out of the region. The ASEAN Outlook rejects not only an American-led military bloc but also a China-led regional framework. China’s strategic goal in Southeast Asia is to establish a “Community of Common Destiny” by promoting a Sinocentric economic and political regional order. Beijing has long viewed American involvement in the Southeast Asia as hostile to China. China consistently criticizes the American position on the South China Sea disputes as “outside power trying to incite conflicts.”

The key objective of this “Community of Common Destiny” is to push the United States out of the Western Pacific and make Southeast Asia China’s sphere of influence. In contrast, ASEAN’s strategic goal has been to keep the United States engaged and committed to ASEAN-based institutions while limiting China’s influence on them. A Vietnamese diplomat once said to his American counterpart that American involvement in Southeast Asia will ensure that China treats Southeast Asian states better. The emphasis on openness and connectivity in the outlook means that ASEAN welcomes deeper American, Japanese, and even Indian involvement in the region as outside balancers against China. ASEAN wants to leverage these outside balancers to check China’s ambitions. 

The ASEAN Outlook’s maritime security strategy serves as a great example of how ASEAN centrality can damage China’s strategic interests. China wants to sabotage ASEAN’s capability to forge a common maritime strategy, and to negotiate with South China Sea claimants separately to maximize its military and economic leverage. On the one hand, China prefers bilateral negotiations with other claimant countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In the case of the Philippines, China successfully used economic aid packages to induce then-President Rodrigo Duterte into giving up pushing the 2016 South China Sea tribunal ruling.

On the other hand, China and ASEAN have yet to complete the negotiation on a South China Sea Code of Conduct. The most famous example of China sabotaging ASEAN unity was the 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Although several ASEAN members tried to include a reference to the South China Sea in the joint statement, Cambodia, the meeting’s chair, rejected such a reference under Chinese pressure. As a result, the ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the organization’s 45-year-history. Thus, a common ASEAN-centric maritime strategy might become threatening to China. 

Moreover, the maritime principles in the ASEAN Outlook undermine China’s South China Sea position. The outlook declared that maritime cooperation must take place in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and implicitly rejected China’s claim that UNCLOS has no jurisdiction over the South China Sea disputes. The call for peaceful settlement of the maritime dispute subtly criticizes China’s salami-slicing strategy, such as island-building activities and military-civilian combined force operations in the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012 and the oil rig incident in 2014.

In addition, the outlook identifies unsustainable exploitation of maritime resources and maritime pollution as two challenges to maritime security. This phrase targets China, given that China is the largest source of illegal fishing. The maritime pollution clause also refers to the 2016 South China Sea tribunal ruling, which identifies China’s island-building activities as damaging to the maritime environment. The recent U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit, which detailed cooperation on maritime capacity building between the United States Coast Guard and ASEAN members, only confirmed China’s worry.

The support of ASEAN centrality contradicts Beijing’s longstanding “divide-and-manage” approach toward Southeast Asia. It also hinders China’s ability to build a Sino-centric “Indo-Pacific Community of Common Destiny.” It indicates that China views the possibility of a U.S.-led regional security framework in Indo-Pacific as its biggest security concern, a concern Beijing is willing to prevent by sacrificing its long-term strategic objectives in Southeast Asia. However, China will soon realize that Southeast Asia is no country’s pawn. In fact, the region has a long history of maximizing its own interests by playing great powers against each other. If China wants to promote ASEAN centrality to curb the American military presence, it must accept that a united ASEAN wants the U.S. to stay engaged in the region.