ASEAN Struggles on in an Uncertain Age

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

ASEAN Struggles on in an Uncertain Age

ASEAN is conscious that it is increasingly sidelines amid great power competition. But the organization is slow to change.

ASEAN Struggles on in an Uncertain Age
Credit: Depositphotos

Southeast Asia’s “summit season” – an intense round of leader-level meetings and political theater centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its most important external partners – kicks off this week in Cambodia.

It’s been another tough year for ASEAN. The venerable 55-year-old organization is battling internal splits, a disintegrating global order, and significant economic headwinds.

Southeast Asia’s top priority is economic growth. The region is recovering from the huge economic hit of the pandemic, but the IMF’s recent Asia update highlights the risks ahead: inflation, a sharp slowdown in China, and lower external demand for Asia’s exports as the war in Ukraine drags on global growth. The IMF also warns ominously that further fragmentation of the global economy driven by strategic competition would be particularly costly for Asia.

Southeast Asian leaders therefore want a stable geopolitical environment and an open Indo-Pacific in which growth can be maximized. But ASEAN is struggling to find effective responses to this uncertain new age.

Over decades, ASEAN sought to make itself indispensable (“central”) to Indo-Pacific economic and security architecture, notably through free trade agreements; the East Asia Summit (EAS), which brings ASEAN together with the United States, China, India, Japan, Australia and other partners; and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting “plus.”

ASEAN’s objective, as much instinct as grand strategy, was to enmesh and socialize the major powers. It hoped habits of dialogue would deepen cooperation and that this in turn would build trust and support stability, reinforcing norms of responsible state behavior.

Now, China’s nationalism, assertive foreign policy, and creeping influence in regional capitals; sharply confrontational relations between the United States and China; and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine all challenge ASEAN’s ability to respond in ways that demonstrate agency rather than rote expressions of non-alignment.

ASEAN is conscious that the revitalization of U.S. alliances in Asia, a newly energized Quad, and the AUKUS defense technology agreement effectively bypass it as the United States and its close partners seek to shape a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN has other headaches. Its “five-point consensus” to wind back the reign of terror of Myanmar’s coup leaders has failed dismally. In truth, ASEAN’s ability to shape events in Myanmar is limited by the complete indifference of Myanmar’s generals to international pressure. Still, the group knows its credibility has taken a hit and is divided over how much harder to push.

Some of Southeast Asia’s sharpest policy minds worry that ASEAN’s best days are behind it.

The veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, for example, argues that ASEAN’s instincts have “dulled and atrophied.”

Thailand’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak asserts bluntly that “the old ASEAN is gone for good,” and the group now will never be “completely united through political-security, economic and socio-cultural communities.”

Even leading scholars from the Institute for Southeast Asian studies lament that ASEAN’s convening power is “insufficient to command attention when it comes to real-world politics.”

Others in Southeast Asia call for reforms to ASEAN’s Charter and a re-think of principles that have been at the core of the organization since its founding, such as non-interference.

But ASEAN changes only slowly. The organization’s leaders will be reluctant to abandon models of operating that have kept 10 very different nations together through past challenges and sustained the regional peace – across borders, at least – for decades.

Muddling through seems most likely.

Thitinan argues ASEAN needs a “hard re-alignment” – an “ASEAN 5+X” model centered on the five original founders (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) to allow like-minded members to take common positions on political and security issues.

But if regularly extended to encompass geopolitical issues, such a model (one already applied in relation to trade liberalization) would entrench a two-tier ASEAN, a prospect that is unlikely to be palatable.

And ASEAN seems set to continue its awkward balancing act on Myanmar, keeping the junta out of some high-level ASEAN processes but not fully suspending Myanmar’s membership. It does seem likely, though, that ASEAN will start talking more directly to the National Unity Government.

The United States, Japan, and Australia might wish for more from ASEAN, but inattention also has its risks. Quad countries, for example, need to keep investing in the EAS to ensure it remains the premier regional meeting place.

China already pushes the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, and South Korea) format, in which it looms large, as its preferred driver of East Asian cooperation, without the “disruptive” influence of the United States. And China tries hard to keep economic issues at the forefront of the EAS, rather than security ones, a preference reflected in its decision usually to send its premier rather than president to the Summit.

Realistic expectations help. For the United States, Australia, and Japan, too often ASEAN’s preference for equidistance looks like an unwillingness to stand up when it counts.

Still, ASEAN wasn’t built to manage great power competition. Its instinct to avoid “taking sides” is frustrating but not terribly surprising. And for all ASEAN’s limits, the principles in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (such as respect for territorial integrity and the peaceful settlement of disputes) are better ground on which to try to hold China and Russia to account in Southeast Asia than the chimera of “shared values.”

ASEAN also wants partner investments in its region-wide priorities, like skills, digital trade, connectivity, and climate resilience. So, for countries like the United States, Japan and Australia, such programs will remain valuable complements to bilateral relationship-building efforts and an important component of Indo-Pacific strategies.