Can ASEAN Find a Role in the Rapidly Evolving Indo-Pacific Reconfiguration?

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Can ASEAN Find a Role in the Rapidly Evolving Indo-Pacific Reconfiguration?

The Southeast Asian bloc needs to re-examine its foundational principles in order to keep pace with a quickly changing region.

Can ASEAN Find a Role in the Rapidly Evolving Indo-Pacific Reconfiguration?

ASEAN Secretary General Kao Kim Hourn speaks during the closing ceremony of the 43rd ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 7, 2023.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Kusuma Pandu Wijaya

Last week’s ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Jakarta were attended by Southeast Asian leaders along with representatives of Dialogue Partners from the United States, China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, and other nations.

This Summit, which took place against the backdrop of rising China-Philippines tensions, an increasing number of naval confrontations in the South China Sea, and growing engagement in the region from previously less engaged states, prompted potentially existential questions for ASEAN. Where, as a regional entity and a collection of individual member states, can ASEAN find its place within the rapidly evolving geopolitical and Indo-Pacific landscape?

In April, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to expand U.S. access to four additional military bases in the Philippines. This decision was followed by a flurry of political, diplomatic, and military activity in the region, including the acceleration of the U.S. expansion into the South Pacific. Last week, the U.S. signed an agreement with Palau authorizing U.S. ships to enforce maritime regulation in Palau’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without a Palauan officer present. This follows recent American and Chinese activities in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

The U.S., along with Japan and Australia, began joint navy drills in the South China Sea off the western Philippines on August 24 and met to discuss further cooperation between the four countries. Among other ongoing multilateral security developments, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently met with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto to discuss modernizing Indonesia’s military, and the militaries of the U.S., Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and France are currently participating in Super Garuda Shield, joint military exercises that they have described as a  “powerful demonstration of multilateral solidarity to safeguard a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

This activity has been met with a range of responses and raised concern among ASEAN member states as to their respective roles in a world increasingly focused on expanding great power competition in the Indo-Pacific, a geographical reconfiguration for engagement that appears to subsume the previous ASEAN focal point of the South China Sea. The White House’s decision to have Vice President Kamala Harris rather than President Joe Biden attend this ASEAN Summit has raised further questions on the extent to which the U.S. sees the regional bloc playing an important role in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

As tensions rise within and around ASEAN, there is the increasingly urgent question: Where does ASEAN see itself within it all and what must the organization’s next steps be to ensure its role shaping events, or, at the very minimum, its ongoing survival and viability as a regional organization?

ASEAN, since its 1976 Treaty on Amity and Cooperation, has embodied the core principle of non-interference by external parties and non-interference in the internal affairs of its members. Recent actions by the U.S. and China, as well as developments in Myanmar, the Philippines, and the South China Sea more broadly, challenge the very survival of such principles. What the U.S., Japan, Australia, and several European nations regard as freedom of navigation under international law, China characterizes as interference and threats to peace and security. Yet, even though the vital national interests of most, if not all, ASEAN member states are at risk as tensions mount over Myanmar, the South China Sea, and externally supported military buildups, ASEAN remains relatively passive, its need for consensus among all 10 member states preventing any significant coordinated response. With mutual recriminations flying back and forth between external powers, ASEAN seems to be at an impasse, divided over how to characterize and respond to these pivotal events as a unit.

The failure of ASEAN to achieve a South China Sea Code of Conduct that adequately protects the legal, economic, and territorial interests of its members points to the underlying problem. ASEAN member states are not united in defending the integrity of the EEZs of those states whose vital economic and security interests are threatened by Chinese claims. And of course, there is AUKUS, which seems to foreshadow the risks of ASEAN disunity. As Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa noted in 2021, AUKUS serves as a reminder for ASEAN of “the cost of its dithering and indecision on the complex and fast-evolving geopolitical environment.” Is ASEAN simply a pawn on an Indo-Pacific chessboard? Has its central role in the South China Sea conflict now evaporated as the geographic and security stakes have continued to rise?

The growing engagement of additional powers in the region, including several NATO member states and India, contribute further complexity to the geopolitical landscape. India has reversed its refusal to take a stance on the South China Sea and openly supported the 2016 ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal based in The Hague that rejected Chinese claims to the Philippines’ EEZ. India is also increasing its security engagement in ASEAN, providing assistance and assets for Vietnam’s naval forces, vital for defending Vietnam’s EEZ in the Spratly Islands. Just last week, the Philippine and Indian coast guards signed a Memorandum of Understanding to significantly enhance maritime, and potentially naval, cooperation between the two forces.

ASEAN finds itself centrally positioned in an Indo-Pacific region that increasingly threatens to become the stage for a major global conflict. Can its traditional reliance on consensus, non-interference, and “ASEAN centrality” prove adequate to today’s challenges? Clearly not. As recent events over Myanmar and the South China Sea have demonstrated, there is no ASEAN consensus on such issues, non-interference has become an empty phrase, and “ASEAN centrality” has amounted in practice to ASEAN passivity in responding to vital regional challenges. In a crisis situation unprecedented since its founding in the maelstrom of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, how can ASEAN endure?

First, neither ASEAN nor any of its member states can shut out external powers. No ASEAN member state is immune from the contesting economic, social, and security pressures pulling it in disparate directions. However, states can insulate themselves from the pressure to “pick a side” if the member states speak in one unified ASEAN voice. A divided ASEAN permits external powers to apply pressure at the national level, pursuing bilateral agreements that are more likely to serve the interests of the states applying pressure than the member states at risk. A divided and weak ASEAN undermines the bloc from playing a meaningful role within the geopolitical landscape.

Therefore, and secondly, an effective ASEAN response will require a unified ASEAN that can take strong positions on issues like the South China Sea and support its members as they come under pressure from major powers. In other words, an exact opposite response to the bloc’s failure to support the Philippines in 2016 with the unanimous Arbitral Tribunal decision rejecting China’s claim to the Philippines’ EEZ.

And third, for ASEAN’s strategic geographical location to serve as a strategic political position, ASEAN must develop decision-making mechanisms adequate to the challenges it faces. The current disarray over Myanmar’s engagement is an illustration of how the failure to do so weakens ASEAN and makes its vulnerabilities all too apparent to those who would exploit them. ASEAN’s 680 million citizens represent an increasingly important global economic force and the more that ASEAN realizes the ambition of a genuine ASEAN Economic Community and single market the stronger its position will be in a region whose natural resources and waterways have global importance. Finally, it was the military power vacuum represented by ASEAN’s failure to disregard its own security requirements and standing idly by while China militarized the islands of the South China Sea, and failure to support the Philippines’ arbitral case, that led to the development of the current standoff there.

From the political perspective, the expanding roles of India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other powers provide an opportunity for ASEAN to redefine its position with its Dialogue Partners. The diversification of actors in a reconfigured Indo-Pacific context represents a departure from the bipolar face-off between the U.S. and China that has dominated engagement over the South China Sea. The growing involvement of these actors could be in the long-term interests of ASEAN if it grasps the opportunity to unify and proactively redefine ASEAN “centrality” to position itself politically in the same way that it is positioned geographically, astride the convergence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

There are no easy solutions to the current crisis in ASEAN. However, the ongoing realignments and reconfigurations of the Indo-Pacific theater by an increasing cast of players offers ASEAN an opportunity to re-examine its foundational principles for peace and security to effectively meet the challenges it faces today.

As ASEAN member states gather in the months and years to come, they must enter such discussions with the understanding that ASEAN unity is the most promising tool to achieve the bloc’s long-term interests as defined in its Charter and Blueprints. A strong, independent, and unified ASEAN that resists all external pressure to choose sides and asserts itself in the increasingly crowded geopolitical landscape can serve as a vital neutral ground in mediating Indo-Pacific conflicts and thereby ensuring ASEAN’s viability to promote peace and security within its region. This role will not come to it on its own, which is why ASEAN must move beyond its current “centrality” and create that role for itself.

Guest Author

David Cohen

David Cohen is a leading expert in the fields of human rights, international criminal law, and transitional justice. He is the founding director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University, where he is also the WSD Handa Professor in Human Rights and International Justice.

Guest Author

Alexandra Koch

Alexandra Koch is Co-Chair of Policy Planning at the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), a global pro bono law firm providing legal and policy assistance to states and non-state actors involved in peace negotiations, post-conflict constitution drafting, and transitional justice efforts. She previously worked at the International Criminal Court and has published in Just Security, Opinio Juris, Lawfare, and the Diplomat.