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ASEAN Firms Up its Struggle for Centrality

Amid growing rivalry between China and the US, the rise of the Global South and emergence of rising powers such as India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa, the international system is heading toward an order that is multipolar but also more decentralized. This is particularly so in the case of the emerging Indo-Pacific regional order. 

Defined by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a sum of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region’s dynamism, the Indo-Pacific regional order is getting increasingly polarized, going through processes of fragmentation and de-fragmentation.

In view of these challenges, ASEAN’s task of keeping itself central to the regional dynamics seems increasingly difficult. In addition to the two superpowers China and the US, rising powers such as India, Australia and Japan, and re-entry of the European powers through the EU have made the politics among nations multidimensional and multilayered.

The emergence of the BRICS as a representative organization of the Global South has also been gaining traction, with speculations of Indonesia, Argentina and Iran joining the grouping. 

Increasingly, minilateral initiatives such as AUKUS, but more importantly the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is a cooperation mechanism among four Indo-Pacific powers – Japan, India, Australia, and the US – are emerging as new providers of security to the Indo-Pacific region.

These key developments have coincided with the emergence of unconventional regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that are marked by the membership and leading role of revisionist powers (Russia and China, but also with India as a member, which is an integral part of the Quad).

For ASEAN, thus, the situation becomes a lot more complicated than a binary choice between two superpowers, the way it was during the Cold War years.

New regional institutional architectures such as the SCO, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Quad and AUKUS, among others, are not exactly in tune with ASEAN’s core priorities. These new developments pose a danger to the work this one organization in particular has been doing for many years. Whether one likes it or not, ASEAN has either intentionally or unintentionally aided in regionalism and peace-building.

The essential ASEAN ideals of consensus, non-interference, inclusivity, non-intervention, the goal to achieve security through dialogue, devotion to peace and stability, and constructive engagement have been ingrained into both the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

The ASEAN Plus One mechanisms, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) have also manifested these ideas into reality. 

Clearly, power is not the driving force for ASEAN, which is mindful that even if all its member states pooled their resources, they would pale in comparison with the US or China.

Cognizant of these constraints, ASEAN seeks its centrality and agency through norms that are also dependent on the behavior of dialogue partners that may or may not believe in these norms. This is where ASEAN’s capacity to establish itself as a “norm entrepreneur” comes to the forefront. 

China’s recent decision to sign the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty (SEANWFZ) or Bangkok Treaty to counter AUKUS is a classic example of how ASEAN norms are utilized as a moderating agent by opposing parties in the region.

Last November saw Ukraine sign on to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), a legally binding code to manage inter-state relations in the region and beyond. This may be symbolic, perhaps even purely motivated by strategy, but it reflects ASEAN’s value and appeal.

AOIP, a strategy for cooperation

The TAC and SEANWFZ open new hopes and possibilities for the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP). In  2019, ASEAN introduced the AOIP, a five-page document that outlines key areas of cooperation to be undertaken and the mechanisms and principles within which these would be realized. 

Laced with ASEAN’s signature terms such as inclusivity and exclusion of, for example, any mention of China and the United States, the AOIP offers an alternative pathway to the Indo-Pacific region.

The AOIP bridges the Indo-Pacific strategies of the contesting parties. It proposes utilizing existing ASEAN-centered regional architecture. No doubt the AOIP is an attempt not just to remain central to the ongoing discourse and developments emerging within the region, but also to shape it.

Initial reactions to the AOIP were mixed but over time, it has been referenced in most of the Indo-Pacific strategies of the other actors. Japan, India, the European Union, and even the US and China have mentioned it, and some welcomed it; naturally these have highlighted aspects of it that their own Indo-Pacific strategies share.

Not bad, but is it enough? Acknowledging similarities is far from de-intensifying regional contestations. Tensions are expected to remain, and possibly increase. Then again it is unfair ask these to be placed on the shoulders of ASEAN. 

The establishment of ASEAN did not after all end the Cold War. The AOIP is not the panacea for regional peace. However, if used rightly, it can temper ongoing contests. This is where ASEAN’s focus should remain.

There is now the ASEAN Maritime Outlook (AMO) proposal on the table. Speculation is rife about the contents. Certainly, some anticipated aspects such as climate and environment matters may be more acceptable than others, such as the South China Sea. It offers ASEAN another instrument to bring key actors to the table and shape the discourse.

The real challenge to ASEAN now is remaining a united and cohesive unit during this new age of contest. ASEAN has consistently remained neutral, a recognition of the complex and dependent relationship that individual member states have with both China and the US.

Nevertheless, ASEAN’s failures to achieve consensus on the South China Sea issue in 2012 and 2016 are reminders how great powers can instigate cracks when it suits them. 

Despite continued skepticism about and sometimes frustration with ASEAN, it remains, whether by design or circumstance, relevant to regionalism and peace-building. The AOIP, and its possible derivatives such as the AMO, can be a viable alternative pathway if leveraged strategically.

More important, it offers the contesting powers a convenient fallback position – a lowest common denominator – if they want it. 

Source : Asia Times