September 18, 2018
At no time since the Cold War has there been a greater demand for an effective, functioning ASEAN. Yet today’s ASEAN seems far from able to live up to its full promise at a time when its members need it most. In a more contested world, the group is one of the few channels that can enable Southeast Asian states to stand their ground.
During the Cold War, ASEAN’s early members were able to prosper by integrating into the US-backed economic order. The US alliance system also ensured strategic predictability in the region. With expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ASEAN members did well: regional stability was buttressed by a preponderant United States and a People’s Republic of China (PRC) eager for cooperation. Under these conditions, ASEAN states did not have to worry about each other.
New uncertainties over the trajectories of the United States, the PRC, India and Europe mean that the conditions to which ASEAN members are accustomed may no longer be reasonable to expect. ASEAN needs to adapt or it will atrophy.
Southeast Asia stands at a fault line of major power interests. Be it ideas about the first island chain or visions of an Indo-Pacific, many strategic perspectives intersect in Southeast Asia. The PRC is the region’s largest external trading partner, even as private sector FDI makes the United States a larger foreign investor overall.
Crosscutting US and PRC concerns may be less of a stress point for Southeast Asian states while the United States remains able to wield a restrained but clear preeminence in the region. For some time, significant overlap in US and PRC interests permitted Southeast Asian governments to mask their pursuit of disparate individual interests under the guise of not choosing sides and some vague commitment to ASEAN. But ASEAN members can no longer presume the luxury of major power concordance: Washington is reconsidering its global commitments and Beijing is growing readier to challenge the prevailing order. In different ways, India, Russia and Europe are also more willing and able to question the status quo.
An effective ASEAN can serve several key functions at moments of multipolar contention that enable Southeast Asia to become greater than the sum of its parts. ASEAN can be a platform for collective bargaining that can give its members — perhaps save Indonesia — more heft than they would individually enjoy when dealing with the likes of the United States, the PRC, India or Europe. An ASEAN that is more able to coordinate over common issues — such as managing maritime and aerial activity, riparian development, environmental protection and investment responsibilities — is more able to preserve the autonomy of its members.
Internally, a well-ordered ASEAN offers less opportunity for unwelcome intervention in Southeast Asia. These conditions can safeguard member freedom, allowing them more say in managing contentious issues like the disputes in the South China Sea or the risks associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.
ASEAN’s peak of success during the 1980s rested precisely on the ability of its then-members to coordinate as a whole. Together, ASEAN members were able to hold their own when engaging the United States, the PRC and the USSR, even as they brought pressure to bear on Vietnam for its invasion and occupation of Cambodia.
By setting aside differences and holding common positions, ASEAN members gave external actors little chance to sow discord or peel off members through inducement, threat or promise. ASEAN was stable and the region calm. ASEAN was also able to overcome collective action problems through a unity of purpose, mutual trust and efficient coordination — characteristics that are in question, if not absent from, ASEAN today.
Stasis, internal division and a lack of initiative are colouring the present-day ASEAN. Even if ASEAN retains a role in tempering intra-regional tensions, member states can no longer bet on simply working towards a large common ground between an established United States and a rising but satisfied PRC. Believing that what worked in the past will continue to do so is unrealistic.
Between trying not to choose sides and amid exaggerated fears of some sort of EU-like imperium, ASEAN states chronically neglect to invest in updating the grouping’s own institutional capabilities. ASEAN’s capacity to coordinate and act together effectively when needed is something no amount of infrastructure connectivity, FTAs or smart cities can substitute. Short of a rapid and successful reboot, a more contested world with multiple powerful actors is likely to intensify ASEAN’s drift toward the margins, and with it the scope for its members to pursue their interests and soften major power rivalries.
Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.