China’s Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping


October 24, 2018

China’s Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping

by Neil Thomas, University of Chicago

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/10/21/chinese-foreign-policy-under-xi-jinping/

  …”contrary to some recent commentary, it seems unlikely that ‘world power’ or ‘world domination’ are China’s priorities. The CCP observed the Soviet errors of external overreach and antagonism toward the US-led system during the Cold War. China now interacts with the international order like other major states: it complies with the order because to do so serves its interests and tries to influence this order where it does not”.–Neil Thomas

There is a risk of a ‘new Cold War’ between the United States and China. After decades of bilateral engagement and multilateral collaboration, the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) branded China a ‘revisionist power’ that seeks to ‘displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region’ and ‘shape a world antithetical to [US] values and interests’ in an age of renewed ‘great power competition’.

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Rising powers like China rattle ruling powers like the United States because their ascendance creates tension within existing structures of global power. US power lies in its unmatched military capabilities and the ‘international order’ of multilateral institutions, interstate rules and global norms that promote economic openness and rules-based dispute resolution. The charges of ‘revisionism’ levelled in the NSS show that the Trump administration fears that China will replace the United States as global hegemon and threaten the basic tenets of international order.

China has indeed become a more active participant in global affairs under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who took office in November 2012. Signs of China’s rising power, though, are a natural result of its growth. More important is what China intends to do with its newfound capabilities. Does Xi want to revolutionise Chinese foreign policy? Stop opening China’s economy? Overturn the international order?

International policymakers must study Xi’s words because he, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) General-Secretary and head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, is pivotal in setting the overarching orientations and strategies of China’s foreign policy. The most authoritative articulation of Xi’s policy agenda is his ‘Report’ to the 19th CCP National Congress in October 2017.

An analysis of Xi’s foreign policy discourse suggests that there may exist more continuity than often assumed between the strategies of Xi and his predecessors. This intersection between past and present is captured neatly in the foreign policy section of Xi’s Report: ‘Following a path of peaceful development and working to build a community of common destiny for humankind’.

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What’s new is that Xi stamped his authority on CCP foreign policy under his signature formulation of ‘building a community of common destiny for humankind’ — although Hu Jintao had used the phrase previously. The ‘community of common destiny’ is basically an international system in which deeper economic integration and political dialogue eases conflict and bolsters security. Xi is proactively ‘building’ this future through an intense focus on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and global governance.

What’s not new is that Xi retains the ‘peaceful development’ strategy articulated by Hu in the mid-2000s, which derives from the CCP’s ‘basic line’ of ‘peace and development’ in international relations that Deng Xiaoping introduced in 1985. In the Report, Xi framed the foreign policy achievements of his first five-year term, including the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as ‘new contributions to global peace and development’. He has told Party leaders that the ‘peace and development’ strategy is ‘aligned with the fundamental interest of the country’ and is a ‘fundamental foreign policy goal’.

This ‘peace and development’ strategy reflects the belief that China’s economic development requires a peaceful external environment and cooperative relations with major powers. It replaced the Maoist creed of inevitable conflict between the capitalist and socialist worlds as the CCP’s official ‘assessment of the international situation’. Deng believed this strategy would help China ‘exert a much greater influence’ in a global system that the CCP perceived as dominated by Western powers.

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Xi’s policy statements imply that the overarching concern of China’s foreign policy remains the creation of a ‘more enabling international environment’ for China’s continued development. As China’s interests continue to expand, so too does its desire to participate in global affairs.

But contrary to some recent commentary, it seems unlikely that ‘world power’ or ‘world domination’ are China’s priorities. The CCP observed the Soviet errors of external overreach and antagonism toward the US-led system during the Cold War. China now interacts with the international order like other major states: it complies with the order because to do so serves its interests and tries to influence this order where it does not.

Xi’s Report also reaffirmed Deng’s ‘opening to the outside world’ as a ‘basic national policy’. ‘Opening’ for Deng meant China would integrate into the global economy, enter international institutions and improve living standards in a manner that sustained CCP control.

Xi has insisted that China ‘absolutely must not waver’ from ‘reform and opening’ because it is the ‘propelling force’ behind China’s ‘international status’. He even framed his signature economic policy — a ‘new normal’ focused on consumption, services and markets — as a ‘new structure’ of reform and opening that ‘improves its quality and level’.

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Xi’s continuation of key strategies like ‘peace and development’ and ‘reform and opening’ suggest he may not have changed China’s objectives so much as the means by which the CCP pursues them. Xi’s China is ‘revisionist’ in the narrow sense of hoping for changes that reflect new realities but not in the existential sense of wanting to supplant the current order or global hegemon.

Until recently, White House views on China were quite consistent: the United States would ‘welcome the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China’ and ‘reject the inevitability’ of ‘confrontation’ if China acted within the international order. But the latest NSS said the ‘engagement’ strategy had ‘failed’.

The endurance of ‘reform and opening’ and of ‘peace and development’ in Xi’s foreign policy discourse imply that engagement is not such a failure. The continuance of these two key foreign policy concepts intimate that, while Xi’s CCP does want to project China’s power, it is still constrained by a belief in the benefit to China of global order and stability.

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US relative power in global affairs is declining, but this trend is mostly the result of other countries’ embrace of the international order built by the United States, which nonetheless retains significant advantages in military, diplomatic, commercial, technological and cultural power. It would best advance its national interests by accepting but proactively managing China’s rise within an improved iteration of this order. We should avoid a ‘new Cold War’.

Neil Thomas is Research Associate in the Think Tank of The Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.

China is Losing the New Cold War


September 9, 2018

China is Losing the New Cold War

https://www.project-syndicate.org

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In contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s leaders recognize that strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. Like the Soviet Union, however, they are paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race with the US.

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HONG KONG – When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Communist Party of China (CPC) became obsessed with understanding why. The government think tanks entrusted with this task heaped plenty of blame on Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader who was simply not ruthless enough to hold the Soviet Union together. But Chinese leaders also highlighted other important factors, not all of which China’s leaders seem to be heeding today.

To be sure, the CPC has undoubtedly taken to heart the first key lesson: strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. And the CPC’s single-minded focus on spurring GDP growth over the last few decades has delivered an “economic miracle,” with nominal per capita income skyrocketing from $333 in 1991 to $7,329 last year. This is the single most important reason why the CPC has retained power.

But overseeing a faltering economy was hardly the only mistake Soviet leaders made. They were also drawn into a costly and unwinnable arms race with the United States, and fell victim to imperial overreach, throwing money and resources at regimes with little strategic value and long track records of chronic economic mismanagement. As China enters a new “cold war” with the US, the CPC seems to be at risk of repeating the same catastrophic blunders.

At first glance, it may not seem that China is really engaged in an arms race with the US. After all, China’s official defense budget for this year – at roughly $175 billion – amounts to just one-quarter of the $700 billion budget approved by the US Congress. But China’s actual military spending is estimated to be much higher than the official budget: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.

In any case, the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.

If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.

On the macro level, China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to rapid population aging, high debt levels, maturity mismatches, and the escalating trade war that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.

Moreover, while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.

The problem for the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets. Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.

The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”

Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries. Despite early signs of trouble – which, together with the Soviet Union’s experience, should give the CPC pause – China seems to be determined to push ahead with the BRI, which the country’s leaders have established as a pillar of their new “grand strategy.”

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An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return. According to AidData at the College of William and Mary, from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.

Now, China has pledged to provide $62 billion in loans for the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” That program will help Pakistan confront its looming balance-of-payments crisis; but it will also drain the Chinese government’s coffers at a time when trade protectionism threatens their replenishment.

Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of China’s Crony Capitalism.

ASEAN: South China Sea code of conduct still a speck on the horizon


September 8, 2018

ASEAN: South China Sea code of conduct still a speck on the horizon

by Gregory B Poling, CSIS

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After two decades of talks, scepticism about the development of a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) is well-deserved, but it is also important to acknowledge progress when it happens. The agreement on a single draft negotiating text, revealed ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting on 2 August 2018, is an important step in the process that deserves recognition.

The COC will not resolve the South China Sea disputes, nor was it ever meant to. Instead the COC is intended to manage disputes to avoid conflict pending their eventual resolution by direct negotiation or arbitration among the claimants. But any system to effectively manage the South China Sea disputes would require three things, none of which are achieved yet in the draft text.

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First, an effective COC would need to be geographically defined. The claimants do not need to resolve their disputes, but they do need to agree on where those disputes are if they hope to effectively manage them.

For instance, any agreement that did not include the Paracel Islands and the waters around them would be unacceptable to Hanoi. The same goes for the Philippines in the case of Scarborough Shoal. And what of waters and undersea features in the claimed exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and Malaysia? These areas are all claimed by China via the nine-dash line and would continue to be sites of tension if excluded.

According to Carl Thayer, who revealed many details of the draft text, Vietnam suggested that ‘the present Code of Conduct shall apply to all disputed features and overlapping maritime areas claimed under the 1982 UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] in the South China Sea’. But that is too vague to be effective and is worded to exclude areas in which Beijing claims historic rights not recognised by other parties under UNCLOS.

Indonesia suggested adding that ‘the Parties are committed to respect the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf of the coastal states as provided for in the 1982 UNCLOS’. But again that would seem to purposely exclude areas in which China claims and is sure to assert historic rights. It might be a legally correct position to take, but it is not an effective basis for a COC.

The only way that any code could work is if it clearly encompasses the areas under contention, including all reefs, rocks, submerged banks, waters and airspace in which China seeks to assert its historic rights. Specifying this without using language that would be unacceptable to any of the claimants would be difficult, but possible if all parties were committed to reaching a deal.

Second, an effective COC would need a dispute settlement mechanism. Disagreements over interpretation and application of the text are inevitable. This is clear from the history of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was too vague and had no means to resolve disagreements. As a result, most parties violated the text while insisting that they were still in compliance and pointing their fingers at others.

To resolve this problem, both Indonesia and Vietnam reportedly suggested that parties to the COC be able to take disagreements to the High Council under the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. That body, which has never been convened, would include representatives nominated by ASEAN members to hear and mediate disputes. Its rulings would not be legally binding or necessarily enforceable, but they would have considerable weight.

A major problem with the High Council suggestion would be that under the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation it can only be constituted by ASEAN members. A more effective option might be to spell out the procedures for convening a High Council-like body that would draw arbiters from a pool nominated by all parties, including China.

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Third, any effective regime to manage the South China Sea disputes would need detailed provisions on fisheries management and oil and gas development. But the positions enumerated in the negotiating text so far are contradictory and fall well short of outlining a detailed and coordinated system to manage resources.

For instance, Jakarta suggests that states should coordinate on fighting illegal fishing as a form of transnational crime, but Indonesia’s definition of illegal fishing includes activities that others, especially China, consider legal. And China’s suggestions on oil and gas cooperation seem more geared towards excluding foreign companies than towards equitably managing resources with fellow claimants.

Unfortunately, there is a fundamental contradiction in the COC. It is the wrong vehicle to discuss details on resource management because of its membership, but it cannot be an effective means to manage the disputes without doing so. Most of the ASEAN states have no stake in the contested fisheries or hydrocarbon resources and would be uninterested in negotiating the specifics of overlapping entitlements and resource rights.

The solution to this problem could be a COC signed by all 10 ASEAN members and China that establishes general rules of behaviour within a clear geographic area, sets up an effective dispute settlement mechanism and endorses the immediate start of follow-on negotiations involving only the relevant claimants on fisheries management and oil and gas cooperation.

Such a document would be a major step towards peacefully managing the South China Sea disputes and there are hints that at least some sections of the negotiating text might be on the right track. But the differences between parties remain considerable and final agreement on an effective COC still seems some way off.

Gregory B Poling is Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC

.http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/09/06/south-china-sea-code-of-conduct-still-a-speck-on-the-horizon/

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s China Visit is a Diplomatic Success


August 28, 2018

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s China Visit is a Diplomatic Success

Mahathir believes, as most sane Malaysians do, that good relations must be premised on shared interests and mutual benefit, and has taken an important step in putting our relations with our most important neighbour and economic partner back on firm footing.–Dennis Ignatius

by Ambassador (rtd) Dennis Ignatius

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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Far from being a ‘diplomatic disaster’, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s visit to China has laid the groundwork for Malaysia to move forward in its relationship with Beijing.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad has just returned from a five-day official visit to China, his first since assuming the reins of power in Putrajaya for the second time. Before his plane could even touch down in Malaysia, reports that the visit was a “diplomatic disaster” began circulating and have since gone viral.

The report, written by an anonymous writer using the pseudonym “concerned Malaysia-China observer” and carried by Malaysiakini, implied that the lack of major bilateral agreements signed during the visit and the failure to hold a joint press conference with President Xi Jinping were indications that the visit didn’t go well. And it warned of serious economic and political consequences.

Why a letter from someone who does not even have the courage to use his own name should be given so much credence is baffling.

Similarly, MCA Deputy Ppresident Wee Ka Siong insisted that the cancellation of projects “would not augur well for Malaysia’s relationship with Beijing”.

A difficult visit

Mahathir went to China with one principal goal: to seek China’s understanding to cancel the ECRL and other projects that the new Pakatan Harapan government concluded made absolutely no economic sense. It was never going to be an easy sell, particularly as it came to be viewed as one of the centrepieces of bilateral cooperation under the previous government.

Mahathir did the right thing by travelling to Beijing for face to face discussions with the Chinese leadership. It was also an opportunity to reassure them that despite the unfortunate cancellation of projects, Malaysia remained deeply committed to developing close and mutually beneficial relations with China.

Following bilateral discussions, President Xi appears to have accepted Putrajaya’s decision to cancel the projects because of Malaysia’s current fiscal position. A Chinese foreign ministry statement subsequently noted that “however the situation may evolve, the two countries will always hold friendly policies towards each other”. It added that the cancellation of projects “will not hinder future bilateral trade and economic relations”.

It is the clearest indication yet that China has agreed to put this unfortunate episode behind us and move on. As the South China Morning Post concluded, “The fallout from Malaysia’s cancellation [of projects] appears to have been contained….”

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Far from being a “diplomatic disaster”, the visit, in fact, achieved its objective: the projects have been cancelled with Beijing’s understanding and the groundwork has been laid to move forward again. It is a huge diplomatic breakthrough.

Of course, negotiations will now continue on the question of compensation and other outstanding issues. It won’t be easy or cheap. The country will invariably lose billions; that is the price we all must pay for UMNO-BN’s recklessness, dishonesty and stupidity. And no amount of mindless posturing by MCA is going to alter that fact.

Big deal

The absence of any major agreements or contracts signed during Mahathir’s visit is not surprising given that Mahathir has been in office for a little more than 100 days. As he himself has repeatedly emphasised, his main priority is setting things right after years of kleptocracy and mis-governance.

Besides, it’s easy to announce the kind of glitzy deals that Najib was fond of doing on his overseas trips that involved buying things we didn’t need or signing contracts for projects we couldn’t afford. He was good at making other countries great again at the expense of his own.

Mahathir, on the other hand, is not so desperate to play to the gallery or polish his own ego with dubious deals.

Joint press conference

Much is also being made of the fact that Mahathir and President Xi did not hold a joint press conference. What is not mentioned is that it is, in fact, not the norm. Joint press conferences are usually held between counterparts. In Mahathir’s case, his counterpart is Prime Minister Li Keqiang not President Xi. Both Prime Ministers did indeed hold an amicable joint press conference.

In any case, I don’t recall Najib ever holding a joint press conference with President Xi during his many visits to China in spite of all his bragging about how close he was to the leadership in Beijing.

More significantly, President Xi himself very graciously hosted a banquet for Mahathir, something that is usually handled by the Chinese premier for visiting prime ministers. Mahathir was also personally received at the airport in Beijing by State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, an honour that is rarely accorded visiting Prime Ministers (who are usually received by a vice-minister as per the usual Chinese protocol).

All this suggests that despite the difficulties, China is determined not to allow anything to derail what has otherwise been an outstanding relationship. And that augurs well for the future of our relations despite MCA’s alarmist rhetoric.

Good relations but not at any price

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MCA leaders like Wee talk about the good relations that Malaysia enjoyed with China during Najib’s term of office and grumble about how it is now being jeopardised. There is no doubt that good relations with China are critical for our prosperity and security, but if good relations are based on agreements that sell us short, of what value is it?

Mahathir believes, as most sane Malaysians do, that good relations must be premised on shared interests and mutual benefit, and has taken an important step in putting our relations with our most important neighbour and economic partner back on firm footing.

In diplomacy, that is always considered a success no matter what those with vested interests or hidden agendas might say.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador and an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay


July 17, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay

by Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho / Khmer Times.com.kh

Navy personnel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12. Reuters

 

The recent 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Singapore saw progress on the South China Sea issue. This demonstrates the importance of ASEAN as a regional anchor and the viability of ASEAN centrality in the midst of geopolitical change, in spite of the regional grouping’s obvious weaknesses and limitations, write Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho.

The 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings in Singapore from July 30 to August 4 was generally hailed as a success. Most notably there were no reported delays in the issuance of its joint communique this time round.

This was unlike in previous instances when the joint communique was delayed as a result of seemingly intractable issues, especially the South China Sea disputes. At the ASEAN-China Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), progress was also made with regard to the South China Sea issue – ASEAN and China agreed on a single draft text to negotiate the Code of Conduct (COC). This text will form the basis for future COC negotiations.

Admittedly, such seemingly positive developments do not mean that most obstacles facing ASEAN have been cleared. There remain big questions about the role of ASEAN in the regional architecture and whether ASEAN can continue to play a central role in this regard.

In the midst of the tumultuous geopolitical changes taking place all around the world, ASEAN continues to be the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative Asean and to improve its relations with external partners.

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HE Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

The South China Sea disputes remain the litmus test of ASEAN’s centrality and unity, given the potential for the disputes to divide the group. While ASEAN is by no means perfect, a Southeast Asia without ASEAN would likely be in worse shape.

At the start of the annual ASEAN-China PMC, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan announced that the foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries and China have agreed to a draft document that will form the foundation of negotiations for a South China Sea COC. He described it as “yet another milestone in the COC process”.

Even so, Mr Balakrishnan sought to manage expectations by cautioning that negotiations are far from over, and that the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have not been resolved as the COC “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”. It should be noted that Singapore had been the country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations for the past three years, during which Mr Balakrishnan had worked tirelessly with his Chinese counterpart to enhance Asean-China relations, notwithstanding Singapore-China relations going through rough patches in those years.

One of the largest concerns observers have raised is the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape, as a result of major power politics. US-China trade frictions continue to spiral, with no end in sight.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been giving assurances of US interest in the region, such as the $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives for Asia announced before his visit to Southeast Asia, as well as his announcement in Singapore on the US plan to provide $300 million in funding “to reinforce security cooperation throughout the entire (Indo-Pacific) region”.

This notwithstanding, US commitment to upholding the current regional order remains in doubt, especially given President Donald Trump’s protectionist streak and tendency to question the utility of US alliances.

ASEAN has had its share of troubles. Several have questioned the viability of the group’s prized centrality. The South China Sea disputes and the issue of the Rakhine state in Myanmar, with ASEAN’s apparent lack of unity in the former and reported inability to address the latter, have raised doubts about ASEAN’s capabilities to address tough issues.

This has given rise to questions about its centrality. However, that is not to say that all is lost. As the AMM has demonstrated, ASEAN is still well in the game, even if obstacles remain.

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ASEAN is the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative ASEAN and to improve its relations with external partners. So being united in common purpose, having an acute sense of  destiny  and  being strong in resolve to preserve regional peace and prosperity, that is the foundation of ASEAN centrality as its move forward into the next 50 years beyond.

In the future, ASEAN’s role as the anchor of the region will become even more important. Despite the greater possibility of US retrenchment from the region, as well as China’s continued growing influence, ASEAN will need to ensure it is steadfast in ensuring its centrality in the region.

The South China Sea will continue to assume significance in ASEAN, given its potential to divide the group. In spite of some claims that ASEAN has a very limited role in the South China Sea disputes, given the fact that only four of its members are actual claimants, ASEAN will need to step up to the plate to ensure its collective interests are respected when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, and to ensure that these do not escalate into full-blown conflict.

In this regard, the AMM has always been addressing this problem, though it is not without its hiccups particularly in 2012 when no joint communique was issued due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Notably, however, the following year saw the joint communique issued with a reference to the South China Sea. Since then, the disputes have been a feature once again in the AMM joint communiques, with the latest one highlighting the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text.

Nonetheless, land reclamations and militarisation on features in disputed areas of the South China Sea continue, and ASEAN will need to address this issue sooner rather than later – possibly a tall order given the current geopolitics surrounding the disputes, particularly with the desire of most ASEAN claimant states to maintain good relations with China, the biggest claimant of all in terms of size, military prowess and economic clout.

Despite the issuance of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text, it remains unknown when the COC will materialise, especially with the mutually-agreed timeline on negotiations not made public. This is why ASEAN needs to continue to work assiduously to manage the South China Sea disputes and contain any rising tensions.

In light of the ongoing geopolitical flux in the region, ASEAN will increasingly be the anchor of the region’s architecture. The past week’s AMM and related meetings in Singapore have reflected this crucial role that ASEAN plays for the wider region, even beyond Southeast Asia.

Without ASEAN’s efforts, major powers would likely have a much easier time dividing the region over matters such as the South China Sea. Moving forward, ASEAN must continue to proactively work at ensuring its centrality, and to make sure that external countries see value in ASEAN taking the driver’s seat.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses and limitations of ASEAN, it is the onus of the ASEAN member states and community to continue to work closely to ensure that the region remains a core feature of the regional architecture.

Henrick Z. Tsjeng and Shawn Ho are Associate Research Fellows with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.