Managing major power competition is nothing new for member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). One of the reasons the organisation came into being was to provide the then mainly non-communist Southeast Asian states an avenue to have a greater say over geopolitical matters in their own region. As ASEAN expanded in membership, prosperity and geostrategic footprint through the 1990s and 2000s, its prospects as a neutral, inclusive anchor for wider regional multilateral mechanisms, norms and architectures seemed promising.
This has soured somewhat over the course of the decade, thanks to the deteriorating relationship between the United States (US) and China, which is now a strategic rivalry defined more by adversity than competition. The nature and impact of this strategic rivalry is a concern for ASEAN, its external partners and other regional external stakeholders.
Despite the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ASEAN’s agenda for 2020, concern on US-China tensions still weighed heavy in its discussions. While not explicitly addressed like in previous years, the Chairman’s statement still hinted at these concerns, expressed through remarks on the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the South China Sea dispute.
Given China’s tremendous influence with ASEAN, its geographic location and a variety of disputes with different member states, ASEAN has found its centrality under stress when it comes to issues like the South China Sea dispute or the impact of China’s activities on the lower Mekong region. Decision making by consensus, one of ASEAN’s foundations that has been both a boon and a bane for the regional organisation, has been skilfully exploited. The long term repercussions of this on the unity and viability of ASEAN as a neutral regional organisation could be severe.
Yet growing concerns of China has not done anything to improve the standing of the US either. Southeast Asian perception of role of the US in response to growing Chinese influence has been mixed. Many regional watchers decried the lack of interest, focus and zero-sum way in which the Trump administration engaged ASEAN in relation to China when compared to the Obama administration. Yet others have expressed concerns that the tougher stance taken on China will be reversed by the incoming Biden administration, to the detriment of Southeast Asia.
With as a backdrop, the following are three factors that will have a significant impact on ASEAN amidst ongoing US-China tensions.
First, how both the US and China, as major powers, choose to engage with, and use their influence in ASEAN, and with its member states.
Much has been made about ASEAN being in the driver’s seat of major regional strategic-focused mechanisms – namely the East Asian Summit, ASEAN Plus-3 and ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus among others. To be fair, whether by design or fait acompli, ASEAN has managed to ingrain itself as a key stakeholder in various key security and economic architectures of the Asia Pacific, and also the more recent geographical construct – the Indo Pacific.
The reality however is that the ability of ASEAN to do so was always dependent to how much it was allowed to do by the major powers. During the Cold War, when ASEAN was a much smaller grouping, it meant largely the United States which leveraged on the groups shared concerns about communist insurgencies and expansions, and close relations with key member states. While the US still has some influence, it has had to compete with, and unwillingly yielded ground to China – which now has advantage of more leverage because of its geographic position and economic heft in the region.
During the peace dividend immediately following the end of the Cold War, ASEAN enjoyed the confidence, or acquiesce, of both major powers to take the lead in forming regional multilateral institutions and mechanisms. This was no mere act of charity or magnanimity, both the US and China benefited from it. Neither committed more than they wanted to, or lost any real leverage. That calculation has now changed given the more adversarial nature of strategic rivalry between the US and China.