The recent 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit and Related Summits laid bare the division and lingering divide of the regional grouping, exposing the looming decline of relevance and role of the 55-year-old regional organization, barring significant overhaul. ASEAN needs to tackle head-on the critical issues that linger, which continue to shape the existing perspective and perception of ASEAN’s relevance, credibility, and role in trying to project its ASEAN Way and centrality to external powers in the hope of reducing the impact of the tussle for power in this region, it further backfires with its credibility and trust problems being a long time dent, and the inability to act in key areas and decisions.
In ASEAN’s desire to preserve its long-held balancing act and accommodate the impact of regional rivalry for military and economic dominance, competing powers are both increasingly bold and frustrated in this dogma of not extending overtures to one or the other. This resulted in a more assertive, direct, and daring maneuver in pursuing the actions on the ground in both coercing member states and increasing usage of the stick over carrot in pushing for member states to align with the intended geopolitical push by the competing powers.
Coercive measures and a harder ultimatum in the form of economic blackmailing are gaining in scope and intensity, with a strategic divide and conquer approach in getting the individual state to conform to the expansionary economic and political goals of Beijing. As a response, the US-led West has been compelled to retaliate further through both economic support and assurances and offer of security guarantees, although realizing that as a grouping, this Western offer of greater pushback against Beijing will not be welcomed
This more direct bilateral and individualized approach will render ASEAN as a regional organization to be further diminished in its future influence, from being unable to cast real compelling changes and deterrence to a rising arms race and worsening security climate, to providing no resonating returns and assurances to member states in conflict prevention and management sphere. This is on top of the predominant perception that ASEAN remains clueless with piecemeal approaches that are spread all over the place, with the lack of a real bold transformation or comprehensive strategy in dealing with the inevitable clash of both ideologies and hard power competition
For as long as ASEAN remains rooted in ignorance and delusions in its long-held Cold War adherence to centrality, and aloof to the realities of changing geopolitical and threat architecture of now, its rapid decline in functions and impact and eventual disintegration as a result of succumbing to individual member states’ yearning and trap by greater external powers, will be inevitable.
It also lacks an effective, credible, and futuristic conflict management plan and strategy, in coping with the potential fallout of a full-blown Taiwan or South China Sea conflict, the fate of its centrality approach by then in managing the rival blocs’ demands for a pivot in alignment.
The US and the West have largely seen ASEAN to be a lost cause for now, in the domain of accepting more direct defense and military overtures, especially in deepening military ties and hosting US forces and bases in their countries for greater defensive and deterrence measures against different threats, although the intended target remains clear.
China sees ASEAN to be a toothless tiger in a different way, where Beijing realizes that even as a united collective grouping, ASEAN can only garner diplomatic clout in opposing the measures taken, without real hard power deterrence.
ASEAN tried to have the cake and eat it too, by capitalizing on its non-alignment and centrality domain to garner the best returns from all sides. ASEAN wanted to reap the benefits of the BRI, and knowing the scramble to contain Chinese efforts to woo the region by its Western counterpart, ASEAN wanted to benefit from the pouring in of aid and promises of economic tools and development from Tokyo, Brussels, Washington, and even Delhi.
With China, it tried to maintain the goodwill and continuation of the injection of capital, economic support, infrastructure build-up, and trade and investment amplification in serving as the needed bridge in narrowing the development gap for both the internal member states’ economic needs and the intra-regional development gap.
With Russia, there is no superseding factor to bypass the crucial arms supply and in maintaining the security needs of the states here. The question remains to what extent the individual member states’ desperate quest for survival and security transcends the regional need and expected adherence to global norms and pressure to call out the actions of a big power?
With the US, ASEAN wanted more out of Washington, as explicitly projected through its demand for greater funding, investments, and opening up of the US market. The IPEF is seen as just a fraction of what the BRI could muster, and that ASEAN faces no choice but to go along with a principle adherence and commitment to IPEF based on its higher value-led objectives and the need to engage with the US as a crucial counterbalance dependence. ASEAN wanted no part in the American military projection in the region, whether as a containment effort against Beijing or as a reassuring defensive move, and has expressed concerns about AUKUS and the potential arms race, but continued to offer no real solutions to pander to the needs and understanding of the West.
The desire to rely on the expanded multilateral engagement through existing frameworks including the ARF, ADMM, ADMM+, and others to continue serving as the conventional conflict management apparatus will no longer serve the intended objective in the face of declining deterrence and CBM measures, amidst rising confidence and boldness in the projected hard power capacities of Beijing.
ASEAN’s hunger for foreign capital and development, while ignoring the obvious underlying security concerns and agenda of the often strings attached implications and trying to sugarcoat all sensitive and confronting geopolitical barriers, will only create a bigger firestorm and cascading effects that will transcend existing quid pro quo returns. Beijing will want to seize on the importance of the current regional dependence on it, while the one-way dependence vulnerability is still in Beijing’s favor.
The hope by ASEAN and regional policymakers of strengthening interdependence, conflict prevention measures through the extended dialogue platforms and confidence-building measures, and deepening prospects of spill effects through increased Track II and III initiatives and the ventures of joint development in disputed territories, will not work for as long as the root causes of the fear and gains for both external powers and internal member states are not addressed. Regardless of the scope of joint returns and stability, the lingering fear, mutual suspicions, and eventual preparedness for conflict in the outer region and in the region will render any efforts to create meaningful prevention and mitigation of conflicts through deepening collaboration and cultural sharing as well as greater people to people ties alone will be too far-fetched of a dream.
Unless ASEAN is bold and realistic in its approach of grasping current realities and demands and changing its unrealistic and obsolete principles and creating a resilient self-sustaining and self-serving regional bloc independent of external entanglement and reliance, it will continue to be trapped by both the needed demand for external help for both its security and economic needs and bogged down by internal division and instability.
Mutual fear and suspicions among internal member states remain prevalent and rising. Regional economic and socio-cultural integration remains dismal and even backsliding, amidst the scramble for urgency and priorities in securing individual national interests and needs against the backdrop of the dwindling regional and global appetite for, and returns from, globalization and integration of economies and communities. This is compounded by rising far-right nationalism and prioritization on local demands and needs.
ASEAN will need external nurturing, and with that, will continue to adopt the past approach of non-alignment and being seen not to infringe on internal matters of member states. It sees the medium-term future and needs for regional progress through preserving ties with all powers, especially China. Current and medium-term needs dictate the current orientation of ASEAN and almost all member states in choosing the lure and fast gains of Beijing’s offerings of immediate incentives and injection of economic stimulus to individual states, as opposed to the often vague, and longer returns of the value and principle-based offers by the West.
“Si vis pacem, para bellum” - “If you want peace, prepare for war”. This does not translate to ASEAN’s current appetite or even acknowledgment of the solutions or dangers of a direct and indirect conflict affecting the region. Over-reliance on a one-sided and conventional approach of conflict prevention through confidence building measures, expanded multilateral framework, and the far-fetched hope of the returns on the gamble on being neutral and impartial for as long as it takes, even amidst the new realities of the security landscape, implies that ASEAN will continue to be trapped in the spiraling effects of the security dilemma and remain dangerously ill-equipped to deter or to face the full front of a conflict.
ASEAN will eventually have to choose between the enticement of the current conventional status quo of perceived stability and returns in the medium term for the ‘second tier’ benefit of measurable and targeted returns in socio-economic and political spheres based on the conventional dependence on Chinese support, or the long term and an overarching theme of returns based on the ‘long term’ impact of sustainable and future driven progress based on values, resilience, stability, and preservation of norms and order as offered and espoused by the West.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.