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Foreign Policy

Priorities of Major Powers in the ASEAN Regional Forum

Jul 08 , 2013
  • Zhou Shixin

    Research Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

The 20th ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Brunei on July 2, 2013 and most foreign ministers from the twenty seven ASEAN Regional Forum member countries stayed in Bandar Seri Begawan for several days, holding or participating in various talks, meetings and discussions. With the balance of international power shifting rapidly to the East and the accelerating peaceful transition of the international system, the participation of major powers such as the U.S., China, Russia, E.U. countries, Japan and India in the ASEAN Regional Forum has attracted worldwide attention. 

China’s constructive role

China has always been a constructive and in-depth participant at the ASEAN Regional Forum. As one of the founders, China always safeguards ASEAN’s leading role in the forum and has made important contributions to optimize the ASEAN Way. China’s New Security Concept is very similar to, and interlinked with, the ASEAN Regional Forum’s concept of Cooperative Security.

The New Security Concept especially refers to non-traditional security cooperation, enhancing mutual security trust by jointly dealing with issues in non-traditional security areas and safeguarding regional peace and security. It meshes perfectly with the nature of the ASEAN Regional Forum. China and ASEAN have negotiated how to manage the South China Sea issue to negate the potential conflict, which fully demonstrates that China has an enormous responsibility to ensure that the ASEAN Regional Forum is successful. 

U.S. engagement

In recent years, the United States has strengthened its dual rebalancing strategy, in the wider global arena and in the Asia-Pacific region. Although there are big differences in the content and substance of these strategies, the United States is still trying to maintain its leadership in its global strategy to address the problems of domestic economic development. In order to avoid being marginalized in East Asian regional cooperation, the United States has consolidated relations with its allies by taking advantage of the complex regional situation.

John Kerry refers more to traditional security issues than non-traditional security cooperation in the context of the ASEAN Regional Forum. This means that the United States pays more attention to potential conflicts, which usually need coordination, but not non-traditional security issues, which emphasize the interoperability of cooperation. The U.S. attempts to lead the ASEAN Regional Forum with the aim of shifting its policy focuses. This can be discerned from the joint military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines, which is to continue until the ASEAN Regional Forum convenes. 

Russian participation

In recent years, Russia has more obviously been implementing a “Europe-Pacific” Strategy; increasingly shifting its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region. However, Russia’s economic and trade relations in the Asia-Pacific region are not very strong as of yet. Russia’s inability to participate in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is a real weakness when it participates in Asia-Pacific regional cooperation.

Nevertheless, Russia plays a crucial role in matters of regional security. It is an important player, which helps to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, and is a necessary participant in the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue. Recently, frequent interactions between Russia and North Korea raised hopes of a resumption of the six-party talks. There is no doubt that Russia will defend its interests in the ASEAN Regional Forum, especially in light of the ongoing Edward Snowden case. 

E.U.-ASEAN interplay

The European Union has always been a pioneer and agitator in manufacturing international norms and E.U.-ASEAN relations can be traced back to the 1970s. The two entities have various similarities as regional organizations and it is said that the ASEAN Regional Forum was modeled after the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The E.U. has been a strong model role for ASEAN in other aspects of regional integration.

ASEAN, however, is just an intergovernmental organization, while the E.U. has strong supranational characteristics. There are differences, even contradictions, between the two sides on many of the issues facing them. Both sides have differences in defining concepts such as Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), preventive diplomacy, conflict resolution measures and comprehensive security. The E.U. seeks to promote the “ASEAN Way” to be more coercive, which can be a controversial issue among the various parties in the ASEAN Forum. 

Confusing Japan

Japan has long played an important role in promoting the role of the ASEAN Regional Forum and has always played a leading role in regional issue, especially anti-piracy.

In recent years, with the rise of China and decline of Japan, Japan is working harder to win over the ASEAN countries. Just this year, the Japanese Prime Minister and senior officials visited ASEAN countries and made many resounding commitments. With the help of the U.S., Japan tries to offset its competitive disadvantage with China. Japan constantly stirs up trouble in the region, which is against the spirit of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Japan has committed to increase its strategic investment in other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, in an attempt to disrupt stability in South China Sea. Such behavior contravenes the purposes of the ASEAN Regional Forum. 

Approaching India

India began to implement the “Look East” policy in the early 1990s and has made positive strides thus far. India and ASEAN have signed a free trade agreement, and India is a full member in the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with other key regional players. As an emerging economy, India’s ambition is growing and it is not satisfied just to play a leading role in the Indian Ocean. It has not only strengthened its economic relations with East Asian countries, but also increased its security presence in East Asia, seeking to be an important balancing power in the Asia-Pacific region. 

ASEAN, the leading actor

There is no question, though, that ASEAN is still the leader of the forum. The ideas held by the major powers are usually reflected in the advance meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers. The ASEAN Regional Forum can only give such major powers opportunities to shape ASEAN’s viewpoints in accord with their own logic. ASEAN, however, should not allow the forum to become a source of conflict among the major powers. To this end, ASEAN must play a constructive role in accordance with the spirit of consensus to reach a final joint declaration. ASEAN has always been careful to balance the status of the major powers rather than allow the forum to indulge power games among them. If ASEAN tries to choose sides in the forum, or seek hegemony in the region by use of the forum, it will lose the very confidence it has worked so hard to build.

Zhou Shixin is a research fellow of Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Institutes for international Studies.

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