The annual East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held on Sept. 9 amid growing China-U.S. tensions on a wide range of issues, including the South China Sea.
Given the maritime disputes between China and some ASEAN countries, Chinese and U.S. diplomacy toward the regional bloc are often seen as attempts to achieve strategic goals by wooing and then dividing the member countries. For example, some international media have described China’s promise to provide its Mekong neighbors priority access to a coronavirus vaccine, once available, as “vaccine diplomacy.”
But looking at the history of China’s diplomatic relations with ASEAN in the Post-Cold War era, I believe the country’s support for the internal cohesion of the bloc and its leadership role in regional cooperation has been consistent and fundamentally sustained not by diplomatic rhetoric but by China’s national interests.
First, ASEAN is the world’s most successful regional organization composed of developing countries and the most successful story of regional integration after the European Union. It is a political asset for all of Asia.
The bloc has made two major achievements in the past five decades. First, when it comes to internal achievement, there has been no war between members since its inception, thus maintaining regional peace and stability.
Externally, ASEAN has maintained its independence while fosterijng good relations with major countries outside the region. It has persuaded China, the United States, Japan, India and others to join various ASEAN-led multilateral cooperation frameworks — which is why the regional bloc is often portrayed as “a small horse pulling a big cart” in international affairs.
It is also no exaggeration to say that the success of ASEAN’s “logic of the weak” is a miracle in the current international politics driven by major countries utilizing the rule of the strong.
China-ASEAN relations stemmed from China’s recognition of the success of the bloc’s multilateralism in theory and practice. For decades, China had little experience in multilateral diplomacy outside the framework of the United Nations for historical reasons and the constraints of the international landscape. It also was wary of regional organizations that in its eye were manipulated by superpowers.
However, through its participation in ASEAN’s formal and informal diplomatic activities at the regional level after the 1990s, China began to view multilateralism in a new way. In addition, ASEAN adopted an Eastern approach to multilateralism that has produced impressive results in regional cooperation. These success stories have played an important role in shaping and enriching China’s theory and practice of multilateralism and strengthening its confidence in multilateral diplomacy.
A united, stable and prosperous ASEAN serves China’s interests, while a fragmented Southeast Asia would degrade China’s external strategic environment. Most Southeast Asian countries are small and midsized by area; many are multiethnic and some are tangled in unresolved territorial issues with China. Some analysts worry that ASEAN may move collectively to take on China with regard to issues such as the South China Sea, but this viewpoint is strategically shortsighted, historically untenable and misguided from a policy perspective.
Imagine a Southeast Asia without ASEAN. The region would be fragmented and might be even more fragile and vulnerable to intervention by outside forces than it is now. The five founding members established the bloc in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War. Why? They wanted to avoid a repetition of the war by achieving regional unity and autonomy.
Positive peer pressure inside ASEAN has led to an expansion of its membership in the post-Cold War era. It has improved the strategic autonomy of Southeast Asia and the quality of economic cooperation across the region.
All this has improved the strategic environment south of China. During the Cold War, while some Southeast Asian countries were plagued by constant war, the founding members of ASEAN — mainly countries bordering the sea — maintained internal stability and economic development and by the end of the 1980s had grown into remarkable examples of newly industrialized countries.
The positive correlation between peace, stability and economic development in these countries created tremendous peer pressure on poorer land-based countries that were torn by war, and that translated into a great incentive for them to join ASEAN. The accession of Vietnam (1995), Myanmar and Laos (1997) and Cambodia (1999) achieved physical integrity for the regional bloc. More important, the long-established ASEAN approach to multilateralism has had a qualitative impact on the diplomacy of these countries.
In addition, its new security concept, which argues for regional multilateralism rather than reliance on external forces or self-isolation, has altered the traditional thinking about security among the new members. For China, an enlarged, stable and developed ASEAN means an improved strategic environment to the south. Thanks to increased political and strategic certainty, two-way economic ties have become closer and ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner in the first half of this year.
At the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Sept. 9, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi once again reiterated China’s firm support for ASEAN’s leading role in cooperation across East Asia. We can see that this is not just an empty promise or a tactic to confront the United States. After all, an integrated and united ASEAN serves China’s national interests.