For years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has come under fire for its supposed inefficacy and muted response to major flashpoints in its own backyard. Yet, the rekindled tension on the Korean Peninsula, which is threatening regional security across the Asia-Pacific region, has forced the regional body to take a tougher stance.
Blessed with functional relations with all major protagonists, from North Korea to China, the United States, Japan and South Korea, the ASEAN is in a unique position to facilitate the return of conflicting parties to the negotiating table. If anything, both Seoul and Pyongyang have openly called upon the regional body to play a more pro-active role lest Sino-American great power tensions will drag the peninsula into yet another bloody conflict.
This presents the ASEAN an opportunity for strategic redemption. The regional body can reclaim its role as the driver of pan-regional integration as well as promote its dialogue-based norms as a basis for the resolution of regional disputes.
An Imperfect Union
It goes without saying that the ASEAN has a long way to go before becoming a fully robust and consequential force in shaping the regional security architecture. To be fair, the ASEAN has proven practically irrelevant in dealing with the brewing humanitarian crisis in Indo-China. In Myanmar, the minority Rohingya ethnic group has been the victim of a de facto ethnic-cleansing campaign at the hands of the brutal junta.
But host to mostly authoritarian regimes as well as democratically elected strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte, who has waged a brutal crackdown on suspected drug users, the ASEAN simply lacks the moral ascendancy to question Myanmar’s human rights record. Established on the principle of non-interference, the regional body also lacks the requisite institutional mechanisms to effectively tackle the ongoing tragedy in one of its member nations.
In fact, Duterte, the current rotational chairman of the ASEAN, has been a leading proponent of so-called “Asia values,” which place communal security above individual liberties and rights. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has often lashed out at the West and civil society groups for questioning the human rights situation in the Philippines and broader Southeast Asian region.
The South China Sea disputes, meanwhile, have proven even more divisive among ASEAN states, many of which prefer not to rock the boat and to keep tight economic relations with China. Even a traditional hawk such as the Philippines, which initiated a landmark arbitration case against Beijing in the South China Sea, has taken a dramatically softer tone under Duterte’s presidency.
In contrast, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore have taken a relatively tougher stance against China’s rising maritime assertiveness in adjacent waters. The upshot is the failure of the ASEAN to even agree on expressing concern over China’s massive island-construction activities in the South China Sea. As a result, China has managed to effectively neuter the regional body as a prospective multilateral brake on its maritime ambitions.
The Korean Peninsula crisis, however, has evinced a different side of the ASEAN. In recent years, Southeast Asian countries have projected unity and taken an increasingly tough stance against North Korea’s provocative behavior. In early August, the ASEAN expressed its “grave concern” over Pyonyang’s ballistic missile tests, pressing the reclusive regime to alter its aggressive course.
When Pyongyang tested its second thermonuclear weapon, the Philippines entirely suspended its trade relations with North Korea. Even Vietnam and Myanmar, which have been North Korea’s sole strategic partners in Southeast Asia, have gradually distanced themselves from Pyongyang.
The brazen assassination of Kim Jong-nam (the half-brother of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un) on Malaysian soil has also forced Kuala Lumpur to heavily downgrade bilateral diplomatic ties.
Given the relative proximity and established economic relations between Southeast Asia and North Korea, the ASEAN’s buy-in is crucial to the success of the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang. Yet, North Korea still places huge importance on engaging the ASEAN, which is viewed as a largely neutral actor in the Korean Peninsula conflict.
During his meeting with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho on the sidelines of the ARF in August, Duterte openly praised Pyongyang as a “a good dialogue partner” and encouraged further engagement and cooperation between both sides. Months earlier, during the ASEAN summit, Pyongyang sent an unusual and heartfelt letter to Duterte, beseeching the ASEAN to dissuade America from starting a "nuclear holocaust." North Korea also asked the ASEAN to put forward a “proper proposal” to prevent outright conflict.
In response, Duterte urged all parties to exercise caution, which was followed by phone calls with both his American (Donald Trump) and Chinese (Xi Jinping) counterparts to explore a diplomatic solution to the dispute. The South Korean government, which is also intent on reviving diplomatic negotiations and avoiding war, has encouraged the regional body to enter the fray.
In late-August, Seoul hosted the first ever International Conference on ASEAN-Korea partnership, where South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha openly called upon the ASEAN to facilitate the de-escalation of tensions in Northeast Asia. Seoul, a major investor and trade partner of the ASEAN, is deeply worried about the escalatory consequences of the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric towards China as well as open threats of “pre-emptive war” against North Korea.
Crucially, the collapse of the Six Party Talks in 2009 has left the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as the only major regional multilateral platform where senior North Korean officials can diplomatically engage other relevant powers, from Japan to South Korea, China, Russia and the United States. Whether it wants to or not, the ASEAN has to step up to the challenge and redeem its role as the engine of integration and dialogue in East Asia. Failure to restore dialogue could mean a new cycle of destructive conflict with dire consequences for the whole region.