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Reasserting ASEAN Centrality: Preventing a Sino-American Cold War in the South China Sea

May 28, 2021

“Meeting jaw-to-jaw is better than war,” the British Premiere Winston Churchill once memorably said. Since its very inception almost five decades ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has embraced this Churchillian dictum with gusto. The upshot is the emergence of the most successful regional integration experiment in the post-colonial world, which has often drawn direct comparisons with the European Union. 

Born in the crucible of the Cold War, the regional organization has become the preeminent platform for institutionalized dialogue and constructive multilateralism in Asia. Among its extremely diverse members, even the threat of use of force has become virtually unthinkable, while intra-regional commerce and people-to-people interaction is increasingly seamless. 

ASEAN iswhere the world’s leading powers, from China to the United State and Russia, can regularly meet, discuss and coordinate the resolution of major geopolitical challenges of our times.

No wonder then, the regional organization has often claimedcentrality in shaping the 21st century security architecture in Asia. 

Upon closer examination, however, it’s clear that ASEAN’s claim to centrality is more aspirational rather than actual. If anything, major challenges such as the intensifying Sino-American rivalry, not to mention anemerging civil war in Myanmar, have exposed the long-simmering dysfunction and divisions in the regional body. Instead of becoming defensive or fatalistic, ASEAN should once again become the pivot of regional peace and prosperity by revisiting its core operating principles, bravely embracing a more proactive strategic role, and helping prevent a New Cold War in Asia. 

A Glorious History 

It’s often easy to dismiss ASEAN asan empty “talk shop” with its “funny shirts,” confabs, and bizarre photo opportunities among world leaders. The regional body is also often portrayed as a collection of supposedly ‘small’ and inconsequential countries, which are better at hosting events than truly shaping high-stakes geopolitical dilemmas in Asia. 

What this dismissive and simplistic narrative tends to miss, however, is the immense achievements of ASEAN under the most impossible conditions. The regional body was conceived in the heat of Soviet-U.S. competition in Asia, as the two superpowers sought to establish rival military blocs in a quest for global hegemony. 

In Southeast Asia, for instance, the U.S. and its allies established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a poor imitation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a still deeply impoverished post-colonial region. Meanwhile, the Soviets built military alliances with a number of Indo-Chinese nations, most prominently North Vietnam, which managed to eventually defeat and incorporate the U.S.-aligned South Vietnam in the 1970s. 

Inspired by Indonesia’s Sukarno, whoco-founded the global Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during theBandung Conference, post-colonial states in the region began to contemplate greater “South-South cooperation” and solidarity beyond the dictates of the superpowers. The upshot was the emergence of the Greater Malayan Confederation, also known as MAPHILINDO, a nascent regional organization that included Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. 

The‘Konfrontasi’ armed skirmishes in the early-1960s, among the Indonesians, Singaporeans and the Malaysians, only reinforced the urge to develop an inclusive and peaceful regional body. Before the end of that bloody decade, as the nearby conflict in Vietnam intensified, the visionary leaders of the Philippines, Malaysia, (newly-independent) Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand came together and established ASEAN. 

Over the next decades, proactive Southeast Asian leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad oversaw the transformation of ASEAN into a bastion of peace and prosperity. By the end of the 20th century, the regional organization encompassed as many as ten members, including post-war regimes in Indo-China and communist Vietnam, with post-independence East Timor’s membership also on the table. 

Crucially, ASEAN has successfullyestablished a free trade agreement as well as implemented aTreaty of Amity and Cooperation, which collectively increased trade and reduced conflict among its diverse members. 

Meanwhile, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and later the East Asia Summit (EAS), have regularly gathered both great and smaller powers together, thus providing a primary platform for discussing, shaping and negotiating the post-Cold War order in Asia. 

The regional organization’s early success, however, sowed the seeds of complacency and introversion. As a result, ASEAN has become increasingly peripheral in shaping major geopolitical developments in its own backyard. The culprit is less about the nature of the regional body than the lack of proactive diplomacy by Southeast Asian nations. 

Deadlock and Indecisiveness 

Contrary to common misconceptions, ASEAN has, throughout key moments in its history, transcended so-called principles of “non-intervention” and “non-interference” in the affairs of regional states. 

Fromitstough stance against Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in the late-1970s to itsconstructive role in Cambodia’s post-war political stabilization in the 1990s and successfulprevention of conflict between Thailand and Cambodia more recently, ASEAN has played a proactive role in managing disputes and ensuring stability across regional states. 

Just as remarkable is ASEAN’s role in negotiating the2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between Southeast Asian rival claimant states and China. Although largely declaratory, the agreement provided the roadmap for a more legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the hotly disputed waters. 

Nor is it true that the regional body operates on a pure form of “consensus”, namely unanimity, in its decision-making process. The majoritarianASEAN Minus X” formula, for instance, facilitated the rapid conclusion of a Southeast Asian free trade agreement, or the so-called Agreement on the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) Scheme for ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA). 

Not to mention, ASEAN also has a history of“minilateral” cooperation, namely ad-hoc cooperation among key members on specific issues, from counter-piracy maritime patrols in the Malacca Straits to counter-terrorism patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. 

In the past decade, however, ASEAN has become increasingly rigid, inflexible, and unimaginative in its decision-making process. In addition, there is a glaring lack of visionary leaders such as Lee, Mahathir and other grand statesmen, who deftly steered the regional body through the extremely perilous and strategically exacting Cold War decades. 

By overemphasizing the need for unanimity, under the principle of “consensus”, the regional body has found it almost impossible to forge a coherent and unified response to brewing crises in the region, fromthe ongoing crisis in Myanmar to thefestering South China Sea disputes, which has intensified Sino-American rivalry in Asia with potentially devastating consequences. 

The establishment of an effective and legally-binding COC, for instance, is crucial topreventing a dangerous escalation in regional maritime disputes.As early as 1996, Southeast Asian leaders discussed the establishment of a COC in the South China Sea, a proposal that gained ground after the signing of the DOC between ASEAN and China in 2002. 

Three decades on, the regional body is yet to put forward a common and coherent proposal for the COC, which has been lingering in seemingly unending rounds of negotiations with China, notwithstandingoccasional announcements about supposed breakthroughs. If anything, newdivisions over the exact nature of the proposed COC have emerged in recent years. 

The U.S.’growing advocacy of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad – and the ensuing growth in the presence of external powers’ naval forces across the South China Sea – is almost certainly a response to ASEAN’s perceived inefficacy in managing the maritime disputes. 

The upshot is growing great power rivalry and increasing frequency of dangerous naval showdowns in the region. Therefore, it’s imperative for ASEAN to proactively de-escalate tensions among the antagonists. This means the regional body should develop visionary leadership and rely on active cooperation among core members to, among other confidence-building initiatives, expedite the negotiation of COC in the South China Sea. 

Otherwise, not only ASEAN centrality, but also peace and stability in the whole region would be undermined by a destructive New Cold War among superpowers. The regional body can, and should, once again become a primary platform for resolving one of the greatest strategic challenges of our era.


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