Asean is less dysfunctional on geopolitics than it seems
Originally published in The Straits Times.
This week, Washington's attention will be squarely on South-east Asia. US President Joe Biden will travel to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh to attend a summit with Asean, and then the broader East Asia Summit -- involving Russia, China, Japan, India and Australia, among others -- before continuing on to the G-20 in Indonesia.
The Phnom Penh summits, bringing rival powers to the table at a meeting chaired by a small developing country, point to the unique role which Asean occupies amid the competition for influence between Beijing and Washington.
Despite this, many diplomats, academics and journalists privately dismiss Asean, contending that the organisation is hopelessly divided between pro-China and pro-United States blocs, and that its requirement for consensus decision-making prevents it from playing a meaningful role in regional peace and security.
While the Obama administration invested in relations with Asean, the Trump and Biden administrations have focused to a greater extent on deepening cooperation between like-minded partners around Asia's periphery, particularly Japan, Australia and India, which together form the Quad. If Asean cannot stick together amid pressure from Beijing, the thinking goes, then efforts to create a strategic counterweight to China are better directed elsewhere.
But this analysis is outdated: Asean is less divided than its critics suggest, and consensus is no longer the barrier to collective action that they imagine it to be. Increasingly, Asean members are coalescing around a common perspective which is wary of China but also of coalitions like the Quad; and where there are differences in approach, consensus within Asean tends to form around the median position rather than the least common denominator.
The dominant critique of Asean dates to 2012, when the institution's rotating chair was last occupied by Cambodia. The Chinese navy had just seized from the Philippines Scarborough Shoal, a large atoll in the South China Sea some 150 miles west of Manila Bay. The Philippines wanted Asean to condemn the occupation. But when the member states' foreign ministers gathered in Phnom Penh to negotiate the text, Cambodia -- reportedly at China's request -- refused to agree to any new language on the South China Sea.
The failure to arrive at a joint communique for the first time in Asean's history dealt a severe blow to the organisation's credibility. In the years that followed, hope dwindled in the ability of smaller powers to strike up common positions on the terms on which the major powers engage the region. Asean was derided as a divided and anachronistic mechanism for navigating the region's increasingly fraught geopolitics.
To be sure, Asean comprises an unlikely medley of countries from communist landlocked Laos, with a population of seven million, to archipelagic Indonesia, home to 270 million people and the world's third largest democracy. Yet a decade on from 2012, and despite their differences, its members are increasingly on the same page on geopolitical rivalry.
Cambodia, once widely dismissed as a satrap of Beijing, has been busy diversifying its relationships since 2012, even reaching out to the US, despite sanctions imposed by the Trump and Biden administrations. Among Asean member states, Cambodia remains the closest to Beijing, but it has demonstrated a greater independence during its chairmanship of Asean this year.
By contrast, states that in 2012 seemed most willing to challenge Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea have since become more conservative. Communist Vietnam has placed greater priority on party-to-party ties with the Chinese Communist Party, adopting a quieter stance in Asean discussions and turning away a US aircraft carrier earlier this year. While the Marcos administration in the Philippines is still new, it has not pushed for stronger language on the South China Sea in Asean statements, as its predecessors did.
These shifts are more than tactical; they speak to a convergence in threat perceptions among Asean member states.
For Washington and its Quad partners, China's economic and military power, and its willingness to use both in coercive ways, poses the greatest threat to regional security. Asean member states, by contrast, are inclined to view escalating US-China competition as the main driver of regional instability. The economic disruption of geopolitical rivalry and the prospect of military conflict are their chief concerns. Not even an aggressive China under President Xi Jinping takes precedence.
There is a double standard at work here. Beijing's belligerence is too often taken as a given. The blame for elevated tensions, unfairly, falls to a much greater degree on the US. But, just or not, it is the context in which American officials must work in this region.
In time, Asean may well become an embattled but distinctive third pole between the world's superpowers. That is no bad outcome, either for South-east Asia or for the US. A cohesive institution at the centre of the Indo-Pacific would be a stronger bulwark against Chinese domination than a region divided between those aligned with Washington and Beijing.
But the central challenge for the US' Indo-Pacific strategy is the need to square the circle between these two objectives: building a strategic counterweight to China with like-minded "balancers" while co-operating with a more non-aligned set of "hedgers" in shoring up the regional order, including multilateral institutions led by Asean.
That will require that Washington work with countries beyond a coterie of the converted. It must take seriously the concerns of governments who do not share its perception of China as the primary threat. If it cannot do this, those at the centre of the region will increasingly see the US and its Quad partners as the problem, rather than China.