By Collins Chong Yew Keat
The 42nd ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings in Indonesia remain the most critical crossroads for the immediate and long term relevance and fate of ASEAN’s role in the region and beyond.
It exposes the most consequential crossroads with the lingering Myanmar debacle that bears the futility of ASEAN’s approach, unchecked tensions in the South China Sea, futile efforts for conflict prevention mechanisms, growing autocratic trends and disregard for human rights and other structural economic and geopolitical challenges, both cumulatively and further erode ASEAN’s relevance and expose its deep lying systemic weaknesses.
ASEAN was born out of a common fear of communism and external threat, and it remains the same for now. However, the capacity to stand up to external threats from a collective joint deterrence and capacity point of view remains lost.
Indonesia will want to be seen as the ever strong ASEAN leader and will want to take lead in solving the Myanmar issue and in providing a clear platform and guidelines for South China Sea stability through fast tracked Code of Conduct (CoC) and a flurry of backdoor diplomacy for Myanmar.
It races against time and pressure to be seen as the most important regional and ASEAN leader, fresh from its G20 and global diplomatic success, and would want to set the right tone before handing over to Laos, knowing well that by then, momentum might drop due to entrenched affiliation with Beijing and the potential pressure applied, as happened previously.
The Myanmar crisis and the growing tensions in the South China Sea are just two of the main indicators highlighting the failed approach of ASEAN in being limited by its inability to exert credible and solid measures. Jakarta realizes this, and so do other member states. However, decades of stable status quo benefit derivation have created a common reluctance for significant shifts that would alter regime and regional security.
Historical regional cohesiveness in the region is primarily tied by trade and economic relativity and common yearning for security assurances.
The region is primarily shaped by economic and security importance, and openings for value based and normative moral high ground for strong value driven developmental essence are inadequate, unlike the EU.The region remains trapped by its own ignorance and utopian belief of its decades old ASEAN Way approach and de-escalation of conflict through idealistic dependence on non-confrontational approach and conflict prevention mechanisms through its different tiers and channels of dialogues.
Fears and wariness on China’s ambitions for the region, the quest to deny the West’s containment foothold in the region, the agenda in the South China Sea and the fallout of a full blown Taiwan conflict, all create a perfect firestorm for both a declining impact of dialogue building efforts and the efficacy of confidence building measures.
The West sees ASEAN as a lost cause in standing up against China and containment measures, while China wants ASEAN to remain in its status quo of neutrality, which means a freer option for China to expand its grip and reign and a denial of space for the West.
ASEAN has repeatedly yearned for stability and status quo, in fear of a repeat of the Cold War divide and has created a flurry of mechanisms from the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and SEANWFZ,among others, but has been futile and toothless in getting the required stability in the SCS with a toothless response to Beijing’s coercive tactics.
The desired stability and peace has failed to materialise and the efforts have been threatened by the growing security dilemma and eventual arms race in the scramble for survival.
It cannot shed its trap of its founding principles, and cannot afford to intimidate Beijing, while at the same time cannot solicit greater Western assurances either. It remains trapped in its own worst game.
ASEAN has no capacity in hard or soft power to push for greater deterrence in order to secure its aim of stability in the region, and will need external involvement and support. Ironically, this will also break its own yearning for neutrality.
Years of ASEAN and regional strategic ambiguity and strategic status quo maintenance have only provided a three pronged result. Firstly, it gives ASEAN the weakest returns and makes it even weaker with its trapped dogma and inability to provide credible solutions apart from the futile preventive mechanisms and confidence building measures. Secondly, it denies the full space needed for the West to galvanise collective regional cohesion and unity in creating a more able and credible shield and deterrent effectiveness. Thirdly, it gives Beijing the biggest space and green light to further deepen its hard power postures and build on the increasing pie of influence and dominance in the South China Sea and the region. The divide is apparent and growing as a result, in the continental state grip (Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) and the archipelago states (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines)
The region and ASEAN bask in the false sense of security from its avoidance of the hard truth and in refraining from directly challenging the risks in the region, while hoping for tacit Western counterbalancing act especially in direct economic and trade support. While the region has no qualms in being quick to embrace RCEP, the BRI and direct economic overtures from Beijing, it faces a reluctant move to quickly embrace the IPEF. The Indo Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) is no match for its Chinese counterparts in terms of capital and trade capacity, and it does come with the moral high ground values of labour standards, climate initiatives, normative democratic adherence and human rights. All these are as unappealing to the region as a carrot to a lion.
The SEANWFZ is a futile effort from the start, as none of the big nuclear powers has signed and that China would use this as an opening to state its soft power push by having the narrative that it has the nuclear and global responsibility to sign unlike the West, all the while knowing that it can always have the option to ignore the agreement should push comes to shove, just like what it did in the 2016 arbitration ruling on the SCS.
The same goes for the CoC, the same opening exploited by Beijing to portray its diplomatic clout and to buy support, but knowing full well that it still can dictate the same moves should they be warranted.
Declining deterrence impact will only worsen the depth of the arms race, and further weaken the region’s collective resolve. There is only so much the returns from Track I and II diplomacy can do, if policymakers are reluctant to initiate bold changes to the set-up.
Hypocrisy and self-trap are laid bare, from the chastising of Washington for doing so little for ASEAN financially and economically but continued to yearn for its defensive support, to pushing for deeper Washington trade commitment but boasting of its strict neutrality approach.
ASEAN needed external capacity to effectively enforce binding agreements in the future CoC or to keep UNCLOS adherence, but cannot afford to directly solicit these hard power deterrence and to maintain ASEAN’s concept.
AUKUS is actually serving as the most effective deterrent, and ASEAN knows it will help, but cannot welcome it due to its self limitation.
Direct bilateral defence engagement and overtures and agreements with the West as can be seen now in the Philippines and increasingly others, are meant to secure individual states but also will give the region needed assurance and credible hard power deterrence.
ASEAN needs to change its principles and be bold in calling out law defying behaviours by external parties, especially China, to ensure that it walks the talk of maintaining regional stability. Failure to address the current systemic shortcomings will see it fade into irrelevance.
For it to be relevant in the future, changes in its orientations and non interference stand are a must. It will have to adopt a more EU-like common policy on defence and re-enact movements of the old SEATO concept with the help of the West with a regional NATO like framework. This remains the realistic and needed framework in dealing with both Beijing’s increasing bellicosity and continuous strategy in the region and in ensuring ASEAN’s strength and relevance.
The founding principles of non interference and consensus decision making have what held member states together, forming a platform for the autocrats, monarchs, democracies. These principles assured the regime survival and security from the prying interference and influence by external parties and ASEAN. These also serve as the needed assurance against third party and external influencing factors and the need to cede sovereignty in certain segments to a supranational entity like the EU. However, the negative implications have been proven to serve more towards regional short term interests and individual internal regime security more than future long term collective interests.
Mutual distrusts and mistrusts, economic disparity, intra trade deficiencies, redundancy, internal peer competition – these are some of the many structural deficiencies affecting ASEAN.
The returns from ASEAN affiliation as a grouping are dwindling in the long term, as member states seek external support individually to safeguard their survival.
External moves on individual states including Japan’s OSA, upcoming potential JAPHUS alliance , individual direct bilateral engagement by external powers and others, all reflect the failed efficacy of ASEAN.
It has also given rise to various mini lateral engagements, each with a specific tailor made agenda in upping the survival interests of states.
Erosion of trust and stability in expectations and predictions of behaviours have further pushed member states to seek their own survival and assurances and gave rise to arms race and perpetual security dilemma.
ASEAN remains ill equipped to handle the fallout from South China Sea or the potentiality of a full blown Taiwanese conflict. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific offers nothing more than the usual parameters of safe play and continuous dependence on futile past efforts.
By harping on diplomatic moves through quiet and backdoor approaches and expanded dialogue mechanisms, these only provide temporary cooling off measures without tackling the root causes of regional security dilemma, arms race and prisoner’s dilemma.
ASEAN now faces critical crossroads and tough choice to make, it has been trapped between a rock and a hard place for decades, but lack the audacity to implement significant changes.It wanted to remain neutral and hoping that this will prevent the worst outcome and will bring desired stability, but has persistently failed.
ASEAN members will prioritise their own national survival and interests above the interests of the region and the grouping, with little interest to commit more than desired especially regarding the political survival of the ruling regimes and governments. Little incentivisation efforts can be seen in chasing the regional standard of imposing greater rules, criteria and norms in setting the high standards and concepts of regionalism as in the case of the EU. Lacking a rewarding, resilient and sustainable future and returns from the regional grouping in the long term projection, member states find better stature and assurances from the existing external power that provides these lifelines and assurances.
The time is now for ASEAN leaders to be fully committed and open to admitting the mistakes of the past, and for them to chart their own legacy to enact credible changes that will ensure the region’s future sustainability and survival. It will not be their legacy alone, as it will provide lasting assurances and legacies for the nations.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.