The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has made great strides in its 50-year history. From its start as a grouping of anti-Communist states formed against the backdrop of the Cold War, the bloc has evolved into a framework for regional cooperation with a major presence in the international community. But ASEAN, which marked the anniversary of its founding on Aug. 8, now faces a number of new challenges.
America’s leadership, which has long served as the cornerstone for regional order in Asia, has faltered, while China has substantially increased its influence in an apparent attempt to establish regional hegemony. The challenge for ASEAN is how to address this seismic shift in the region’s political landscape.
SEA OF TROUBLES At the moment, attention is focused on security issues related to the South China Sea. This matter was one of the main topics of discussion — along with North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program — at the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting held in Manila on Aug. 7.
An international tribunal in The Hague last year flatly rejected Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea. Beijing, however, refused to accept the ruling, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi going so far as to describe it as “no more than waste paper.” In the months since, China has persisted in constructing military facilities on artificial islands it has built in the disputed waters of the sea.
ASEAN is faltering in its response to the South China Sea issue. The wording of the joint communique released on Aug. 5 after the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting, which preceded the ARF, was watered down from last year’s statement, which had expressed “serious concerns.”
This year, ASEAN foreign ministers met with their Chinese counterpart in Manila and agreed to a framework for a “code of conduct” to handle conflicts in the disputed waters. But they failed to explicitly define the code as legally binding, a major point of debate between the two sides, calling into question just how effective the pact will actually be.
Beijing’s ability to get its way in the negotiations can be partly attributed to waning U.S. leadership in Asia. The administration of former President Barack Obama embraced a “pivot to Asia” strategy that included “freedom of navigation” operations clearly aimed at countering China’s moves in the South China Sea. In contrast, the Asia policy of the Donald Trump administration is still tottering and unsteady.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is taking a conciliatory approach toward China, a departure from his predecessor Benigno Aquino’s hardline stance. Both the Philippines and Vietnam are at loggerheads with China over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But they, like many other Asian countries, are also hoping for more investment from China — a factor that gives Beijing the upper hand in such rows.
Other ASEAN states, such as Cambodia and Laos, which have no territorial disputes with China, rely heavily on Chinese economic assistance. Using these countries as wedge, Beijing has managed to prevent ASEAN from taking a tough, united stance against China over the South China Sea issue.
On the surface at least, there seemed to be fewer rifts within ASEAN at this latest foreign ministers gathering than at last year’s event. But the fact that the various meetings all played out as if Beijing were calling the shots is cause for concern. A close eye must be kept on the drafting of provisions for the South China Sea code of conduct, which is expected to start this year at the earliest.
The direction of America’s Asia policy under President Trump is undoubtedly another cause for concern. ARF member states concerned about China’s hegemonic actions, such as Japan, Australia and India, need to make steady efforts to deepen their partnership, while also pushing for stronger unity within ASEAN and a clearer Asia policy from the U.S.