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Maintaining the Middle Path: ASEAN and Great Power Competition

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Indo-Pacific Analyst

The ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Jakarta, July 2023 | Credit: Office of the Vice President of the United States, Wikimedia Commons

The current geopolitical climate has reignited significant public attention on the discussions, policy statements, and actions of various regional interstate organisations. Indeed, each major region and intergovernmental organisation appears preoccupied with its own respective agenda items: the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) with the Russo-Ukrainian War, the African Union with the recent coup in Niger, and—on a global scale—the United Nations with climate change. Looming above all these issues, as some commentators note, is the spectre of superpower confrontation between the United States and China. It is hardly surprising given the global ramifications of this contest that regional developments are usually linked to the wider picture through the lens of Sino-American tensions.

The Indo-Pacific region, arguably more so than any other part of the world, stands at the centre of this geopolitical competition; serving as a key battleground for Washington and Beijing to assert their dominance through a variety of soft and hard power tactics. For the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), navigating a ‘middle path’, as Kishroe Mahbubani terms it, between the superpowers has proven a delicate and oftentimes difficult task. In July, at their latest series of ministerial meetings, the organisation played host to representatives of the USA, China, and even Russia, discussing a litany of topics with each power. Photographs of Antony Blinken, Wang Yi, and Sergey Lavrov standing alongside ASEAN diplomats demonstrated the region’s importance as a critical arena for the great powers.

Yet even as the 56th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) was in session, critics voiced scepticism about the possibility of any meaningful action or agreement to emerge from the discussions. According to a recent summary of the organisation’s past effectiveness, the Council on Foreign Relations noted that its overall impact was ‘limited by a lack of strategic vision, diverging priorities among member states, and weak leadership.’ In a similar fashion, political scientist Jan Ian Chong remarked that ASEAN’s principle of consensus-based action limited the organisation’s ability to effectively voice a united front vis-a-vis its various partners. Like other intergovernmental organisations, ASEAN’s shortcomings are a stark reminder of a perennial question for international relations theorists: how do states with diverging foreign policies unite into a cohesive organisation for the betterment of international security and inter-regional cooperation?

From a political standpoint, ASEAN is in and of itself a representation of the diverse government structures, opinions, and cultures which make up the Indo-Pacific region. For China, Russia, and the USA, the value of ASEAN lies in its function as a platform through which to conduct multilateral diplomacy—a useful advantage when compared to the alternative of bilateral negotiations with each individual member state. This usefulness is magnified when one considers the fact that ASEAN possesses a balance of power amongst its members which is rarely found in other intergovernmental bodies. Despite significant discrepancies across its constituent states in population, economic power, and military capabilities, no single one can claim to be a dominant voice in ASEAN conferences.

Admittedly, this political diversity has also presented challenges for ASEAN unity on individual agenda items. For example, the 2021 military coup in Myanmar has proven a thorny issue for the rest of the bloc, with ‘hardline’ members such as Indonesia and Singapore refusing to permit junta members from attending high-level ASEAN meetings, whilst more sympathetic countries such as Thailand and Cambodia have recognised the junta and continue to call for greater cooperation. Likewise, states can often diverge on their approach to a common issue, which ultimately diminishes the credibility of the organisation as a united regional body. Most notably, the organisation has struggled in its efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where some members—such as the Philippines and Vietnam—have been more assertive and confrontational than others.

From an outside perspective, this double-edged diversity poses both challenges and opportunities for the great powers. On the one hand, it safeguards ASEAN from simply becoming a tool to leverage in their attempts to cultivate greater influence within the Indo-Pacific region, whilst on the other it also means that concerted resistance to a more aggressive foreign policy vis-a-vis ASEAN is less likely to arise in the face of national differences. Although ASEAN’s modus operandi of consensus-based action and soft power diplomacy has prevented a dominant power from controlling the organisation, it has on many occasions stymied the expediency and effectiveness of regional responses to external threats.

The economic dimension is also essential to consider when discussing ASEAN’s policy with great powers. In the global networks of trade, the bloc occupies one of the most critical nodes, being the fourth-largest exporting region in the world. In light of this high economic connectivity, another significant value of the organisation is its presence in economic cooperation bodies. One example is the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RECP)—encompassing among its 15 member states a third of global GDP, a quarter of the world’s trade and investment, and constituting the largest free-trade area. Despite the setbacks of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent stagnation in economic growth, a McKinsey report still predicts that the region will be the fourth-largest economy by 2050.

Unsurprisingly ASEAN’s key partners in commerce include most of the great powers, with China, the EU, and the USA trading billions of dollars worth annually to the region. Yet as with the political alignments, the balance sheet of economic power is more akin to a spectrum rather than a uniform distribution: the standard deviation of average incomes among ASEAN members is more than seven times that of the EU. As a result of these varying conditions, the use of economic soft power by the USA and China in the region has been met with a similarly diverse range of results: in recent years the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has found greater success in economically developing members such as Myanmar and Cambodia than in developed ones such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Alongside the two superpowers, a host of other regional economic competitors have vied for greater commercial links within ASEAN—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India chief among them.

At both the economic and political levels, ASEAN sits at the nexus of a complicated and often turbulent geopolitical crossroad. The region remains heavily embroiled in the ongoing Sino-American confrontation and is also a key arena in Russia’s efforts to cultivate ties with non-Western states in order to circumvent its wartime diplomatic isolation. In spite of initiatives by each of these great powers to decouple ASEAN—in economic and diplomatic terms—from their respective rival(s), the recent AMM has shown that the group remains committed to its founding principle of non-alignment with any hegemonic power. Insofar as the task of balancing between external powers in the Indo-Pacific region is concerned, the ‘ASEAN Way’ remains alive and active as a guiding consideration for the organisation’s course forward.


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