Analysis

Why AUKUS Alarms ASEAN

The bloc is struggling to preserve unity—and can’t decide what to do about the new U.S.-China rivalry.

By , a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the managing editor of Fulcrum, and , a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the coordinator of its ASEAN Studies Centre.
HMAS Farncomb Collins class submarine
Royal Australian Navy sailors throw heaving lines from a submarine returning to Fleet Base West near Perth, Australia, on March 19, 2020. Australian Department of Defence

For about two decades after the end of the Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) enjoyed a golden age. The organization’s 10 member states as well as China and the United States saw the bloc as key to the region’s security and economic integration. ASEAN as a collective entity worked hard to put itself at the center of regional architecture through a complex web of security institutions and relationships. At the height of its golden age, ASEAN believed it was in the driver’s seat of the region’s fortunes.

That golden age is over. Last week, ASEAN, which usually needs unanimous agreement to function, was struggling to preserve unity. After an emergency meeting about the crisis in Myanmar on Oct. 15, the bloc excluded Myanmar’s junta leader from an upcoming ASEAN summit, a rare move for the organization. As a loose organization without a clear strategic vision of its own, it is floundering as individual members break ranks and realign in the new U.S.-China rivalry. The recent announcement of the new so-called AUKUS military and technology pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States has raised the region’s geopolitical stakes even further, casting yet another spotlight on ASEAN’s strategic paralysis.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In one of the world’s most dynamic regions, a system led by either the United States or China would be untenable; ASEAN therefore made its virtue out of its desire to stay out of superpower conflicts. Because of its multilateral nature, consensual decision-making, and lack of strategic ambitions beyond its borders, ASEAN was seen as an honest, neutral broker. For the region’s diplomats, so-called ASEAN centrality—that ASEAN will speak for the region as a whole when outside powers are involved—became an article of faith.

For about two decades after the end of the Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) enjoyed a golden age. The organization’s 10 member states as well as China and the United States saw the bloc as key to the region’s security and economic integration. ASEAN as a collective entity worked hard to put itself at the center of regional architecture through a complex web of security institutions and relationships. At the height of its golden age, ASEAN believed it was in the driver’s seat of the region’s fortunes.

That golden age is over. Last week, ASEAN, which usually needs unanimous agreement to function, was struggling to preserve unity. After an emergency meeting about the crisis in Myanmar on Oct. 15, the bloc excluded Myanmar’s junta leader from an upcoming ASEAN summit, a rare move for the organization. As a loose organization without a clear strategic vision of its own, it is floundering as individual members break ranks and realign in the new U.S.-China rivalry. The recent announcement of the new so-called AUKUS military and technology pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States has raised the region’s geopolitical stakes even further, casting yet another spotlight on ASEAN’s strategic paralysis.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In one of the world’s most dynamic regions, a system led by either the United States or China would be untenable; ASEAN therefore made its virtue out of its desire to stay out of superpower conflicts. Because of its multilateral nature, consensual decision-making, and lack of strategic ambitions beyond its borders, ASEAN was seen as an honest, neutral broker. For the region’s diplomats, so-called ASEAN centrality—that ASEAN will speak for the region as a whole when outside powers are involved—became an article of faith.

In recent years, however, the edifice of centrality has crumbled. As former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan argued, the great powers are fine with ASEAN centrality as long as it serves their interests. Individual member states have also made a mockery of the bloc’s unity by cutting their own deals with outside powers and blocking joint ASEAN action.

The first notable crack in ASEAN’s armor came in 2012. Cambodia, which held the organization’s rotating chair at the time, torpedoed an important ASEAN communiqué because drafts had mentioned the dispute between several member states and China in the South China Sea. Phnom Penh is seen to be closely aligned with Beijing.

In all likelihood, Southeast Asia will see a long, possibly unstable strategic interregnum.

But it’s not just China that’s working around ASEAN to achieve its goals. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy espoused by Australia, India, Japan, and the United States is a case in point. The strategy has innocuous-sounding principles: freedom of navigation and overflight, adherence to international law, and regional connectivity. But its power is it highlights principles China rejects. Most ASEAN members are maritime states and would strongly support these principles, but supporting the U.S.-led strategy publicly would rile China. For fear of enraging Beijing, ASEAN has struggled to take a collective position.

The same goes for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—known as the Quad and formed by those same four states—which ASEAN countries fear is another red flag to China’s bull. Although the Quad, innocuously enough, is working on tangible deliverables—such as vaccine delivery, climate measures, and emerging technologies—it can also bring power to bear in and around the South China Sea in the form of joint military exercises and training. In August and October, the four Quad members’ navies conducted maritime exercises in the Philippine Sea and the Bay of Bengal, respectively. As a testament to these drills’ growing importance, the United States announced plans to possibly include Britain’s Royal Navy in the future. That non-ASEAN powers in the region are moving forward in the critical area of maritime security highlights ASEAN’s failure to push back against Chinese assertiveness.

But nothing has shaken ASEAN as much as AUKUS. The new pact announced last month involves the United States and Britain supplying Australia’s navy with nuclear technology to power a new generation of attack submarines that could definitively shift the region’s balance of power.

Key ASEAN states, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, have expressed concerns about arms races and power projection. These fears mistake cause for effect: AUKUS is Canberra’s reassessment of its threat environment, and the three-way deal is a response to China’s growing military power and assertiveness. At its core, AUKUS underscores the rapid geopolitical shifts all around ASEAN. Regional powers outside the bloc work with it when possible but go their own way when necessary.

Other visions of regional order—from the U.S.-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy to China’s Belt and Road Initiative—now compete with ASEAN’s own outlook for the Indo-Pacific, which the organization has outlined in an anodyne document that emphasizes dialogue and development but skirts thornier issues, such as the ascent of China’s power and its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Even if Asia avoids an armed conflict, it will not settle on a new regional order any time soon. In all likelihood, Southeast Asia will see a long, possibly unstable strategic interregnum.

To stay relevant, ASEAN needs to build on its established strengths in economic integration and sociocultural ties. Yet these, too, will be tricky to navigate as trade blocs risk being drawn into the U.S.-China conflict. All 10 ASEAN states are members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China. Several ASEAN states—Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—have also joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the successor to what was supposed to be a U.S.-led trade agreement before Washington withdrew in 2017, and which China has now asked to join.

ASEAN needs bold leadership to push forward the group’s internal strategic debates, handle intra-ASEAN differences, and engage with major powers. One step might be to appoint a group of three veteran political leaders with enough gravitas to talk turkey. There is precedent for this kind of diplomacy in ASEAN’s history: The 10-year-long war between Cambodia and Vietnam ended with informal, sometimes secret, shuttle diplomacy, resulting in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the two countries’ subsequent admissions to ASEAN. Most importantly, the proposed trio of heavyweights would have to be free to operate outside official ASEAN structures, lest they suffer the same fate as the bloc’s inconsequential envoy for Myanmar.

As if to underscore its own irrelevance and powerlessness, ASEAN’s reactions to issues have always been to issue statements—and yet more statements. Brunei, which holds ASEAN’s rotating chair this year, has drafted the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Upholding Multilateralism in 2021, to be adopted at an upcoming ASEAN Summit. The text will “reaffirm ASEAN’s commitment to upholding and promoting multilateral cooperation, anchored in international law, towards achieving peace, security, stability, and prosperity in the region and beyond.” It’s unlikely these words will revitalize ASEAN.

By now, it’s painfully obvious that ASEAN’s disunity is growing by the day. At Friday’s emergency meeting, the bloc’s foreign ministers discussed the issue of the Myanmar junta’s participation at this month’s ASEAN summit in Brunei. The ministers only managed a weak consensus: Although the head of Myanmar’s State Administration Council, Min Aung Hlaing, was disinvited, a senior civil servant from Myanmar will take the country’s seat.

Whatever ASEAN does, the major powers will not wait for the group to get its act together. The Biden administration continues to stress it wants to work with ASEAN as a bloc, but this has not stopped it from pursuing closer relations with individual ASEAN states, such as Singapore and Vietnam. The bloc’s members may not want to choose sides between Beijing and Washington but will pursue relationships with each—understandable given ASEAN’s inability to craft common security policies.

In the end, ASEAN will muddle through. But one is reminded of poet Oscar Wilde’s famous character, Dorian Gray: Behind its bright, misleading surface of activity, ASEAN is getting old.

William Choong is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the managing editor of Fulcrum, the institute’s commentary website focused on greater Southeast Asia. Twitter: @willschoong

Sharon Seah is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the coordinator of its ASEAN Studies Centre. Twitter: @Sharon_Seah

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