Written by Moch Faisal Karim & Wendy A. Prajuli.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ASEAN which, despite criticism for its slow progress, has shown a tremendous achievement for its regional integration project that brings together the very diverse nations within Southeast Asia. One of the most important achievements of ASEAN is to level up Southeast Asian countries to deal with major powers that have an interest in the region.

The balancing act between the two giants has influenced Southeast Asia’s dynamics. The region has become an arena for power competition between the U.S. and China. Consequently, it causes disagreements among the ASEAN member states as well as damages the organization’s cohesion.

ASEAN was born amid uncertainty in the Cold War era, and unpredictable security turbulence resulting from great power rivalry translated into proxy wars within the region. Thus, since its inception, rather than providing a platform for cooperation among its member states, ASEAN has become a platform for Southeast Asian countries to deal with major powers. In this piece, we assert that in order to keep its relevance and centrality, ASEAN should be able to manage its relations with major powers, and in return provide substantial leverage for ASEAN to play a central role in East Asian regional architecture. Through an Indonesian perspective, we provide a preliminary assessment on how ASEAN should deal with major powers amidst a structural shift, particularly the relative decline of the US and an increasingly assertive China in the region.

ASEAN and major powers

In the early period of its existence, while still preoccupied with the task of enhancing trust among member states, ASEAN was able to become an active agent in conducting conflict resolution, as well as acting as a mediator to prevent escalation of conflicts that could jeopardize regional security. For example, ASEAN played an important role in deescalating the conflict in Cambodia. The conflict was partly caused by the involvement of major countries such as the US, China and the Soviet Union in their quest for influence in the Southeast Asian region. Although ASEAN only appeared to be a mediator, ASEAN’s objective to end the Cambodian conflict required it to deal with the major powers involved.

ASEAN’s successful efforts to mediate the conflict in Cambodia stemmed from its ability to manage relationships with these major countries that have interests in the region. With the end of the Cold War, ASEAN initiated an ASEAN regional forum (ARF) as a platform to further manage regional security by engaging with major powers. Arguably, through its ability in managing major powers’ involvement, ASEAN has been successful in maintaining its regional resilience, which provided the member states the opportunity to focus on their domestic economic development.

The current geopolitical situation in the region poses different challenges from those in the cold war, and thus forces ASEAN to deal with the growing great power rivalry differently. While during the Cold War the main objective of ASEAN in dealing with major powers was to provide regional stability for economic development, today’s objective should also be directed towards managing an increasingly assertive China.

As a rising super power, China has risen into a global power. The Chinese economy ranked second among the largest when its nominal GDP reached over US$10 trillion in 2016. At the same time, Chinese military power also significantly grew. Today, China is one of the biggest military spenders in the world. For example, in 2016, China spent US$215 billion for its military which was the second highest after the U.S..

At the regional level, China has challenged American dominance in Asia-Pacific region. This has encouraged the U.S. to balance Chinese presence in the region. There are some policies have been taken by the U.S. due to the Chinese assertiveness in Asia-Pacific. Firstly, the U.S proposed the Trans Pacific Partnership that, now, has been canceled by the new U.S. government. Secondly, it strengthened its multilateral cooperation with ASEAN, the region’s only regional institution. Finally, the U.S. also improved bilateral cooperation with its regional security allies, such as Japan and Australia.

The balancing act between the two giants has influenced Southeast Asia’s dynamics. The region has become an arena for power competition between the U.S. and China. Consequently, it causes disagreements among the ASEAN member states as well as damages the organization’s cohesion. For example, in 2012 and 2016, ASEAN failed to release a statement on South China Sea due to a deadlock on how to confront the issue. Some members wanted ASEAN to release a tough expression while some others opted for the institution to keep a low profile. Chinese intervention was the reason behind the division. Without a clear strategy to manage the competition of the two giants in the region, ASEAN may lose its relevance and centrality in maintaining regional stability, both within Southeast Asia and the broader East Asia region.

Indonesia’s policy response: towards the maritime fulcrum?

To manage the competition, ASEAN must restore its cohesion if it does not want to lose its capability to manage and bring prosperity to the region. There are, at least, two things that ASEAN can do to restore the cohesion. Firstly, ASEAN must renew the commitment of its members “to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law”, as stated in Bangkok Declaration 1967. Secondly, ASEAN should strengthen intra-ASEAN cooperation in order to speed up the economic development and integration in the region, as well as to tighten ASEAN solidarity.

Strengthening ASEAN economic cooperation is the key to restore ASEAN cohesion, because the main reason why ASEAN is easily intervened upon by big powers is the economic factor. Maritime cooperation has the economic potential for such cooperation, because ASEAN has territorial waters three times larger than its territorial land, accounting for a quarter of global fish production.

Indonesia should play a greater role in the restoration of ASEAN cohesion and, also, in the development of ASEAN maritime economic cooperation. There are three significant attributes that Indonesia has that makes it ideal to lead this task. Firstly, Indonesia is recognized to have good normative power, in the sense that is a well-known leader of Southeast Asian nations. Secondly, Indonesia occupies the largest portion of Southeast Asian waters. Thirdly, Indonesia has a vision to develop itself as a global maritime fulcrum, a significant national maritime plan that is potentially connected to ASEAN’s maritime cooperation.

Conclusion

As an institution that is comprised of middle powers and small states in Southeast Asia, making it prone to the external intervention of major powers, ASEAN should always  be responsive towards the external and internal changes. Thus, it requires ASEAN to continuously rejuvenate its objective. ASEAN has flourished for the past 50 years as a platform for cooperation among southeast Asian countries. With the changes in the external environment, ASEAN should further tighten its cohesiveness and strengthen its cooperation, to be able thrive as a strong regional institution that is formidable to outside influences.

Moch Faisal Karim (@ical_karim) is a PhD student at Warwick University, where he researches on Indonesia’s foreign policy, particularly its role in democracy promotion. Wendy A. Prajuli (@wndprj) is currently a lecturer at dept of International Relations, Bina Nusantara University, Jakarta, Indonesia.  Image credit: CC by the International Maritime Organisation/Flickr.

 

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