Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts ASEAN’s Search for a Third Way: Southeast Asia’s Relations with China and the United States
ASEAN’s Search for a Third Way: Southeast Asia’s Relations with China and the United States

ASEAN’s Search for a Third Way: Southeast Asia’s Relations with China and the United States

Stung by Southeast Asian criticism of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum, China’s then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi curtly remarked to his Singaporean counterpart: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” As Yang saw things, smaller countries would have to accept China’s actions, however frustrating. While Yang’s remark may have been unusually brusque (given China’s diplomatic “charm offensive” at the time), it was not far off the mark. Bigger countries with greater economic and military power have typically carried more sway than smaller ones with lesser power.

That, however, does not mean that Southeast Asian countries have to like it. Indeed, it has grated on many of them since they became independent nation-states in the mid-twentieth century, an era when external great powers—notably China, the Soviet Union, and the United States—pressured them to join their respective Cold War camps. Eventually, the prospect of being dominated by such great powers, in part, motivated five of Southeast Asia’s largest countries to create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. They hoped to find a “third way” based on regional consensus and cooperation, aspects of an approach to international relations they termed the “ASEAN Way.” That hope still resonates today. As tensions between China and the United States have risen over the 2010s, Southeast Asian leaders are often heard expressing their desire to avoid choosing sides. No doubt, a “third way” holds great appeal, but as a foreign-policy tool to deal with great powers, it has not been very effective, especially when those powers, in particular China, have used their leverage over individual ASEAN countries to undermine consensus-building.

Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality

Emerging from centuries of colonial rule, most Southeast Asian countries looked forward to shaping their own national destinies. Unfortunately for them, external great powers spent much of the Cold War pushing them in one direction or another and sometimes precipitating hot wars in the process. Little wonder that many Southeast Asian leaders preferred to keep external great powers at arm’s length. In 1971, the foreign ministers of ASEAN’s founding countries put that sentiment down in writing. They signed a declaration that sought to keep Southeast Asia “free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers” and to deepen regional cooperation by turning it into a “zone of peace, freedom, and neutrality.”

Fortunately for Southeast Asia, the civil and interstate wars that plagued the region for much of the 1960s and 1970s wound down by 1980. Half a decade later, the Cold War itself began to wind down; and the region could benefit from the implicit security provided by the United States, the world’s sole remaining superpower whose largest overseas military bases sat on the eastern edge of the South China Sea until 1991. With secure sea lanes and robust Western markets, Southeast Asia’s export-led economies boomed, growing from $205 billion in 1985 to $622 billion in 1995.[1] Of course, security and prosperity also meant that Southeast Asian countries had little incentive to expand ASEAN’s remit, especially since, as relatively new nation-states, they still highly prized their sovereignty.

As a result, ASEAN largely became known as a “talk shop,” providing venues for dialogue but often achieving little immediately tangible. Even so, ASEAN’s adherents viewed such discussion as useful. They believed that the discussion needed to arrive at a consensus (even if that consensus was that no agreement could be reached) had the potential to advance future talks. Hence, ASEAN continued to convene annual summits and, in the 1990s, started to host regional forums that brought external great powers into their conversations. By doing so, ASEAN hoped to inculcate those powers into its principle of consensus or, at the very least, enmesh them in a set of international norms from which they could not easily extricate themselves.

Certainly, ASEAN’s preference for consensus over confrontation has been credited with some successes, such as stabilizing tensions after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and guiding Myanmar’s partial transition from military dictatorship to democracy. But its preferred approach has not been particularly helpful in dealing with contentious issues between Southeast Asian countries and external great powers. The best examples of that have been how ASEAN has dealt with Beijing over the waters of the Mekong River and, to a larger extent, the South China Sea.

Rise of Southeast Asian Cooperation

In the spirit of consensus, ASEAN has long championed a code of conduct for the South China Sea to govern the behavior of all its claimants, including Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and most recently Indonesia. ASEAN regarded the signing of such a code of conduct in 2002 as an important step toward a lasting solution, but it proved less consequential than ASEAN had envisioned. Rather than being tied down by the code, China simply ignored it after it no longer suited Beijing’s needs. China might have sensed that ASEAN’s growing economic reliance on it, not to mention ASEAN’s devotion to slow-moving consensus, would ultimately hinder efforts to constrain it.

Indeed, ASEAN was at first mum over China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, likely hoping that years of consensus-laden dialogue would eventually prevail. By the late 2000s, China’s actions had grown more brazen, prompting Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore to join an already anxious Vietnam in airing their concerns at the ASEAN regional forum where Yang made his off-putting remark. Continued Chinese assertiveness over the following years pushed the Philippines and Vietnam even closer together. Setting aside long-held concerns that cooperation might undercut their respective (and overlapping) claims, Philippine and Vietnamese officials began meeting regularly. They even agreed to allow their troops stationed in the Spratly Islands to hold a joint volleyball game in 2014, marking what may have been the high point of Southeast Asian cooperation in the South China Sea.

However, from the start, Hanoi was concerned about whether Manila’s commitment to resisting Chinese actions would match its own. The Philippines had flip-flopped between accommodation and confrontation with China before and, as it turned out, would do so again. Only days after it won a ruling against China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), Rodrigo Duterte, the then-newly elected Philippine president, abandoned Manila’s efforts to pressure China and appeased it instead, leaving Vietnam in the lurch.

Fall of Southeast Asian Cooperation

Whatever Duterte’s motives, his abandonment of Vietnam cast a pall over Southeast Asian cooperation. Movement toward greater unity within ASEAN on the South China Sea dispute flagged. Yet, ASEAN’s leading proponents of regional cooperation, like Malaysia, did little to halt the slide. Kuala Lumpur fell back on its traditional policy of keeping its differences with China discreet. Although one may never know whether Malaysia’s reversal had any anything to do with its then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s need for Chinese help over his 1MDB scandal, a return to quiescence probably pleased Malaysia’s foreign policy establishment, which long eschewed conflict with China.

In any case, just as important to Southeast Asia’s faltering cooperation was likely China’s increasing influence among ASEAN’s continental countries. During the 2010s, China solidified its already close relationships with Cambodia and Laos with fresh Belt and Road Initiative projects. In the meantime, other countries also tilted toward China after the West chastised them over their handling of internal affairs. They included Thailand over its military coup in 2014[2] and Myanmar over its treatment of the country’s Rohingya minority and, later, its own military coup in 2021. Considering that consensus within ASEAN often demands unanimity from its members, the prospect of the organization standing firm against China seems to have grown increasingly dim.

Perhaps that is why, Indonesia, which has historically channeled its foreign policy goals through ASEAN, started to look beyond it when dealing with China. As Beijing encroached on Indonesian maritime claims in the South China Sea, Jakarta took an ever-more independent stand. Its leaders not only openly warned China, but also beefed up Indonesia’s military presence in the disputed waters. They even signed a defense cooperation agreement with Australia, a country with which Jakarta has had an on-again, off-again relationship. While much could still weaken Indonesian resolve (not the least of which is China’s importance to Indonesia as an export market), it is clear that, on the issue of the South China Sea, Indonesia has opted not to rely too heavily on ASEAN.

Even so, the impulse behind ASEAN’s “third way” remains. Malaysia, for one, is still wary of external great powers, even those ostensibly trying to assist it. In April 2020, when the U.S. Navy responded to the Chinese harassment of a Malaysian energy exploration vessel within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, Kuala Lumpur was critical of Washington for doing so. From the American perspective, the presence of U.S. naval forces could help to rectify the power imbalance between Malaysia and China, thus providing a level of deterrence that Malaysian forces could not alone. Malaysian leaders, however, saw things differently. They feared the uncoordinated American effort might provoke China into escalation beyond their ability to control. Ultimately, the American warships departed; the Chinese warships stayed; and Malaysia was no better off.

The Power of Great Powers Still Matters

During the 1990s, most ASEAN countries believed they could handle a rising China without the assistance of other external great powers. Beijing’s opportunistic seizure of Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, after Manila ejected the United States from its Philippine bases, should have been a warning. But Southeast Asian leaders had no desire to revive great power competition in their region so soon after the Cold War. Instead, ASEAN would seek a “third way.” The organization would not favor any external great power over another, rather it would bring all of them into its consensus-based dialogues. As things turned out, convincing China to abide by the spirit of those dialogues was far tougher than persuading any other great power.

While China was perfectly willing to participate in ASEAN’s consensual conversations, it continued to pursue its own interests just the same. At first, Beijing did so quietly. Then, after the early 2010s, it did so openly. ASEAN had hoped that China would come to see the value in the international norms established by the 2002 code of conduct for the South China Sea. It did not. Two decades later, talks between ASEAN and China over a follow-on code of conduct (binding or otherwise) drag on. During the intervening years, China built up its maritime power and entrenched its position in the region.

Attempts by individual Southeast Asian countries to deal with China did little better. Among them, Vietnam probably fared the best. While Hanoi’s confrontational approach did not gain any ground, it did not lose any either. Indonesia and Malaysia’s longtime downplaying of their maritime differences with China merely obscured from view the growing number of Chinese encroachments into what they claim as their territorial waters. Eventually, that led Indonesia to change its strategy, and some Malaysian leaders to begin questioning their own tack. Meanwhile, the Philippines veered from one extreme to the other. In its last shift, Manila substantially weakened its own hand by distancing itself from its most powerful ally, the United States, and its own legal victory over China at the PCA. Doing so may have lost it not only Scarborough Shoal, but also encouraged more Chinese incursions into its exclusive economic zone.

Southeast Asian countries had once hoped that ASEAN could reshape the relationships between themselves and external great powers. Instead, external great powers, in particular China, have reshaped the relationships within ASEAN. Consequently, the foreign policy options available to Southeast Asian leaders have narrowed. With some creative diplomacy, new options may yet be fashioned. But they would stand a better chance of succeeding if ASEAN fully embraced the sort of balancing power that other great powers, like India, Japan, and the United States, can provide. For better or worse, power still matters in international affairs. While ASEAN may never give up on its search for a “third way” without external great powers, it should acknowledge that searching does not mean finding.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

[1] World Bank DataBank, accessed on Jun. 12, 2021,

[2] Shaun Tandon, “With decisive rebuke, US eyes long haul in Thailand,” AFP, May 25, 2014.