Home / Articles / ASEAN’s Centrality in Southeast Asian Affairs: Miles to Go
In September 2023, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its first ASEAN-only joint military exercise, designed to demonstrate the region’s cohesion at a time when it has been increasingly challenged by the great-power rivalry between China and the United States.
The exercise also marked a milestone in ASEAN’s evolution into an organization more willing to grapple with security issues.
ASEAN’s shift towards a stronger security posture might come too slowly. The influence of great powers has grown and may outpace its ability to stay at the center of Southeast Asian affairs.
In September 2023, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held its first ASEAN-only joint military exercise. Personnel from all ten of its member countries participated in five days of drills that practiced maritime patrols, search-and-rescue operations, and the distribution of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The exercise capped Indonesia’s year as ASEAN’s rotating chair and demonstrated the region’s cohesion at a time when it has been increasingly challenged by the great-power rivalry between China and the United States, which has seen ASEAN as a means to boost its influence in Southeast Asia. The exercise also marked a milestone in ASEAN’s evolution into an organization more willing to grapple with security issues.
The exercise, however, did not take place without controversy. Initially, Indonesia intended to hold it in the waters north of the Natuna Islands, a portion of the South China Sea disputed between Beijing and Jakarta. But Cambodia and Myanmar, both ASEAN members and Chinese allies, expressed reservations about Indonesia’s choice of location, which China was likely to regard as a challenge to its “nine-dash line” (now “ten-dash line”) maritime claim. Thus, ASEAN moved the exercise’s location to the uncontested waters south of the Natuna Islands. The move underscored how despite ASEAN’s shift towards a stronger security posture, the influence of great powers may still outpace its ability to stay at the center of Southeast Asian affairs.
The exercise sent a message that ASEAN could pull together, even over a fractious security issue. Indeed, if there was any doubt about the exercise’s goal, its name—the ASEAN Solidarity Exercise—made that crystal clear. While their contributions to the exercise may have been small, Cambodia and Myanmar managed to overcome their reservations to participate in it. Displays of unity have long been important to ASEAN, because the threat of disunity has always been a real risk to the organization. Mutual mistrust and outright hostility frequently plagued relations between its member countries in the past.
Today’s great-power rivalry between China and the United States has boosted that risk. Both great powers have appealed to the economic and security interests of individual Southeast Asian countries to gain their favor. While the region’s countries, most notably Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia, continue to publicly declare that they would prefer not to choose sides, many have leaned towards one or the other. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand have strengthened their ties with China. On the other hand, the Philippines has repaired its ties and Vietnam has developed closer ones with the United States.
More broadly, vigorous American and Chinese bilateral engagement with individual Southeast Asian countries has diminished ASEAN’s cherished centrality in the region’s affairs. That was made apparent in September 2023 when President Joe Biden and Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping skipped the 43rd ASEAN Summit. Nevertheless, Biden took the time to visit Vietnam that same month. Moreover, both great powers have begun to hold more military exercises with their regional partners. Cambodia held its first-ever naval exercise with China in March 2023, and the Philippines billed its joint naval exercise with the United States and its allies in October 2023 as “a show of force.” Amid such bilateral involvement of great powers, ASEAN responded with a joint military exercise to show regional solidarity.
Getting Serious about Security
The exercise also indicated how far ASEAN had come since it was founded in 1967. In its first two decades, ASEAN focused its energies on economic development and scrupulously avoided discussion of thorny security issues apart from those related to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, the one area of common agreement. But after the Cold War, ASEAN sought to make the most of the lower tensions among the great powers to foster a multilateral dialogue in the form of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which includes ASEAN’s ten member countries plus China, the European Union, the United States, and others. Its goals are to encourage cooperation among its participants and prevent the escalation of disputes. By doing so, ASEAN hopes to forestall the sorts of conflicts that consumed the region during the Cold War.
ASEAN also hoped that such multilateral dialogue could dilute the influence of great powers in Southeast Asia, thereby reinforcing ASEAN’s doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member countries. Such dialogue-driven “preventive diplomacy” fits nicely within the “ASEAN way.” When the ARF was created, one Indonesian diplomat optimistically observed: “Now we see how many foreign ministers have come to cement the prosperity and stability of the region” (Michael Vatikiotis, “Uncharted Waters,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug. 5, 1993). Some even imagined that it might help to avert what they saw could become a budding rivalry between China and the United States.
Perhaps ASEAN’s most ambitious foray into “preventive diplomacy” was its attempt to shelve the South China Sea dispute—involving China, Taiwan, and five of ASEAN’s member countries—with a code of conduct in the late 1990s. ASEAN leaders (particularly those from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) hoped that with enough dialogue and time they could persuade China to resolve its expansive claims through multilateral negotiations. But after more than two decades of talks, a final South China Sea code of conduct remains elusive. Although ASEAN reached an agreement with China over guidelines to accelerate work on the code in July 2023, years will likely pass before one is completed.
In part, that is because China seems to be temporizing: doing enough to keep its relations with ASEAN’s maritime countries from deteriorating while using the time to change the facts on the ground. Over the last decade or so, Chinese naval, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels have come to dominate most of the South China Sea. Beijing has built several artificial islands and military outposts in the Spratly Islands. In August 2023, it released a new official map that reasserted its maritime claim on nearly all the sea’s waters. By holding its first joint military exercise in the South China Sea (even if outside the disputed zone), ASEAN suggested for the first time that it could go beyond dialogue and take action to deal with such security issues. That would indeed be a meaningful change for ASEAN.
Progress, But Too Slow
The growing influence of great powers may outpace ASEAN’s shift towards a stronger security posture. In fact, China’s influence (whether direct or indirect) likely contributed to ASEAN’s decision to change the location of its joint military exercise away from the Chinese-claimed waters north of the Natuna Islands. Perhaps more worrisome for ASEAN, great-power influence might also be contributing to a change in how some of its member countries manage their foreign affairs.
ASEAN’s consensus-based efforts have often failed to yield tangible results on key issues. Some countries, like Indonesia, which had once channeled its foreign-policy ambitions through the organization, have begun to pursue more independent diplomacy to achieve their aims. That is likely to further encourage great powers to individually deal with ASEAN member countries. If that continues, ASEAN’s centrality to the Indo-Pacific regional order will wane.
Already, the great powers have made concerted efforts to strengthen their bilateral relations with individual Southeast Asian countries. China, using economic incentives through its Belt and Road Initiative, has drawn many of Southeast Asia’s continental countries closer into its orbit. Meanwhile, the United States has teamed up with Australia, India, and Japan to offer the region’s maritime countries stronger security ties, including intelligence sharing, to help deter potential Chinese aggression in the western Pacific Ocean. Such great-power tactics made the 2023 ARF’s theme, “ASEAN Matters,” sound more like a plea than a statement. Indeed, the latest ARF, held in July, did little more than to reiterate “the importance of the ARF’s role in promoting dialogue and cooperation” and reaffirm “the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence.”
No doubt ASEAN’s failure to constrain China’s irredentist impulses or avert a growing great-power rivalry in the region has frustrated Southeast Asian leaders. They hoped that ASEAN-sponsored dialogue would be enough to keep the great powers in check and maintain ASEAN’s centrality in Southeast Asian affairs. Clearly, that has not been the case. While that does not suggest that ASEAN will unravel or imply that it will give up its pursuit of a “third way,” it does mean that ASEAN’s relevance in Southeast Asian affairs could diminish, giving China and the United States even more incentive to engage with the region’s countries individually. To avoid that outcome, ASEAN member countries will have to work ever closer together, particularly on divisive security issues.
As ASEAN’s rotating chair in 2023, Indonesia made progress towards greater Southeast Asian collaboration by arranging the organization’s first joint military exercise. But if history is any indication, such progress may stall or even backslide when Laos becomes ASEAN’s rotating chair in 2024. During its last tenure in 2016, Laos prioritized its relations with China over those with its Southeast Asian neighbors on a key security issue when it blocked an acknowledgment of that year’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s South China Sea claims in ASEAN’s summit communiqué. By doing so, Laos dashed the hopes of ASEAN’s maritime members to rally the region behind the ruling and handed China a diplomatic victory. Should Laos do so again, it would weaken ASEAN’s future ability to speak for Southeast Asia.
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.