The Association of Southeast Asia Nations has prided itself on its “ASEAN Way” – an informal and non-legalistic way of doing business, especially its culture of consultations and consensus that have resolved disputes peacefully.
That way of doing may be fading among signs the group’s unity is seriously eroding. Against the backdrop of the rise of an assertive China, signs of disunity spell trouble for the region.
There are several reasons for this disunity. First, ASEAN today is a much bigger entity. Membership expanded in the 1990s to include Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, with East Timor likely to be the 11th member. ASEAN’s functions and issues have also expanded. Economic cooperation has expanded from the idea of a free trade agreement to a more comprehensive economic community, which technically enters into force this year.
ASEAN cooperation extends to a range of transnational issues from intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism, and maritime security to environmental degradation, air pollution, pandemics, energy security, food security, migration and people-smuggling, drug-trafficking, human rights and disaster management.
With an expanded membership, agenda and area of concern, it’s only natural that ASEAN would face more internal disagreements. It’s thus not surprising that one of the most serious breakdowns of consensus have involved its new members. Cambodia, as ASEAN’s chair, disastrously refused to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 to please China – its new backer and aid donor – rejecting the position of fellow members, Philippines and Vietnam, on the South China Sea dispute.
Compounding challenges is the uncertain leadership of Indonesia. There are signs that the Joko Widodo government has downgraded Indonesia’s leadership role in ASEAN especially as the de facto consensus-builder of ASEAN on both intra- and extra-ASEAN conflicts, including the South China Sea. Jokowi’s “less multilateralism, more national interest” foreign policy approach, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s active leadership of ASEAN, could change. If not, the danger is that if the democratic, economically dynamic and stable Indonesia does not take ASEAN seriously neither will the world at large.
Without a doubt, ASEAN’s main security challenge is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. While not a new problem, the disagreement has telescoped due to recent Chinese activities. The most recent example: China’s reclamation activities in the Fiery Reef claimed by Vietnam and Mischief Reef and surrounding areas also claimed by the Philippines. This reflects a shift in China’s approach. While the Chinese military has pressed for land reclamation for some time, the leadership of Hu Jintao had resisted such moves. That restraint ended under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who is more prone to seek the PLA’s counsel in foreign policy issues related to national security and who has advanced China’s assertiveness on economic, diplomatic and military fronts. China is developing the islands further for both area denial and sea-control purposes and as a staging post for blue-water deployments into the Indian Ocean.
ASEAN’s Challenge: China in the South China Sea
These developments challenge ASEAN’s role and “centrality” in the Asian security architecture. The economic ties of individual ASEAN members lead them to adopt varying positions. Until now, ASEAN’s advantage was that there was no alternative convening power in the region. But mere positional “centrality” is meaningless without an active and concerted ASEAN leadership to tackle problems, especially the South China Sea dispute.
Episodes such as the failure to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 have led to the perception that ASEAN unity is fraying and China is a major factor. According to this view, China is out to divide and conquer even as it pays lip-service to ASEAN centrality. This perception results from China’s seeming willingness to use disagreements within ASEAN, especially the consensus-breaking stance of Cambodia, insisting that ASEAN stay out of the South China Sea conflict, as an excuse to resist an early conclusion of the South China Sea Code of Conduct. China also takes the unwillingness of some ASEAN members to use strong language to criticize China as a sign of disunity. China cites earlier differences within ASEAN regarding the scope of the code of conduct over the inclusion of the Paracels, as desired by Hanoi. Moreover, China views the code as crisis-prevention tool rather than a dispute-settlement mechanism.