The emerging Indo-Pacific geostrategic construct marks a momentous shift in regional dynamics, heralding the dawn of a new order that replaces the well-known Asia Pacific framework. Despite initial reservations, Southeast Asian nations have gradually embraced the reality of this burgeoning regional order, as evident through the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” which serves as a guiding framework for ASEAN’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
At the core of this emerging structure is the United States’ vision, articulated in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which seeks to counterbalance China’s influence. To achieve this objective, the US has introduced initiatives that deliberately exclude China such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), the AUKUS trilateral security partnership involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
In response to US-led initiatives, China has embarked on a series of strategic measures aimed at bolstering its alliances and augmenting its military prowess. Notably, China’s endeavours have centred around the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, which have emerged as major sources of tension and disagreement.
The rivalry between the US and China extends beyond mere power dynamics; it represents a contest to actively shape the rules and norms of the evolving global framework. This rivalry raises growing concerns for ASEAN as it has the potential to create a rift within the organisation, forcing its members to choose sides. Moreover, there is a worrisome prospect of unintended escalation, eventually leading to conflict. This concern is commonly referred to as the Thucydides Trap, a term coined by Graham Allison in his book “Destined for War? Can China and the US Escape the Thucydides Trap?” This situation is of particular significance for Southeast Asian countries, given the potential flashpoints in Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Amidst this complex situation, both the US and China find themselves in a predicament, hesitating to take steps towards de-escalation due to the fear of being perceived as weak by the other. With an impasse between the two major powers, the resolution of the escalating rivalry relies heavily on the intervention of a trusted third party or middle power to facilitate constructive engagement and pave the way for an orderly management of their relations.
Middle powers, typically characterised as medium-sized states with diplomatic prowess and sufficient resources, have played significant roles on the global stage. For instance, Canada demonstrated its leadership by advocating for a worldwide ban on landmines through the Ottawa Treaty, while Norway facilitated direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine through the Oslo Accords, showcasing effective middle power agency.
In the Asian context, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech on the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” stands as a compelling illustration of Japan’s active role as a middle power. This speech played a key role in shaping the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. Japan has also showcased its capacity for middle power diplomacy in various domains, particularly in environmental matters, actively participating in the Kyoto Protocol. Moreover, in recent times, Japan has been at the forefront of advocating for a new model for global data governance with its initiative known as the Data Free Flow with Trust.
However, in Southeast Asia, the burden of effectively engaging in middle power diplomacy to manage US-China competition surpasses the capabilities of any single state due to constraints such as limited resources and domestic considerations. Therefore, effectively exercising middle power agency in Southeast Asia requires looking beyond individual states towards a collective approach, where ASEAN, as the regional organisation, stands uniquely positioned to fulfil this vital role. ASEAN is a trusted partner to both the US and China. They are key dialogue partners of ASEAN. In addition, both major powers participate in several ASEAN-led forums such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held annually alongside the ASEAN Summit.
With a combined GDP of USD 3.35 trillion and an external trade volume reaching $645.2 billion, ASEAN stands as the world’s fifth-largest economy. Moreover, ASEAN holds a strategic geographic position, notably with the Straits of Malacca serving as a crucial thoroughfare for global maritime transportation. Each year, this vital maritime route accommodates an astounding cargo traffic of nearly 90,000 ships, representing approximately 40% of the world’s maritime cargo. Leveraging its attributes and impressive track record, ASEAN holds significant potential to shape the emerging regional order.
However, it is important to acknowledge that embracing the middle power role poses challenges for ASEAN. Among these challenges are financial and manpower limitations that are typical of international organisations. Nevertheless, ASEAN has the potential to overcome these constraints through its extensive external relations with other states, regions, and organisations. The key lies in presenting a unified front and acting cohesively. A compelling testament to ASEAN’s capacity as a middle power in conflict resolution is its ability to mobilise global support for the resolution of the Cambodian conflict in the 1980s, even in the face of such limitations.
To safeguard Southeast Asia from the adverse repercussions of the US-China competition, ASEAN cannot remain a passive observer in the writing of rules for the emerging Indo-Pacific order. Instead, it should adopt a proactive approach to actively shape the rules that directly impact the region. One effective measure to achieve this goal could involve designating the Southeast Asian archipelagic area as a zone free from competition between major powers.
In this crucial undertaking, ASEAN can play a leading role by advocating for the establishment of the Southeast Asian Archipelago Neutrality Framework (SEAANF). By asserting its influence as a middle power, ASEAN can work towards gaining mutual support for the SEAANF from both major powers, eventually leading to universal acceptance. The SEAANF distinguishes itself from other ASEAN instruments by incorporating Southeast Asian maritime zones as neutral territory.
The value of SEAANF is that it would enable ASEAN to implement its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and to develop and progress peacefully without being coerced into aligning with either major power. Additionally, the neutral zone would provide an environment where both the US and China can engage with each other in a constructive manner without feeling pressured. These interactions could take place at the margins of the ASEAN Summit or any of the ASEAN-led forums where both are participants. This innovative framework could be constructed upon the following pillars:
Archipelagic Neutrality: Ensuring the Southeast Asian archipelagic area remains free from major power rivalries by highlighting the significance of neutrality in both land and maritime zones. This pillar aims to promote peaceful coexistence, adherence to international law and established norms, and freedom from external interference drawing from the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) and the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that is still under negotiation. ASEAN and China should explore innovative approaches to quickly finalise the Code of Conduct.
Regional Security: Upholding and advancing norms of peaceful behaviour, amity, non-violence, and structured mechanism for peaceful dispute resolution by incorporating key elements from the UN Charter, the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), and the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Treaty (SEANWFZ). ASEAN members should reaffirm their call for support from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) to recognise the SEANWFZ Treaty.
Economic Prosperity: Fostering an inclusive, sustainable, innovative, and integrated Indo-Pacific economy based on the principles of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This pillar addresses the legitimate concerns of all parties while ensuring economic stability, resilience, and sustainable growth in the Indo-Pacific region.
ASEAN Centrality: Recognising the central role of ASEAN in the regional architecture. By upholding its centrality within this regional architecture, ASEAN would maintain its position as a key driver in shaping the evolving geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia.
In conclusion, the evolving regional paradigm presents ASEAN with a rare and distinctive opportunity to assert itself as a middle power and firmly establish its position as a significant player in the Indo-Pacific region. To seize this momentous opportunity, ASEAN leaders must prioritise collective interests and actively project ASEAN as an influential Indo-Pacific middle power.