“There is currently no alternative to ASEAN’s convening power in Asia [since the] great powers are not capable of leading Asian regional institutions because of mutual mistrust and a lack of legitimacy,” Amitav Acharya argued. Albeit a loose grouping of diverse countries, ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a key player in shaping the multilateral architecture of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, ASEAN is at the center of various multilateral platforms—which include the major powers like the United States (US) and China—such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN-Plus Three (APT), ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM), among others.
Events of recent years, however, suggest that ASEAN’s multilateral efforts appear to show some signs of strain in one major regional security issue: the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. As one scholar emphasized, the SCS will be a “hard case test” of both ASEAN’s capacity to resolve or manage the issue among affected member-states and to promote the overall regional peace and stability. It must be noted that the problem surrounding Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland is a concern beyond the territorial and maritime claims of China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN member-states (AMS). As I have argued elsewhere, the SCS dispute is also an operational theater of the rivalry of the major powers—the most significant foreign policy challenge which countries in the region will have to deal with for decades to come.
Connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, the SCS presents a major power with an opportunity to project influence and a platform in sustaining (or altering) the geopolitical balance. As the region’s rising power, China, as part of its intention to dominate the First and Second Island Chain of the Asia-Pacific, has embarked on massive land reclamation activities in the SCS over which Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” almost in its entirety. Such efforts have not gone unnoticed by the US, the region’s preeminent power. In unequivocal terms, Washington’s 2017 National Security Strategy declared that “China seeks to displace the [US] in the Indo-Pacific region.” Noting Beijing’s efforts to militarize its reclaimed islands in the SCS, the US further stressed that “China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there.”
Mindful of dynamics of great power politics in the region, ASEAN’s efforts in the SCS will continuously be faced by a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, ASEAN’s relevance in the multilateral security architecture will be enhanced by addressing traditional security challenges, including the SCS. However, the same challenges further risk the unraveling of ASEAN’s unity and centrality as it exposes the grouping’s internal divisions. In addition, ASEAN’s consensus and consultation mode of decision-making has arguably made the organization increasingly more susceptible to major power rivalry by essentially providing each AMS with a veto power.
In other words, against the milieu of great power politics, the more viable of ASEAN’s diplomatic initiatives in its maritime heartland are those which are formulated within the bounds of the said dilemma. Under the Philippines’ stewardship, ASEAN appeared to struggle with its SCS strategic conundrum. It must be noted that ASEAN made some modest progress in the SCS through defense diplomacy. The Manila-led 11th ADMM adopted guidelines for maritime interaction, which aims to, among others, “establish comprehensive and feasible maritime conflict management measures on the basis of confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and peaceful management of tensions that could arise at sea.” In addition, ASEAN created a working group to develop guidelines on air encounters between military aircrafts. Also, in its work programme for 2017-2019, the ADMM sought to enhance capacity building and interoperability among the defense establishments in Southeast Asia through the exploration and promotion of “agreements on status of visiting forces between [AMS].” In an apparent attempt to flesh out this work item, the ADMM agreed on principles for education and training among ADMM members. The objective of this initiative, according to the defense ministers, is to “outline the status of forces present in one [AMS] for the purpose of such training.”
Arguably, these agreements can complement existing crisis management mechanisms which aim to prevent and/or deescalate tensions and enhance confidence- and capability-building. However, the SCS dilemma appeared to surface in other diplomatic fronts. Much has been said on the apparent shifts in the language in ASEAN pronouncements on SCS, particularly with regard to the militarization and land reclamations. More significantly, ASEAN and China adopted the “framework” Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS and announced that they “will officially commence substantive negotiations on the text of the COC.” However, such negotiations will take place against the backdrop of China’s continued military build-up in SCS, as Beijing bolsters the infrastructure in its reclaimed islands. It must be pointed out that ASEAN and China have already agreed to negotiate a binding COC fifteen years earlier under the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the SCS. As such, it has been observed that Beijing appears to use the COC negotiations as a “delaying tactic and a public relations coup” as it consolidates its territorial and maritime claims in the SCS.
The late US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said the “United Nations is only as strong as its member-states wish it to be.” To an even greater extent, the same is true for ASEAN. Given its decision-making modus operandi, ASEAN, chaired by Singapore in 2018, will face the continuing SCS dilemma amidst the evolving security environment of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
*Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.