While the US remains preoccupied by its “War on Terror”, China is making some big plays in an attempt to woo ASEAN towards its way of thinking. This has increased speculation about the reinvigoration of ASEAN as a significant bloc in regional politics and some see the future as a positional struggle for influence between four giants: the US, China, Japan and ASEAN. Predictably, ASEAN leaders are all for this perception. There is strength in apparent unity which offers ASEAN countries a bargaining power way beyond their size.
However, before we talk about shifting centres of power with ASEAN as a major player, we should exercise caution and take stock of what is actually happening. When you hear increasing talk about the emergence of a genuine ASEAN bloc and by implication an irresistible trend toward “South-East Asian regionalism”, don’t believe all the hype. The reality is far more complicated, and indeed, disjointed.
Much depends on what we mean by “regionalism”. If it means growing economic interaction between the ASEAN states, then it is a banal observation about the growing interdependence between economies that is a long way off a genuine regional bloc.
If by “regionalism” we mean an ASEAN security bloc or “security community” of sorts, then we are even further away from that. The modern reincarnation of ASEAN is as a “non-interference” pact between members emphasising diplomatic norms of “consultation” and “non-criticism”. Most experts would have serious concerns that this so-called “ASEAN way” and these “ASEAN values” could serve as any effective and unified security bloc in any meaningful sense.
Besides, speaking about ASEAN as the one entity in strategic or security terms obscures the fact there remain significant rivalries and outstanding disputes between the members themselves. For example, emerging leader Malaysia and Thailand continue to jostle for influence within the grouping. There are signs that Malaysia, which enhanced its position as a leader within the group (at the expense of a weakened Indonesia), is warily watching as Indonesia seeks to regain its former influence as it rebuilds. Moreover, specific disputes regarding disputed territories in the South China Sea - aka the “zone of anarchy” - remain between Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei (as well as with China and Taiwan.)
Finally, the individual security arrangements of ASEAN states themselves suggest a strategy that relies not on any ASEAN security community but on varying manifestations of a US-backed security order. For example, Singapore and the Philippines actively encourage a strong US presence and maintain close military relations with the US, while Malaysia’s “well-kept secret” of military co-operation with the US superpower belies her seemingly “independent” recent stance against, and criticism of, US policy.
China’s rise and an ASEAN revival
Why then has there been an ASEAN revival of sorts? Much of it comes down to China’s rise. Anxiously watching the rise of China has been a constant pastime of the ASEAN states.
Back in the 1990s, as the US began to lose interest in the region, there were genuine fears that China’s rise would not be peaceful. China’s clumsy diplomacy through episodes, such as the show of force aimed at Taiwan in 1995-96 and the Mischief Reef incident in 1995, caused ASEAN states to prepare for the worse. Although wary of China’s intentions, ASEAN’s disunity at the hint of a crisis did not bode well for the organisation. Malaysia, which has overlapping claims with the Philippines, regarded the Mischief Reef incident as a Filipino, not an ASEAN problem.
Moreover, Malaysia had since 1993 adopted a policy of (self-regarding) engagement with the Chinese and both countries agreed to push an “Asian values” system that refuted the individualistic emphases of Western human rights regimes. Thailand and Singapore did not think the issue worth damaging relations with China over and sat on the fence.
Understandably, the Philippines, which were most vulnerable from the Chinese occupation of the reef, took a sterner view of the incident. Fast forward to 2000, former Philippines President Estrada concluded, “Frankly, I think China wants to take over Asia”. If such statements seem mere hyperbole, more were inclined to agree when China reiterated the claim, in 2001, that the whole of the South China Sea was China’s “historic waters” (having passed an internal law claiming the sea as China’s internal waters in 1992), despite outstanding disputes over various islands and territories.
Even though most ASEAN states were reluctant to damage relations with China and adopted different responses to Chinese policies, China’s heavy handed tactics were a genuine concern for all ASEAN members even if they did not all say so publicly.
This is where ASEAN-China strategic manoeuvring becomes interesting. From the late 1990s onwards, a more diplomatically minded China emerged and began with increasing success to experiment with a charm offensive in order to dispel its image as a “rogue dragon” destabalising the system. The first significant step was China agreeing to sign a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (Declaration) in 2002 and acceding to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity & Cooperation (TAC). This signalled a change of tact but did not alter their claims over the sea which remained.