The international order is under stress, facing high volatility. The Asia Pacific region is undergoing a strategic tectonic shift from the US-centric regional order to a regional order driven by multiple actors including ASEAN. Power rivalry between China and the US is perceived as the shaping factor of the regional order. ASEAN member countries are not interested in taking sides, but most of them are facing strategic and security dilemmas. If they are coerced or forced to take sides then the whole region will once again fall into instability and turmoil.
The Asia Pacific region is becoming a multiplex world where state and non-state actors dynamically interact, where all states regardless of their size and power have a role to play and regional issues are intertwined and interconnected. No country appears to be able to build a regional hegemon in the Asia Pacific. The decline of the US and the rise of the rest will lead to a new regional order that will be shaped by every country.
Middle powers (such as Japan, India, Australia, and South Korea) are emerging to be a new collective force in neutralizing the power competition between Chin and the US. ASEAN is generally perceived as an honest broker and trust builder in the region. Collective efforts and cooperation between middle powers and ASEAN serve to mitigate the risks of being pulled into the orbit of major powers.
Open and inclusive regional security architecture, currently under the leadership of ASEAN, needs to be strengthened in order to ward off negative impacts caused by major power rivalry. However, ASEAN needs genuine political will from all major powers to maintain the centrality of ASEAN. The strength of ASEAN depends on the support and partnership of dialogue partners (especially within the framework of East Asia Summit) that it has galvanized over past decades.
ASEAN needs support from all dialogue partners to maintain regional peace and security. Regional security hotbeds such as the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas as well as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs remain the main security threats to the region. Other emerging security issues stem from the Mekong River water security, radicalization and terrorism, human trafficking, drug trafficking, climate change, food security, and energy security.
ASEAN is the fulcrum and driving force of regional cooperation and partnership building to address both traditional and non-traditional cross-border security issues. However, ASEAN’s capacity remains limited. Therefore, ASEAN must strengthen its leadership and institutional capacity to deal with emerging regional security issues. Promoting a rules-based international order is critical to the long-term survival of ASEAN- a grouping of medium and small countries. A rules-based international order refers to the respect and enforcement of international laws and rules in governing inter-state relations. Every country (small and big countries) benefits from rules-based order.
Deepening economic interdependence, strategic trust building, and enhanced international institutions are the foundations of sustainable peace. ASEAN and dialogue partners must speed up regional economic integration, inclusive development, political trust building, and institutional capacity building at both the regional and national levels. ASEAN must aim to be a role model of regional integration and become a force of peace and stability.
ASEAN in the Past 50 Years
ASEAN has been regarded as one of the most successful and dynamic regional inter-governmental organizations, second to the European Union in terms of the level of institutional capacity, regional integration and community building. Reflecting on the past achievements, ASEAN has been successful in promoting the culture of trust, socializing ASEAN norms such as peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference. Moreover, ASEAN has gained international recognition as a driving force in shaping the evolving regional architecture. The strength of ASEAN relies on its unity and centrality, and the strategic trust and partnership that ASEAN has built with dialogue partners.
During the Cold War, ASEAN aligned with the US to curb the spread of communism in the region, which was believed to be the core threat to regional peace and stability. ASEAN took a strong stance against Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. After the end of the Cold War, ASEAN was expanded to include all countries geographically located in Southeast Asia. The membership of Vietnam in ASEAN in 1995 was a milestone in regional cooperation and integration, marking the end of the geopolitical division between ASEAN and Indochina.
The realization of the 10-member ASEAN in 1999, after Cambodia became an official member of ASEAN, significantly contributed to enhancing regional unity and institutional building. The image and role of ASEAN has improved since then. The ASEAN Way was gradually formed and enhanced, which focuses on the principles of peaceful coexistence, non-interference, equality, consultation and consensus, and save-face diplomacy.
The “unity in diversity”, “one community, one destiny”, have become catch phrases of ASEAN community building. ASEAN has been able to unite the ten diverse member countries and forge a common vision for common interest. The differences in political system, historical and cultural roots, and levels of economic development have not prevented ASEAN from staying united and building a regional community together.
Confidence building measures have been gradually strengthened while preventive diplomacy (manage conflict and prevent conflict from escalation) is being experimented with. The results of conflict prevention varied depending on circumstances and contexts. For instance, ASEAN played some role in preventing the border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand from escalating. ASEAN effectively contributed to peacekeeping and peacebuilding in East Timor.
In 2008, the ASEAN Charter was adopted, marking a new milestone in transforming ASEAN in to a more rules-based regional body. The Charter set out a vision and core principles to realize an ASEAN community. One of the principles of ASEAN is to maintain and strengthen the centrality of ASEAN in external political, economic, social, and cultural relations while remaining actively engaged, outward-looking, inclusive, and non-discriminatory.
ASEAN’s voices on international platforms have been taken seriously, which in turn has lead to increased diplomatic leverage in influencing the norms and practices of international relations and regional and global governance. One of the explanations of ASEAN’s success is the collective implementation of hedging strategy. Within the context of rising uncertainty driven by power competition and rivalry between major powers, ASEAN member states have individually adopted hedging strategy at different level and ASEAN serves as an important institutional and diplomatic hedging.
The post-Cold War order in Asia has been led by the hegemonic power of the US. However, the rising power of China and the relative decline of the US is creating a security dilemma for regional countries (especially small and medium-sized countries). The regional order is in transition from a hegemonic stability to a balance of power. This new, evolving balance of power is different from that of the Cold War. The new balance of power involves not only two major powers but multiple powers including medium powers and ASEAN (a collective power regional agency).
ASEAN is at a turning point in proving its relevant role in shaping a new regional order through the implementation of a robust diplomatic and strategic engagement and collective leadership. ASEAN needs to overcome some of its weaknesses such as bureaucracy, slow implementation, lack of enforcement, lack of core leadership (Indonesia used to take a core leadership role in ASEAN), lack of unity on certain sensitive issues such as the South China Sea disputes and the Mekong River trans-boundary water resource management.
In the Next 50 Years
ASEAN is going through unprecedented strategic uncertainties and security dilemma, mainly driven by US-China power competition. The member countries of ASEAN are not interested or willing to take sides. They are committed to maintaining permanent neutrality and upholding the principles of peaceful coexistence. However, if they are forced to take sides then the region will be again divided, which in turn will lead to instability and intra-regional conflicts.
Deepening bilateral and multilateral defense and security cooperation is needed to strengthen ASEAN common security. The survival and relevance of ASEAN depends on the unity and centrality of ASEAN. If ASEAN is divided (by some major powers), it will lose its regional role and relevance. The whole region will then fall into instability and disorder. ASEAN needs to work harder to build a security identity based on a common vision and interest.
Non-traditional security (NTS) threats such as climate change, the water-food-energy security nexus, migration, natural disasters, and terrorism are relevant to the region. Regional cooperation and collaboration in addressing these NTS threats need to be strengthened. ASEAN common security identity can be built on by deepening regional cooperation in addressing NTS threats.
To adapt to intensifying power competition between China and the US, ASEAN member states and ASEAN as a regional institution must implement a robust, collective, and comprehensive hedging strategy by combining security and strategic measures with economic, socio-cultural, and diplomatic measures. Collective and comprehensive hedging strategy will contribute to the realization of a stable balance of power or a dynamic equilibrium in the Asia Pacific region.
ASEAN needs to build a common vision and strengthen regional unity on certain sensitive security issues, particularly the South China Sea issue and the Mekong water security issue. These two issues should be integrated into one basket to forge a common ASEAN position.
Given its strategic location, Vietnam has a critical role to play here in connecting the two in the regional security agenda. More dialogue on the Mekong River management must be implemented. The maritime Southeast Asian countries need to pay closer attention and provide technical support to mainland Southeast Asian countries in sustainable governance of the Mekong River and its tributary system.
For short and medium terms, ASEAN needs to simultaneously develop confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy. For the long term, ASEAN needs twenty more years for ASEAN to implement conflict resolution mechanism given the complexity of the regional security environment. ASEAN should promote multi-stakeholder dialogue on conflict management and conflict resolution in the region at least at Track 1.5 level.
ASEAN must promote and strengthen a rules-based international system and regional order, which will help ASEAN better manage major power relations and transform ASEAN in to a normative power based on international laws. However, to realize this ASEAN needs to effectively implement and enforce the ASEAN Charter and strengthen ASEAN rules-based community building.
ASEAN needs to further align its political security agenda with that of the United Nations. Having an ASEAN-UN alliance on climate change, an ASEAN-UN alliance on Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, and an ASEAN Peacekeeping Forces, working under the UN framework to maintain peace and stability, would help promote and enhance the global image and role of ASEAN.