Since the end of the Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has engaged the outside world to play an active security role within greater East Asia.
In 1994, ASEAN created the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), at which regional powers such as the United States, Japan, and China meet annually to discuss security issues in the region and beyond.
In 1997, ASEAN+3 was created in order to manage regional issues, especially economics. In 2005, the East Asia Summit (EAS) was established by inviting Australia, India and New Zealand in addition to the ASEAN+3 member states. In 2011, the summit's membership was expanded to the US and Russia.
In 2010, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) expanded its membership to include all members from EAS to form ADMM Plus. By inviting the region's great powers, ASEAN had two objectives: (1) to maintain the constant attention of the great powers to ASEAN and (2) to avoid political marginalization from them.
To this end, ASEAN has attempted to maintain its post-Cold War fundamental principle of regional multilateralism: "ASEAN Centrality". This principle derives from the 10-member grouping's negative experience in the late 1980s with the establishment of the rival Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
APEC was initiated by Australia and Japan and was strongly supported by the US. However, it quickly became an institutional threat to ASEAN as it became relied upon by the region's great powers to shape regional economics and marginalized ASEAN's political raison d'être in East Asia.
In response, in 1990 ASEAN created the "Kuching Consensus", which aimed to limit APEC to "a consultative forum on economic issues," and attempted to prevent formal institutionalization of APEC by constraining its functional expansion. This negative experience led ASEAN to seek ways to prevent political marginalization from the great powers.
During the same post-Cold War period, ASEAN was also concerned about the future of great power politics in Southeast Asia. As US-Soviet tensions eased and Soviet Union forces withdrew from the Asia-Pacific, the US also began to disengage militarily from the region. China and Japan, meanwhile, began to play more active political and military roles.
Strategic uncertainties created momentum for ASEAN to establish ARF, which initially aimed to build confidence among regional great powers. At the same time, ASEAN advanced the notion of "ASEAN Centrality" in hopes of avoiding political marginalization from these powers, in part by assuring they would chair or co-chair meetings and maintain influence over their agenda and procedure.
This principle worked well due to two main political conditions. First, there was a significant measure of strategic uncertainty in East Asia. The US's political and military commitment to the region became unclear beginning in the early 1990s.
The uncertainty was driven by the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington's failure to bail out the region's economies after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that led the US to focus more on the Middle East.
In this context, ASEAN has been a useful framework to help fill Southeast Asia's power vacuum. In addition, ASEAN became a forum for shaping the region's political outlook instead of only balancing and counterbalancing political power among member states.
Second, the Sino-Japanese political rivalry in East Asia created a better stage for "ASEAN Centrality". Because it would be difficult for either China or Japan to lead without creating regional blocs, ASEAN could utilize this rivalry to lead East Asian multilateralism.
With the establishment of ASEAN+3, Japan, the existing great economic power in Asia, and China, the potential future economic leader in the region and beyond, often had political disputes over the development of economic, political, and security multilateral frameworks.
The 2005 establishment of the EAS was a case in point. China strongly supported Malaysia's initiative to create a strong political regional framework through EAS by including only ASEAN+3 member states. On the other hand, Japan vigorously backed Indonesia's separate initiative to include other democratic states such as Australia, India, and New Zealand. As such, the region's great powers evaded direct confrontation by positioning ASEAN in the middle.
"ASEAN Centrality" functions with the understanding that there are certain political tensions among regional powers. In this competitive state, gaining support from ASEAN's 10 members means regional powers can dramatically increase their political leverage over rivals, thus making ASEAN a subject of their interest and attention.
Nevertheless, this trend has gradually shifted. Regional powers are now overhauling their strategy from vying for the balance of influence to competing for the balance of power in the region. The East Asian security environment began to change in 2009 when China and other regional states intensified their territorial disputes with each other in the South China Sea.
This intensification was triggered at the international level with China's official claim to the entire South China Sea, as indicated in its controversial "nine dash line" map. Beijing submitted its expansive maritime claim to the United Nations on May 7, 2009.
That claim was made in response to a Malaysia-Vietnam joint submission on their sovereignty to certain South China Sea areas on May 6, 2009, a move which was highly criticized at the time by China and the Philippines. China's counter-claim also invited severe criticism from other Southeast Asian states, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
More recently, China and Japan have intensified their dispute over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This began in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel. The incident sparked nationalistic demonstrations in both China and Japan, further bilateral relations.
The confrontations are still ongoing and have heightened diplomatic and military tensions between China and other claimant states in both the East China Sea and South China Sea. Southeast Asian claimant states have recently shifted their defense doctrines and sought bilateral defense linkages with outside powers to counter China's perceived assertiveness.
For example, Japan issued a new National Defense Program Guideline in 2010 which asserted the necessity for Japan to "cautiously watch" China's growing military capabilities. Japan also aimed to strengthen bilateral strategic linkages, including the US-Japan alliance, a strategic partnership with India, and trilateral dialogues with US-Australia and US-India.
The Philippines, meanwhile, has sought public reassurance of its mutual defense treaty with the US and developed other defense linkages, including maritime cooperation with India and Japan. Manila's drive for more great power linkages came after the 2011 Reed Bank and 2012 Scarborough Reef incidents with China. Vietnam has also strengthened bilateral security ties, as seen in its 2012 US-Vietnam defense memorandum of understanding (MOU).
All of these maneuvers indicate that the behavior of regional powers is ultimately based on balance of power logic that reaches beyond ASEAN's institutional frameworks. At the same time, ASEAN faces significant internal divisions among members with different opportunity-threat perceptions of China.
ASEAN has faced this difficulty since its inception in 1967 as a bulwark against the spread of regional communism. The expansion of the grouping's membership from six to ten members in the 1990s has made it more difficult to reach a consensus, particularly on security issues where China has a competing interest.
As regional power rivalry rises, states are increasingly choosing to bypass ASEAN and individually engage its member states on a bilateral basis in order to strengthen their balancing or counterbalancing strategies. This "divide and rule" strategy will likely further weaken ASEAN solidarity, a key component of "ASEAN Centrality".
This trend towards fragmentation was illustrated at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July 2012, when ASEAN failed for the first time to issue a joint communiqué due to disagreements between China ally Cambodia and rival claimant the Philippines over whether to refer to the South China Sea in the statement. In this sense, "ASEAN Centrality" is now under pressure both externally and internally.
So, what can ASEAN do to maintain its centrality? Without economic and military capabilities to match regional powers, ASEAN cannot flex its muscles to pursue power politics. Instead, ASEAN could focus on redefining its affiliated EAS, ADMM Plus and expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF). In fact, ASEAN has not yet lost its comparative advantages in shaping the East Asian security environment and still appeals to several great powers.
Japan's recent diplomatic maneuver illustrates this point. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocated in his December 2012 article "Asia's Democratic Security Diamond" that Japan should create strategic linkages among "Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii" to "form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific."
Though Abe's article did not mention ASEAN as a part of Japan's "security diamond" strategy, some sensed that shifted when he visited four ASEAN states as part of the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Japan relations in January 2013. His "The Bounty of the Open Seas" speech outlined five key principles for Japanese diplomacy: democratic values, rule of laws, open economies, cultural exchanges and human exchanges.
In the same speech, Abe referred to ASEAN as "a supremely vital linchpin in terms of its importance to our diplomatic strategy." Moreover, ASEAN and India recently elevated their relations to "strategic partnership" and issued a "Vision Statement" in December 2012 which further incorporated issues of maritime security and freedom of navigation.
These overtures and initiatives indicate that ASEAN and its affiliated institutions still have a comparative advantage in shaping and influencing East Asia's security landscape and could play a key role in maintaining regional maritime stability. ASEAN would be wise to go beyond staging fora for talks discussions among member states and move to establish a monitoring mechanism to maintain the maritime status quo, as territorial disputes are likely to intensify among claimant states.
Such a mechanism would require an institutional emphasis on preventing threats or use of force over territorial disputes. Coordinating the existing frameworks of the EAS, ADMM Plus and expanded AMF could buttress such a mechanism by weaving together functionalities at various government levels.
It is time for ASEAN to seriously consider this enhanced role if it aims to maintain "ASEAN Centrality" in East Asian multilateralism.
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