Debating ASEAN centrality


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‘ASEAN centrality’ is a term far more often used, and abused, than understood, even by some members of Asean. Southeast Asia has, of course, long been at the intersection of the interests of major powers and subjected to their manipulations. Wishful and sentimental thinking, modes of thought not unknown in, and indeed often characteristic of, many other regional and international organizations, inspired Asean to call this ‘centrality’. The major powers have been gracious enough not to overtly demur. But the strategic centre of gravity of East Asia has always been in the northeast, not the southeast. The relativities of power between these sub-regions are not going to change.

Before ‘centrality’ became the term of preference, Asean used to refer to itself as being ‘in the driver’s seat’, a choice of metaphor that overlooked the possibility that the driver’s seat may well be occupied by a chauffeur and not necessarily by the person who sets the direction. Still, ‘centrality’ is at least aspirational. While Southeast Asia has historically been as often an arena as actor, Asean’s origins lie in the desire of the small states of the region to preserve at least a modicum of autonomy amidst the turbulent swirls and eddies of major power politics. In this respect Asean has not been entirely inconsequential.

In 1967, the year Asean was formed, relations between the countries of Southeast Asia were in turmoil. Two years earlier, Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia. Racial tension cast a deep shadow over the relationship and a forcible reintegration was not beyond the bounds of possibility. An undeclared war by Indonesia against Malaysia and Singapore – konfrontasi – had ended only a year earlier. The Philippines actively claimed Sabah. Irredentist movements bedevilled relations between Indonesia and the Philippines and between Thailand and Malaysia. And in Indo-China, the Cold War had turned hot.

But whatever their differences, the five original members of Asean were all non-communist and faced internal threats from externally supported communist insurgencies or subversive movements. Their leaders knew that if the non-communist states of Southeast Asia did not hang together, they would hang separately. Establishing a minimal level of order and civility, in sometimes very fraught relationships between countries that had little or no experience of working together, was essential to deal with internal threats and challenges, the most serious of which then was communism.

Although it has always been denied, Asean in its origins was a Cold War organization. The very term ‘Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ was coined by an American academic, Russell H. Fifield. He was aware of SEATO’s limitations and the failure of earlier attempts at regional organization. Hence he had, in a 1963 Council on Foreign Relations study, suggested that the US encourage a loose alliance of non-communist Southeast Asian states under that name. Fifield’s contribution was acknowledged by Asean’s founding fathers at their inaugural meeting in 1967.


The vindication and apotheosis of Asean as a Cold War organization came after Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia in December 1978. The ostensible Vietnamese aim was to save the country from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. But Asean members were more wont to regard the military action in the light of Hanoi’s repeated statements about the need to bring ‘genuine independence’ to Southeast Asia after Vietnam had been reunited under communist rule in 1975. For a decade in the 1980s, Asean led an international effort to prevent a fait accompli by denying diplomatic recognition to the Vietnamese installed Cambodian puppet regime which was recognized only by the Soviet Union and its allies.

It was never within Asean’s power to resolve what was in essence a Sino-Soviet proxy conflict. But by keeping the issue alive, Asean made it possible for the major powers to broker a UN-administered diplomatic solution when the global correlation of forces shifted against the Soviet Union and Vietnam at the end of the decade. This was not an outcome that could have been taken for granted. There were clear differences in the position of Asean members and the continuous and complex intra-Asean diplomacy needed to hold the organization to a common position was as crucial and difficult as Asean’s external effort to persuade other states to defy Soviet pressures and not recognize the Vietnamese installed regime. The latter could not have succeeded had the former failed.


The Cold War now lies more than twenty years in the past and Asean is today a very different creature. Old adversaries have become valued members. Relationships between members have greatly improved. There is a stronger sense, at least among elites, of regional identity. But some fundamental – indeed often visceral – issues remain unresolved, as for example, Thailand’s territorial dispute with Cambodia or as the many complexities in relations between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia demonstrate. Some may never be resolved.

Asean’s essential purpose thus remains to manage relationships between its members so as to maintain a minimal level of order and civility in a region where order and civility in relations are not to be taken for granted. In the 47 years since Asean was formed, there has been no major conflict between its members. This was not a state of affairs that any prudent observer of Southeast Asia would have predicted in 1967. And if Asean should disappear, only the most rashly sanguine of observers would assume that the current situation will endure.

Asean’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation set norms that all the major powers have formally accepted. Asean has established forums, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), that the US, China and Japan, among others, have found useful as supplementary means of ordering their relationships with each other and with other countries in East Asia. These are roles whose significance should neither be dismissed nor overstated. But the reality is that these are roles that as much reflect its lack of strategic weight as they do the converse. Paradoxically, it is precisely because Asean is, more often than not, unable to influence events that major powers have for their own purposes found it useful to work with rather than against Asean-established platforms. Asean is ‘central’ because it can occasionally be useful to major powers but has been essentially powerless when their most vital interests are engaged and so cannot foil their most important designs.

With only a few lapses, Asean has by and large made a virtue out of necessity, or at least adopted the Victorian attitude of pretending not to notice so long as the outward decencies of inter-state relations are observed and horses not unduly scared. The downside, or perhaps the necessary price, has been an unfortunate tendency to privilege form over substance.


Since 1971, Asean has been committed to establishing a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in Southeast Asia. ZOPFAN was based on the superficially attractive but entirely delusionary notion that regional security could best be secured by excluding the major powers from the affairs of Southeast Asia. Inconvenient questions such as how the major powers could be persuaded to show such forbearance and what to do if they refused were ignored. A large dose of brutal reality was administered the very year ZOPFAN was adopted.

In 1971, Indonesia and Malaysia issued a statement questioning the international status of the Straits of Malacca. In response, the US and Soviet Union sailed their warships up and down the Straits as Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta watched helplessly. Had China or India then possessed the naval capability, they would have undoubtedly done so too. But this demonstration of the realities of international relations had no apparent effect on the decision to proceed with ZOPFAN. Even more curiously, ZOPFAN enthusiasts apparently failed to notice that at least one major power, China, was geographically contiguous to Southeast Asia and therefore could not be excluded from the region, and in 1971 was still actively supporting communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia as well as the war in Vietnam.


Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) sat uneasily with the demands of the Cold War which made a simplistic concept of neutrality impractical, as for example Sihanouk’s Cambodia discovered at grievous cost. For most countries in Southeast Asia, irrespective of which side they stood and even if they sought to remain non-aligned, the Cold War instead impelled a search for balance. Even theoretically, non-alignment was possible only within a state of great power equilibrium. In any case, the Philippines and Thailand were and remain formal treaty allies of the US. Singapore has always eschewed such a status, but maintains a close defence and security relationship with the US and, prior to its withdrawal east of Suez, with the UK which maintained military bases in Singapore as part of the American-led global security system.

For Singapore the most crucial ‘balance’ was not just against communism, but that which kept our immediate environment reasonably friendly and helped maintain deterrence in the immediate neighbourhood. Indeed, so vital were these ties that Singapore’s first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam, almost walked out of the 1967 Bangkok meeting discussing the establishment of Asean before an eleventh hour compromise was reached by declaring that foreign bases in Southeast Asia were ‘temporary’.


The formation of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994 however marked a significant, if little understood, change of concept. The ARF has often been derided as a talk shop. The criticism is not without basis. But it is also entirely beside the point. ZOPFAN was based on the implicit premise that the major powers were illegitimate intrusions into the region, at best to be tolerated as a necessary evil but not encouraged; a premise embedded in the fiction enshrined for almost half a century in the Bangkok Declaration of the ‘temporary’ nature of the foreign military presence in Southeast Asia. This placed Asean members like Singapore who did not agree in an invidious position. On occasion it gave our neighbours a political stick to use if they wished to pressure us for entirely different reasons.

But the ARF is a forum explicitly dedicated to regional security, created by the consensus of all Asean members who by the exercise of their sovereignty will have invited all the major powers to participate in discussions on regional security. Which Asean member can now reasonably argue that the major powers have no legitimate interest in the security of Southeast Asia? The fundamental purpose of the ARF is to entrench this shift in how regional security is conceptualized; everything else is secondary. The shift of concept opened the way for the establishment of other forums explicitly dedicated to security and military issues such as the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) which now also holds discussions on such matters with the major powers under the ADMM Plus.

Asean has nevertheless always displayed an almost Emersonian disdain for consistency, unfortunately too often without the recognition that only a ‘foolish consistency’ was undesirable. The ARF did not stand in the way of the 1995 treaty establishing a Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) as a component of ZOPFAN. The SEANWFZ Treaty came into force in 1997. SEANWFZ was concluded only after difficult negotiations reached agreement on Article 7 which allows visits to and transits through Southeast Asia by foreign naval vessels and military aircraft. The understanding is that we will not ask if any are carrying nuclear weapons, and will not be told if we are silly enough to do so.

Asean is now engaged in futile discussions with the formal Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) over reservations that three of them – the UK, France and Russia – have made a condition for their accession to SEANWFZ, even though the treaty explicitly forbids reservations. The US and China have as yet made no reservations, undoubtedly because the other three have done their dirty work for them. The Russian reservation is particularly onerous, conceding to Moscow the unilateral right to determine if any Asean member is in breach of SEANWFZ. It effectively abrogates Article 7 and sets a precedent for any other NWS to claim such a right. China could, for example, one day use it to object to the US presence.


Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, most Asean members profess to have no difficulty with the reservation. Some have even argued that the accession of the NWS even with reservations that negate the treaty demonstrates Asean centrality, showing that wishful thinking and the privileging of form over substance are alive and well. But incredibly, the current US Administration has also encouraged Asean to accept the reservation, which is a conclusive demonstration of the sad fact that delusions are not a monopoly of the small countries of Southeast Asia.

Asean is today confronted with arguably the most complex regional security challenge it has faced since its formation. The strategic environment in East Asia is in a state of more than usual flux as the US, China, Japan, India and other countries adjust their relationships with each other and with Asean members in the context of changes in the relativities of global and regional power and in circumstances where threats are no longer always easy to define. The Cold War, despite its obvious dangers, had at least the virtue of clarity: there was usually little doubt about who wished Asean ill or how we should position ourselves, even if there was room for debate over the best means of reaching such a position. After the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s, even China stood on the same side as the US and Asean vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. And after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia compelled China to drop support for Southeast Asian communist parties to secure Asean’s support, the Southeast Asian configuration of forces was even more starkly defined. These certainties are now gone. It is unclear what will replace them.


Post World War II, East Asia was largely an American creation because it was the stability created by the US presence that was the foundation of the growth that is the most important common characteristic of what is otherwise a very diverse region. But while the US presence is still a vital, indeed irreplaceable, condition for stability, it is clearly no longer a sufficient one and needs to be supplemented by some new architecture to preserve stability for continued growth. This is the core strategic issue of our times. Its elaboration will be a work of decades. At its centre must be a new modus vivendi between the US and China.


This is a complex relationship, characterized by profound interdependence coexisting with no less profound strategic distrust. The US and China know they must work together. Neither wants conflict. Both nevertheless find it difficult to reach a new accommodation. The US now needs help to maintain order, but is uncertain how much help to ask for and what price to pay. China regards the current order as heir to the system that led to what it calls ‘a hundred years of humiliation’, but has also benefited from it, at least over the last four decades. So Beijing is uncertain how much help to offer and what price to ask. From these uncertainties stem all the ambiguities and complexities of our time.

Asean once again finds itself at the centre of major power interests, primarily the US and China, but also Japan, Australia, the ROK, Russia and, we hope, increasingly India. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea between some Asean members and China, among other issues, have increasingly become proxies for the larger forces at play. The formation of the EAS, among other forums, was intended to try and channel major power relations into more predictable and constructive directions. The goal is to promote a new balance; not balance in the Cold War sense of being directed against one power or another, but balance conceived as an omnidirectional state of equilibrium in which the Asean countries can enjoy good relations with all the major powers without choosing between them and thus preserve autonomy.

Can Asean cope? The jury is still out. The core concepts of neutrality and cohesion are under great stress. Economic and security imperatives pull different members in different directions. Burgeoning trade and investment ties with China, infrastructural developments such as railways linking south-western China with mainland Southeast Asia and initiatives such as the new maritime Silk Road, are binding Southeast Asia and China into one economic space. This has obvious economic benefits but will also have geopolitical implications. Powerful economic forces are redefining conventional notions of ‘region’ and ‘state’ and hence Westphalian concepts of inter-state relations, in ways that could accentuate the natural anxieties of small countries fated to live on the periphery of large countries.


The key decisions are always going to be made in Washington DC and Beijing and not in any Asean capital. Still, one critical factor is within its grasp – to continue Asean’s own economic integration project. In Asean as in all of East Asia, economics is never just economics but also strategy. Without economic integration, the centrifugal forces generated by China’s growth will at least loosen and may well destroy the nascent development of a Southeast Asian identity erected on Asean . Such an eventuality will in turn shape the evolution of a new regional architecture.

The first phase of Asean economic integration is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2015. It will probably reach enough of the goals set for this phase to credibly declare victory. But integration cannot stop because the geopolitical imperative for integration will not change. By the end of 2015 we would have done the easy things. Thereafter more difficult decisions will have to be made at a time when rigidities have emerged in Asean decision-making processes and when the domestic politics of all Asean members have become more complicated, making consensus more difficult to reach.

Economic nationalism is on the rise among key members, notably Indonesia. Other members have already displayed buyer’s remorse over even the current modest level of commitments. Continuing integration will require an exercise of political will at least comparable to that displayed during the decade long struggle over the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. That experience gives hope for the future even though the circumstances are now even more challenging.

How does India fit into the current equation? Throughout the 1980s, India sided with the Soviet Union and Vietnam over Cambodia and became estranged from Asean. That era is over. India is now a full dialogue partner of Asean, has a free trade agreement with it and is a member of the ARF, the EAS and the ADMM Plus. But India has to-date not been particularly proactive in any of these forums. The Prime Minister of India has said he wants to ‘Act East’ rather than merely Look East. India’s economic interests certainly lie in East Asia, particularly in northeast Asia. But it may perhaps be premature to conclude that India will play a strategic and diplomatic role commensurate with its size in Southeast Asia.

A huge and complex country like India will naturally first look inwards and realize its economic potential through reforms that the new government has begun – a necessary condition for realizing India’s strategic potential. Of course, India’s most vital and immediate strategic interests will always lie to its west, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and along its borders with China. But Asean shares many common interests and concerns with India and would certainly welcome a more active strategic and diplomatic approach by India towards our region.