Decentered? ASEAN’s Struggle to Accommodate Great Power Competition 

The key question is whether ASEAN can make a constructive and meaningful contribution to resolving its own internal divisions, let alone to influencing the behavior of China and the United States. Such outcomes may be unlikely but not impossible if the ASEAN states can develop a coherent, continuing, and collective response to the challenges they face.

Mark Beeson Global Studies Quarterly, Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2022, ksab044, Published: 21 January 2022 Article history

  • Abstract
  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) currently faces a series of major, historically unprecedented, challenges. Perhaps the most consequential of these new threats is the intensifying strategic, economic, and even institutional competition between the United States and China. ASEAN’s rather predictable response to this geopolitical contest has been to “hedge” and avoid choosing between the two great powers. While this strategy may be understandable, it threatens to undermine ASEAN’s much vaunted “centrality” and the geopolitical and diplomatic relevance of the organization as a whole. This article explores the background to these developments and Southeast Asia’s relationship with both the United States and China. I argue that the limited impact of ASEAN-style multilateralism helps to explain why great powers are creating alternative forums or simply paying lip service to the notion of ASEAN centrality.
  • It has become increasingly commonplace to talk about the possible development of a new Cold War between China and the United States (Rachman 2020). In theory, such a development could offer the prospect of less powerful states playing off one superpower against another in the way the earlier standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union did. Equally possible, of course, is that some regions will find themselves at the center of an intensifying geopolitical struggle that will provide a searching test of their diplomatic skills and capacity to influence strategic contestation between the great powers. Nowhere is more likely to be directly affected and tested than Southeast Asia, a part of the world that once again finds itself at the epicenter of a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.
  • In the wake of the United States’ abrupt and chaotic exit from Afghanistan, many of United States’ friends and allies are questioning the value of their formal or informal strategic ties to a hegemonic power that appears to be in relative, if not absolute decline (Sly 2021). Some observers argue that “unless the United States acts to countervail it, China is likely to become the undisputed master of East Asia, from Japan to Indonesia, by the late 2020s” (Westad 2019, 90). In this context, deciding whether the “rise of China” represents more of a threat or an opportunity has rapidly become the quintessential foreign policy question facing the much less powerful, perennially insecure, states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thus far, they have had great difficulty in reaching a collective position on how to respond to the rapidly evolving geopolitical context in which they are embedded. The generous way to describe their collective and individual response to this diplomatic and strategic reality is as “hedging” (Kuik 2016). A less flattering view might be that ASEAN is an organization that remains incapable of dealing with difficult problems and divisions of opinion and/or interest (Jones and Smith 2007).
  • The net effect of ASEAN’s collective ambivalence about both external and internal policy is that it has had little discernible influence on the behavior of its own members, let alone the intensifying great power rivalry between the United States and China. At a time when ASEAN might be expected to utilize its vaunted regional “centrality” to try and influence the behavior of both China and the United States, it has failed to engage either of the great powers in ways that are likely to influence their behavior significantly. On the contrary, in a striking indicator of the low regard in which ASEAN and its various institutional offshoots are held, both the United States and China have sponsored other multilateral initiatives to pursue their respective interests. The creation of the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad), which includes Japan, India, and Australia in addition to the United States, and the more recent AUKUS alliance, between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, are perhaps the most striking illustrations of this possibility and tacit indictments of alternative institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
  • In what follows, I analyze both the nature and the effectiveness of ASEAN centrality and argue that while it was always something of a polite fiction, it has now been undermined both by its own institutional shortcomings and internal tensions. Endogenous shortcomings have been further exacerbated by wider changes in the international order. The growing importance of a rather old-fashioned form of geopolitics has revealed the limited ability of the smaller ASEAN states to exercise a collective influence—not least because of growing divisions with the organization itself. While this may be an unsurprising manifestation of the sorts of asymmetries of power that have always defined its place in the world (Beeson 2010), I argue that ASEAN is also a revealing example of a more general multilateral malaise, one that is especially acute in the strategic arena where the logic of power politics threatens to permanently marginalize the Southeast Asian standard bearer.
    • In the Middle Or in a Muddle?
  • The idea that ASEAN occupies a special place in the intra-regional affairs of Southeast Asia and even East Asia or the Asia-Pacific is intuitively plausible. After all, when ASEAN was founded in 1967, there were no competing regional organizations to speak of and until relatively recently that remained the case. Despite a flurry of organizational and institutional innovations over the last few decades (Dent 2013), none of the new bodies has actually challenged the notion or even the reality that ASEAN plays a central role in regional affairs, no matter how the region may be defined. The key question, therefore, is what impact great power competition will have on ASEAN’s influence, as geopolitical contestation threatens to constrain the options available to less-powerful states, potentially forcing them to make choices and even take actions they might otherwise choose to avoid.
  • It is important to remember that this is precisely what happened fifty years or so ago, when Southeast Asia’s post-colonial development was profoundly influenced by the Cold War struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States and the latter’s determination to halt the possible spread of communism (Cronin 1996). The consequence of great power competition then was to encourage Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand to create ASEAN. The key question now, even with the subsequent addition of the other Southeast Asian states, is whether the region as a whole and ASEAN, in particular, are any more able to control their own destiny, let alone influence or resist the actions of China or the United Sates in the current period. In short, can ASEAN retain its notional centrality, especially when it is based primarily on normative suasion and the willing compliance of more powerful states (Acharya 2009)? This was a problematic claim in less strategically fraught times; now it looks increasingly implausible.
    • ASEAN Centrality
  • According to the ASEAN Charter, which sought to consolidate the idea of a Southeast Asian community of nations and encourage greater economic integration, the idea of centrality was crucial because it embodied the “proactive role of ASEAN as the primary driving force in its relations and cooperation with its external partners in a regional architecture that is open, transparent and inclusive” (ASEAN 2008, 4). At one level, ASEAN has undoubtedly succeeded in this ambition. As Mely Caballero-Anthony (2014, 565) points out, “ASEAN’s structural position as the node in the cluster of networks allows it to claim a central role in the region’s institutional architecture that includes major powers.” There has, indeed, been a remarkable growth in other organizations and initiatives in a region not generally associated with European-style levels of cooperation and integration (Beeson 2019). In addition to ASEAN itself, some of the more important bodies in which ASEAN is central include the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, ASEAN + 3, the ARF, and the East Asia Summit (EAS). All of these subsequent organizations have felt the need to subscribe to the idea of ASEAN centrality and adopt its distinctive style of diplomacy in order to ensure the participation of Southeast Asian states.
  • At one level, the willingness of more powerful states to support the notion of ASEAN centrality might seem like a vindication of ASEAN’s continuing importance. At another level, however, even influential supporters of ASEAN’s diplomatic influence and achievements wonder whether the notion of centrality is actually a myth (Acharya 2017). Part of the problem lies in the celebrated “ASEAN Way” of consensus-seeking, voluntarism, and face-saving: no state is obliged to do anything it does not want to, and the ASEAN Secretariat has no power to make them do so. Because other regional organizations have felt obliged to adopt similar diplomatic practices, they have also found it difficult to make tangible progress on pressing regional problems, despite institutions such as the ARF seeming to be ideally placed to address key issues such as territorial disputes, the status of Taiwan, or the future of the Korean peninsula (Emmers and Tan 2011).
  • Somewhat paradoxically, ASEAN’s centrality actually seems to be undermining its position, credibility, and influence. On the one hand, Loh (2018, 392) suggests that “in a bid to shore up ASEAN centrality, members have increasingly been violating the norm of quiet, informal diplomacy.” On the other hand, the failure to address, much less deal with, increasingly urgent problems is leading to a loss of confidence on the part of other states in ASEAN’s ability to deal with its own internal problems, let alone those in the wider East Asian region. As See Seng Tan (2018, 3) points out:
  • Even before the increasing geopolitical and geoeconomic contestation between China and the United States had raised major questions about ASEAN’s hedging strategy and its reluctance to make difficult choices (Stromsteth 2019), Herman Kraft (2017, 608) argued that it had been “little more than a bystander” in all of East Asia’s or the Asia-Pacific’s major economic and strategic developments. In some ways, of course, this is unsurprising: it is not necessary to be a realist to recognize that when great powers seek to assert themselves, they have a range of capabilities at their disposal that can make life difficult for smaller powers, even when they are notionally institutionally united (Bates and Green 2009). In ASEAN’s case, recent events—especially the re-emergence of China as East Asia’s dominant power (Le Hu, forthcoming)—have revealed internal divisions within the grouping itself, further undermining its claims to being a consequential, much less decisive, influence of intra-regional affairs. Indeed, while a hedging strategy may suit ASEAN members who are reluctant to choose between the economic importance of China and the possible strategic reassurance of the United States, it makes claims about a decisive and consequential form of centrality inherently implausible.1
  • It is also important to note that the people of the Southeast Asian region, who are ultimately the consumers of ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts, remain divided about the future of their region and unconvinced about the impact of their regional representatives. An average 75 percent of Southeast Asians think that the grouping fails to deliver “tangible benefits” to the population as a whole (ASEAN Studies Centre 2020). To be fair, it could be argued that providing for the welfare of national populations is the primary responsibility of individual governments, not a regional organization. Yet, there are growing concerns about Chinese influence in the region and doubts about ASEAN’s ability to cope with it. If forced to choose between the United States and China, 53 percent of ASEAN’s population favors alignment with the United States, while a surprisingly high 46 percent favors China. In other words, despite widespread nervousness about the future, and concerns about ASEAN’s ability to cope with a rapidly evolving international context, attitudes toward the two great powers that are likely to determine the future of the region are increasingly evenly split.
  • Given the growing economic importance of China, one might expect this trend to keep moving in the PRC’s direction, if only for pragmatic reasons. China’s vastly superior response to the coronavirus crisis when compared to the United States, and the establishment of a Health Silk Road designed to complement the better-known economic variety (Bing 2020), may also do something to restore the damage to its image caused by its aggressive and divisive policies in the South China Sea (Parkinson, Deng, and Lin 2021). The general point to make at this stage, however, is that ASEAN’s leaders face a difficult challenge trying to navigate between a great power struggle that shows no signs of abating despite a relatively new administration in the US (Davis and Wei 2021), especailly when ASEAN does not enjoy the support of the majority of Southeast Asia’s famously diverse people while they try. A little historical and geopolitical context helps to explain this unpropitious starting point.
    • ASEAN in Context
  • Many observers, especially in the United States, think that the PRC is bent on reproducing a new form of Tribute System in which East Asia once again becomes a Chinese sphere of interest (Allison 2020). To do so, of course, it will have to encourage the United States to withdraw from the region. This will be no easy task, as the United States also has significant economic and strategic ties in both Northeast and Southeast Asia (White 2012). Indeed, despite Southeast Asia being seen as a “strategic afterthought” by successive US administrations, David Shambaugh (2018, 88) argues that “the United States possesses across-the-board comparative strengths vis-à-vis China in Southeast Asia.”
  • Even under the unpredictable and erratic “transactional” leadership of Donald Trump, there was no sign that the United States was seriously contemplating withdrawing from the region or radically rethinking its strategic presence. On the contrary, one of the United States’ most noteworthy recent initiatives, the so-called Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), is potentially, at least, the most important expression of United States’ long-term commitment to the region and one that the Biden administration has continued to support (Hornung 2021). At this stage, however, the FOIP, and the commitment to “Build Back a Better World” (Widakuswara 2021), enunciated by Biden at the recent G7 meeting, is short on detail and funding, especially when compared to the BRI, and its strategic implications remain unclear (Wang 2019). One of Southeast Asian states’ persistent criticisms of US foreign policy is that it is long on rhetoric and short on tangible benefits, concerns that Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to the region has done little to allay (Bowie 2021).
  • Indeed, the emerging Biden doctrine seems just as driven by national interests as Trump’s, even if the United States has less apparent control over grand strategic outcomes (Bâli and Rana 2021). They are, however, in keeping with other initiatives such as the Obama administration’s “Pivot” to Asia and the more recent FOIP, which need to be seen not simply as responses to the rise of China—although that is undoubtedly what they are—but also as a way of trying to reassure increasingly nervous allies about United States’ long-term commitment to the region. Indeed, it is noteworthy that key allies, such as Japan and Australia, have taken prominent roles in trying to ensure that the United States remains strategically and institutionally engaged in the region (Lee-Brown 2018). Significantly, Japan and Australia are seen as far more reliable, powerful, and committed allies than any of the ASEAN states—individual or collectively—and this helps to explain why the United States is bypassing ASEAN in favor of new strategic groupings, such as the Quad. In this context, the FOIP can be seen as an important manifestation of the politics of regional definition and one with potentially discomfiting implications for ASEAN’s jealously guarded sense of “centrality” in regional affairs.
  • The Marginalization of ASEAN Centrality
  • Given that the US vision of the FOIP is predicated on respect for sovereignty, peaceful dispute resolution, free trade and investment, and the rule of law, especially regarding freedom of navigation (Pompeo 2019), one might think that ASEAN would be enthusiastic supporters of this initiative. Yet despite ASEAN’s rhetorical support for the FOIP, Southeast Asians are acutely sensitive about the establishment of new, potentially competing organizations that could undermine the notion of ASEAN’s centrality. Significantly, it is not only China that is causing difficulties for ASEAN by establishing potentially competing, more consequential institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Feng and He 2017), but United States’ desire to mobilize support for its polices is also creating potentially irreconcilable dilemmas for ASEAN and its style of diplomacy. As John Lee (2020, 17) points out, “US intolerance of the wavering of allies/partners when it comes to demonstrating individual and collective resolve against China and Chinese activities will only grow. America is likely to make it increasingly clear to all allies and partners that there are no cost-free options.”
  • This is not an entirely new development nor one that was restricted to the Trump Presidency. The Pivot to Asia was predicated in part on the hope that ASEAN might use its institutional auspices to “engage and socialise a rising and increasingly dominant China into the region’s norms” (Campbell 2016, 272). These norms are encapsulated in the ASEAN way. Significantly, the ASEAN Secretariat has no power to make members comply with agreements and initiatives, which consequently tend to be full of lofty rhetoric but modest meaningful action. Indeed, the ASEAN Secretariat was consciously designed not to have the sort of capacity or institutionalized authority that is—or was—the hallmark of the European Union (Beeson 2013). Paradoxically, the idea that China’s policy-making elites might be socialized into ASEAN’s distinctive diplomatic practices under such circumstances is not altogether fanciful: what, after all, is there to object to in going along with norms and principles that have no real capacity to make states do anything they do not want to? Even criticism of the internal policies of members—and by extension to Dialogue Partners, such as the PRC—is frowned upon as it represents an infringement upon sacrosanct national sovereignty (Rüland 2014).
  • Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that China is happy to suggest that it is fully supportive of ASEAN’s supposed centrality in regional affairs, even if the PRC’s actual policies are often sharply at odds with this reality and focused primarily on its grand strategic rivalry with the United States (Yan 2021). While China’s policy toward Southeast Asia is more of a work-in-progress than United States’, the region provides an important arena in which to test its evolving approach to regional diplomacy (Beeson and Li 2014). In this context, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not only Xi Jinping’s signature project, but potentially also a way of deflecting criticism of its increasingly assertive, not to say aggressive, polices in the South China Sea. Indeed, the BRI is in many respects an extension of the PRC’s early “charm offensive” and its “good neighbour diplomacy,” in which it assiduously cultivated the idea that China’s rise was much more of an opportunity than a threat as far as Southeast Asia is concerned (Kurlantzick 2007). Actually, reaping the benefit of such investments is proving more difficult than expected, however, as some Southeast Asian states fret about becoming too reliant on their giant northern neighbor (Blanchard 2018).
  • What makes the BRI especially significant and distinctive in this context, however, is not simply its unprecedented scale, but the fact that it is potentially closely aligned with goals and needs of Southeast Asian states. To be sure, some Southeast Asian states have made impressive economic progress over the last few decades, but there is still a large gap between them and their Northeast Asian neighbors. Much of this developmental lag can be caused by an absence of essential infrastructure (Ra and Li 2018), which explains the ASEAN grouping’s growing focus on promoting “connectivity.” If there is one thing that the PRC has unambiguously demonstrated that it is good at and has benefitted from, it is in the provision of basic infrastructure. Indeed, the PRC has arguably become rather too good at infrastructure development and investment, leading to a striking domestic overcapacity, which the externally focused BRI may go some way to alleviating (Cai 2017). In principle, this looks very much like the proverbial “win-win” outcome that China’s elites are keen to emphasize, and which was a prominent part of Xi Jinping’s (2013) vision of a “Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) to complement the original idea of “One Belt, One Road” (subsequently rebadged as the BRI).
  • As ever, however, the reality is more complex and there is a range of internal and external constraints that make any seamless synergy between the PRC and Southeast Asia inherently problematic. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (ASEAN 2010) was designed to “facilitate the deepening and widening of the production and distribution networks in ASEAN.” Despite the stated desire to maintain ASEAN’s centrality in this process, the lack of progress in realizing lofty and laudable ambitions is a familiar problem that highlights the grouping’s continuing frailties and inability to act collectively or effectively. As Lukas Mueller’s (2020, 14) important analysis of the ASEAN Connectivity Project (ASEAN 2016) makes clear, however:
  • In such circumstances, the increased reliance on external partners, such as China, is the all too predictable consequence of ASEAN’s domestic capacity constraints. Such resource dependency creates an increasingly complex calculus of costs and benefits, and highlights Southeast Asia’s constrained policy options. The inability of Southeast Asian states to collectively or individually finance trans-regional infrastructure means that they are necessarily reliant on countries that can. In essence, this means either the United States, China, or Japan, which remains a major source of direct foreign investment in Southeast Asia (Mourdoukoutas 2019). Yet, while private sector investment from the United States remains significant, both the Trump and the Biden administrations’ commitments to infrastructure provision remain very modest and fraught with difficulty (Davis and Wei 2021). This means that China remains important, despite concerns about the possible implications of China’s growing geoeconomic leverage and its willingness to utilize it.
    • The Perils of Choosing China
  • The essence of the hedging strategy pursued more or less explicitly by most ASEAN states is predicated upon the idea that they do not have to commit themselves to aligning with one great power or another in their intensifying competition for dominance. According to Kuik Cheng-Chwee (2016, 5033), one of the more prominent analysists of hedging, it is:
  • Like the practice it describes, this formulation is less clear than we might hope, perhaps, but most observers seem to think they know it when they see it. For the purposes of this discussion, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s (2020, 10) observation captures its animating rationale: “Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”
  • However, to actually benefit from the roll-out of the MSR, and the much-needed investment it promises, there is little option other than to make a tangible commitment to a long-term economic and possibly strategic engagement with China. At one level, for example, China’s proposed Pan-Asia Railway Network looks like an unambiguous boon for a region sorely lacking interconnectivity (Obe and Kishimoto 2019). The scale and ambition of the multidimensional project, which will begin in Kunming (in the southwestern province of Yunnan) and link Southern China with Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, look to be precisely what this part of Southeast Asia needs to encourage greater economic integration. Some question the suitability, viability, reliability, and political implications of over-reliance on the PRC and its companies, but Pavlićević and Kratz’s (2017, 164) detailed analysis of China’s “high-speed rail diplomacy” concludes that “China’s rise will not inevitably result in a change in the status quo and increased vulnerability of SEA [Southeast Asia] to China. Rather, the implications will be dependent on the outcomes of a dynamic process of negotiation and adaptation in which SEA countries have agency.’
  • The question, as ever, is how such agency is exercised. Leadership matters, perhaps even more so in the case of less-powerful states with fewer options (Nabers 2010). In this context, there is a major question mark over the abilities of some of Southeast Asia’s. While much the same observation might be made about many contemporary international leaders, of course, the reality is that the United States still has formidable assets to deploy and strategic heft; it remains a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker, even if there are always questions about the rationale that underpins some of United States’ actions. Consequently, deciding whether to become part of the MSR presents the ASEAN states collectively and individually with a number of potentially irreconcilable economic and strategic objectives of a sort that they famously prefer to avoid. The fact that individual members are making different choices about how to respond to this dilemma helps to explain ASEAN’s striking inability to come up with anything approaching a joint position on how to respond to China’s increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea. In this context, the idea that the BRI is designed “to deepen asymmetric economic interdependence with Asian neighbours in line with China’s new proactive, outward-expanding security policy” looks increasingly plausible (Huotari et al. 2017, 71). The question is how effective it will be in the context of specific Southeast Asian states.
  • The Philippines under the erratic, populist leadership of Rodrigo Duterte is one of the more illuminating examples of just how difficult reconciling competing strategic and economic objective can be. The Philippines is a long-standing ally and former colony of the United States, and there is enduring goodwill toward the United States amongst the population at large, and its coup-prone military, for that matter. It is important to remember that Duterte actually rose to power promising that he was going to stand up to China in its territorial dispute with the PRC (Heydarian 2017). The Philippines actually has the weight of international law on its side in this dispute, too, having famously won a landmark legal victory against the PRC, which was found to be violating international law. Rather predictably, perhaps, the PRC dismissed the finding, and it has not stopped its subsequent militarization of disputed islands subsequently (Phillips, Holmes, and Bowcott 2016). More importantly, from the perspective of the Philippines’ national interest, however, Duterte’s ambivalent policy toward the military alliance with the United States suggests that he recognizes both the opportunities and threats posed by close times to China (Heydarian 2020). The much-anticipated infrastructure investment has not materialized and an influx of Chinese tourist has inflamed anti-Chinese feeling amongst the population at large (Amurao 2020).
  • While the situation in Malaysia may be extreme in some ways, it is a reminder of the importance of contingent and variable national conditions and their possible role in determining foreign policy. The assumed separation between the foreign and domestic, or the private and public spheres, which informs the formal study of international relations and public policy, often looks notably at odds with empirical reality in Southeast Asia. Such considerations loom large when dealing with the PRC because as (Chung and Voon 2017, 420) point out, “for countries to participate in China’s MSR, the peoples and governments of the targeted states have to approve of a Chinese presence, and to a certain extent, China’s involvement in their countries’ affairs.” In other words, simply deciding that infrastructure investment might be needed and desirable is only one consideration and possibly not the most important one.
  • In this regard, the “community of common destiny” that has been promoted by Xi Jinping as a unifying Asian vision of the region’s collective and connected future always seemed likely to collide with sometimes grubby reality. The disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of inflating the cost of proposed MSR-linked infrastructure projects to help bail out the national development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which was widely thought to have been used corruptly (Hillman 2019). Indeed, China’s willingness to work with corrupt governments in a non-transparent fashion was on vivid display and confirmed the suspicions of those who questioned the probity of the BRI and its implementation (Clarke 2020). Chinese officials said the PRC would use its “influence to try to get the US and other countries to drop their investigations of allegations that allies of Najib Razak plundered 1MDB.” The payoff for China was lucrative deals funded by Chinese banks and built by Chinese workers.
  • The exposure of the corrupt nature of this deal enabled Mahathir Mohamad to unexpectedly win the subsequent election, in part by “openly campaigning against Chinese influence” (Stromseth 2020, 10). The fact that Mahathir cancelled and then renegotiated the $$20-billion East Coast Rail Link project also provides a reminder both of the inherent attractiveness of the MSR project despite its associated baggage and of the capacity of individual governments to strike better deals with their more powerful bilateral partners—although the cost of terminating the agreement was plainly a factor, too (Mitchell and Woodhouse 2019). This is especially the case when a number of countries have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of being caught in a Chinese “debt trap,” where national sovereignty may be compromised as they are unable to repay their debts to China (Hornby and Zhang 2019). The supposed increase in China’s “soft power,” which the BRI was expected to bring, looks a good deal less certain as a consequence of increasing concerns about the actual manner of its implementation (Blanchard 2018). The application of “geoeconomic” leverage, on the other hand, looks to be very effective in some cases.
    • The Limits of China’s Geoeconomic Power?
  • A lot of the recent theoretical and policy attention given to geoeconomics has been driven by China’s growing economic importance and its willingness to use it in pursuit of wider strategic interests (Blackwill and Harris 2016Beeson 2018). The idea that states might employ economic statecraft, such as embargoes, tariffs, boycotts, import controls, and preferential buying strategies, in pursuit of geopolitical goals is not new (Baldwin 1985), nor has it gone out of fashion, as the escalating trade war between China and the United States reminds us (Stephens 2019). This is an especially important consideration given that China has rapidly become the largest trading partner of all its neighbors, and this necessarily conditions their view of the PRC. While there may be credible strategic reasons for states wishing to “decouple” from the Chinese economy, it is much easier said than done, as the Japanese and US governments are discovering (Armstrong 2020Ryall 2020). How much more difficult for some of China’s smaller, economically dependent neighbors to break free of regional production networks that are increasingly centered on the PRC?
  • Whatever China’s neighbors might think of their increasingly belligerent and economically consequential neighbor, they are going to have to find ways of adjusting to an implacable geographic reality. For realist observers of a more traditional disposition, this is especially an important consideration as they claim that “China’s most advantageous outlet for its ambitions is in the direction of the relatively weak states of Southeast Asia” (Kaplan 2012, 207). What makes China’s regional expansion distinctive, however, is the desire to use its increased economic importance as a regional production node to pursue overarching geopolitical goals. As Farrell and Newman (2019, 54) point out, “global economic networks have distinct consequences that go far beyond states” unilateral decisions either to allow or deny market access or to impose bilateral pressure. They allow some states to weaponize interdependence on the level of the network itself.
  • The other factor that distinguishes China’s approach to regional economic integration is that, like Japan before it, external economic policy is guided by the state and facilitated through government agencies. The state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which continue to dominate much of the economic landscape in China, allow the PRC government to influence and even direct the nature of external economic engagement. Indeed, the SOEs have been an integral part of China’s distinctive form of state capitalism and its “going out” strategy that has guided economic activity around the world. This is another frequently underestimated and/or overlooked difference between the nature of United States’ and China’s engagements with Southeast Asia: the fact that China’s relationships are state-directed to a significant extent inevitably distinguishes them from the substantial investment from United States’ private sector. The uncoordinated actions of US-based firms inevitably lack the same overarching sense of geopolitical purpose that distinguishes the PRC’s grand strategy, of which the BRI is potentially the quintessential expression.
  • One feature of the Chinese approach that has been widely recognized, not least by Xi Jinping, is that corruption is “endemic” to the sort of political capitalism that is found in the PRC (Pei 2016Milanovic 2019, 93). One of the consequences of this domestic reality is that it influences—and in some cases facilitates—relationships with economic partners. The consequences of such realities are not limited to the corrosive impact on domestic politics highlighted by the Malaysian experience. China’s relationship with Cambodia illustrates not just the corrupt nature of the bilateral relationship but also its debilitating impact on the capacity of the ASEAN states to act collectively. Under the authoritarian leadership of Hun Sen, Cambodia has become increasingly dependent on China, with debts of more than 25 percent of GDP and pervasive, corrupt relationships between Chinese business interests and Cambodian political and economic elites. Not only has this compromised Cambodian sovereignty, but it has made it a compliant puppet of China’s on the international stage (Bong 2019). As a result, ASEAN has found it impossible to reach a consensus position on what is arguably the greatest strategic challenge the organization has faced since its inception: the South China Sea territorial dispute (Goh 2021).
  • Yet, for all China’s success in dividing the ASEAN states and muting possible criticism of its territorial ambitions, not everything is going according to its grandiose plan. Even in relatively friendly and/or co-opted states such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, there is growing concern about the possible negative long-term impact of China’s investment on national autonomy, social relations, and the environment (Perlez 2019). Indeed, even before the BRI became the focus of regional angst and international attention, China had unambiguously demonstrated its willingness to put narrow national interests ahead of the concerns of its downstream neighbors who depend on the formerly mighty Mekong River. The China-sponsored Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) plays an increasingly prominent role in managing a vital regional collective good—mainly to China’s advantage as it permits evermore dam building upstream (Litner 2019). There are signs that China is becoming more responsive to international activism and modifying its diplomacy (Zhang and Li 2020), but on the whole the long-term environmental and social implications of contest over water usage for Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam look uniformly grim. Whether the promise of more BRI-related inward investment can compensate for the loss of this vital natural resource is a moot point and one with major implications for domestic security.
    • The Empire Strikes Back?
  • Despite the fact that China and the United States are great powers with potentially great influence, exercising it remains a challenge, especially when it is contested or resisted. Even without the intensifying struggle for influence that is occurring between the United States and China, the famously heterogenous nature of ASEAN’s membership, in which distinctive histories and contemporary political institutions play no small part, presents a challenge for the greatest of powers. In this regard, China’s efforts to cultivate supporters within the grouping has proved surprisingly effective in thwarting any consensus-based, collective response on ASEAN’s part. Cambodia, in particular, has become heavily dependent on China and wields an effective veto on anti-China initiatives (Po and Primiano 2020). This makes US policy toward Southeast Asia potentially more important and more difficult.
  • Significantly, US geoeconomic leverage is in relative decline, as investment from the United States in Southeast Asia is now significantly lower than Japan’s, China’s, or the European Union’s, for that matter (Roughneen 2019). More importantly, perhaps, thus far it lacks the sort of coherent, purposeful high profile associated with the BRI, the latter’s possible problems notwithstanding. As a result, the principal focus of US policymakers has been on the development of the FOIP generally and the Quad in particular. The Quad involves the United States, its two close strategic allies, Japan and Australia, and India, which has an increasingly fraught relationship with China (Sanger and Schmall 2021). Indeed, for all the Quad members, there is little doubt that its increased significance has been driven primarily by the rise of China and its growing strategic presence in the region (Rachman 2016). It is the possibility that the East Asian region as a whole might once again become a Chinese sphere of influence that alarms so many observers in the United States (Mearsheimer 2010Friedberg 2011) and that has led to an increasingly coordinated response on the part of the United States, Australia, and Japan in particular. In this context, it was noteworthy that one of Joe Biden’s first international initiatives was to take part in a formal meeting of the Quad leaders who collectively recommitted:
  • Whether or not the Quad will be able to “contain” China’s purported threat to regional security, or really does not amount to much more than wishful thinking on the part of nervous United States’ nervous regional allies, is not yet clear. What is evident, however, is that no Southeast Asian state has so far joined the grouping, despite Indonesia in particular making supportive noises about the possible importance of the Indo-Pacific as a way of thinking about a region of which it is an especially important part (Shekhar and Liow 2014). To be fair, ASEAN has responded to the potential challenge posed by the Indo-Pacific idea and the implicit threat to its centrality:
  • However, it is arguably the failure of the ASEAN-inspired regional architecture, and the reluctance of the Southeast Asian states to respond collectively to the rise of China, that has caused United States and its most consequential allies to create other regional groupings. Disappointment with the ability of the ARF to deal with regional security issues (Emmers and Tan 2011), especially when ASEAN itself remains preoccupied with internal challenges to its authority and even unity, have undermined confidence in an organization that is floundering in the face of disunity and a concomitant inability to provide leadership or collective action. ASEAN skeptics might argue that it was ever thus, but its inability to respond to the dual challenges of Chinese assertiveness and internal crises has dramatically highlighted the grouping’s ineffectiveness and marginalization. To add insult to injury, the recently established AUKUS alliance even includes the United Kingdom, an “Anglosphere” nation with only limited connections to contemporary Southeast Asia. Despite assurances from the Biden administration that it still respected ASEAN centrality, it highlighted ASEAN’s internal differences and marginal role in defining regional strategic priorities (Southgate 2021). In such circumstances, it is not simply ASEAN centrality that is in doubt but its very existence as a consequential force in regional affairs (Pongsudhirak 2021).
  • To be fair, however, there are some signs that ASEAN may realize that its credibility as a consequential regional organization is currently on the line. ASEAN’s initial failure to respond to the escalating political crisis in Myanmar, and the brutal crackdown on opponents of the military junta’s antidemocratic authoritarian rule, has finally spurred the organization into action. The decision to exclude Myanmar’s unelected military strongman, General Min Aung Hlaing, and invite a civilian representative in his place, is an unprecedented move on ASEAN’s part, which normally scrupulously avoids intervening in the domestic affairs of member states (BBC 2021). Significantly, this provoked an immediate and equally unprecedented response from the military regime, which promised to release over five thousand people who took part in anti-coup protests (Moe and Ratcliffe, 2021). Whether this will prove a watershed moment for ASEAN and a commitment to human rights and democracy remains to be seen. Given that Thailand is also ruled by a military junta and Indonesia is the only genuine democracy in the grouping, this seems inherently unlikely and fraught with difficulty. Indeed, the current activism on the part of Indonesia and Malaysia may be a short-lived response to being on the receiving end of a “flood” of Rohingya refugees escaping persecution in Myanmar (Linter 2021).
    • Conclusion: The Persistence of Geopolitics?
  • ASEAN’s position as the most enduring regional organization in the “global South” gives it a talismanic status as far as debates about regional development in general are concerned. In this context, it is not unreasonable to suppose that its frequent meetings and initiatives have contributed both to confidence building among its members and to the “long peace of Asia,” which has confounded the predictions of many observers (Friedberg 1993/94). Be that as it may, however, the reality is that ASEAN faces a growing list of problems, not the least of which is trying to maintain a semblance of unity in the face of intensifying great power competition in the broadly conceived Indo-Pacific region.
  • Yet, despite ASEAN’s determination to maintain its centrality, its collective impact looks likely to be determined by events and powers over which it has relatively little control. This is not meant as a gratuitous criticism of an organization that has undoubtedly made a difference to relations among its Southeast Asian members and had at least some impact on the behavior of major powers. The key question is whether ASEAN can make a constructive and meaningful contribution to resolving its own internal divisions, let alone to influencing the behavior of China and the United States. Such outcomes may be unlikely but not impossible if the ASEAN states can develop a coherent, continuing, and collective response to the challenges they face.
  • Indeed, it is noteworthy that China, the United States, and Japan are all stepping up their efforts to cultivate productive relations with the region, and this does present the ASEAN grouping with some room for maneuver. There are, however, clear limits to the ability of ASEAN and its institutional offshoots to bring about significant change in the behavior of China, or the United States, for that matter. As Kai He and Huiyun Feng argue (2014, 422), despite the PRC’s diplomats playing an increasingly prominent and often valuable role in multilateral institutions, “Chinese foreign policy elites have neither changed their beliefs regarding strategies nor redefined their interests and preferences.” In other words, the PRC’s approach to multilateral groupings such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or the EAS remains instrumental and driven primarily by its perceived national interest and long-term vision of China as the dominant regional power. In this context, the BRI plays a crucial role in giving enduring and very concrete expression to its grand strategy (Miller 2017).
  • Whether China’s policies achieve their objectives or not, US policymakers appear determined to return to hegemonic business as usual under Joe Biden, which—unsurprisingly enough—will mean privileging the United States’ own foreign policy priorities (Brands, Feaver, and Inboden 2020). Given that about the only thing that US politicians and people seem to agree on is the perceived need to confront the challenge of China (Silver, Devlin, and Huang 2021), this is likely to mean that they will engage primarily with states that offer tangible support for its foreign policy goals. In such a context, traditional allies, such as Australia, Japan, and possibly India, may prove more attractive than Southeast Asians who lack both the material capabilities and the collective political will to directly support their ambitions. US foreign policy, in other words, is not simply an implicit acknowledgment of the marginal status of ASEAN but a tangible threat to the latter’s significance in the context of what some describe as “Cold War 2” (Walt 2020).
  • However, trying to predict the future is always a foolhardy business, doubly so in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia. Even in the best of times, however, collective action by the Southeast Asian states has been difficult and the influence of external great powers has always been significant. The last thing the ASEAN states want to do collectively is to choose definitively between one side of the other (Stromseth 2019). The good news, such as it is, may be that the current interconnected geopolitical, geoeconomics, and health problems, which have all been laid bare and intensified by the current pandemic that grips much of the region, may actually spur the sort of cooperation that led to the founding of ASEAN in 1967. If it does not, the one thing we can say with some degree of confidence is that ASEAN centrality will be nothing more than rather anachronistic wishful thinking.
  • Footnotes
  • 1
  • I am indebted to one of GSQ’s anonymous reviewers for highlighting the possible importance of this point.
  • © The Author(s) (2022). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Studies Association.
  • This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (htps://, which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
  • Advertisement

Trả lời

Điền thông tin vào ô dưới đây hoặc nhấn vào một biểu tượng để đăng nhập: Logo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Twitter picture

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Twitter Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Facebook photo

Bạn đang bình luận bằng tài khoản Facebook Đăng xuất /  Thay đổi )

Connecting to %s