Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Four Grand Scenarios of ASEAN

ASEAN Foreign Ministers posed for picture with ASEAN way style. Photo credit: Reuters 

Although recent years have seen a rise in new regional architecture which has ASEAN as the fulcrum, it is still uncertain that this regional organization could remain in the driver seat of East Asian Regionalism without certain annual effort to ensure its centrality. Where is ASEAN going right now?  In 2012, there were many problems pressured on Cambodia, ASEAN Chair. In contrast, Brunei, as Chair this year, seems to get helm of ASEAN very smoothly without much pressure while the influx of issues is still the same as in 2012 such as the South China Sea dispute, Sabah conflict in Northern Part of Malaysia, ethnic violence in Myanmar, trans-boundary haze problem in Singapore and Malaysia, and Indonesia, and so on. It seems that ASEAN has double standards among its own member states. Perhaps, ASEAN countries have learned a lot from a hard lesson in 2012 when the 45th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting ended without a joint communiqué. That is why ASEAN has chosen to be quiet so far. Southeast Asia is a dynamic region with the evolving geopolitical landscape with the rise of China, and the United States’ strategic rebalancing. Four scenarios are worth considering for ASEAN:

First, the balancing strategists will see East Asia as “a region of balance of power” while ASEAN is the object of great power competition. In 2011, the US announced its “pivot” to Asia and has deployed most of its naval power back to the Asia-Pacific region. This has resulted in an escalating rivalry with China, which is now growing in its economic size and its military might. Recently, some countries in ASEAN, especially Myanmar and Viet Nam, are actively engaged in a game of strategic balancing between China and America. These countries are seeking more robust economic and strategic relationships with the United States as an option to hedge against China’s threat. With balance of power, ASEAN is considered being neutral and there is no supremacy among the great powers. Since the establishment of ASEAN in 1967, Balance of power has contributed to the success of ASEAN’s strategic consideration.  

Second, the sceptics of East Asian regionalism are worrying of a “China-led East Asian Community”. It is long suspected that China will eventually dominate East Asia through so-called “East Asian Community (EAC)”. In this scenario, ASEAN countries move closer to China with regional economic integration and mega regional infrastructure projects, such as the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link (SKRL), through bilateral assistances, FTA frameworks, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If ASEAN-China FTA is fully realized, this would provide a great deal of economic benefits to ASEAN because of China’s strong economic growth and its big middle-class consumption market. However, ASEAN countries discount China’s military threat on the issue of South China Sea. Since United States is not in EAC and RCEP, most analysts believe that ASEAN would fall into China’s hegemony in East Asia.

In contrast, the third scenario would be “US-led Security Umbrella and Multilateral Forums”. In this particular scenario, ASEAN nations would give significance to the US-led multilateral forums, such as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) initiatives, which was announced last year by President Obama in Phnom Penh, to diversify their export markets and increase US’s FDI flow to the region. Currently, four members of ASEAN (Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam) are participating in the TPP trade negotiation. Since America needs a strategic balance with China, ASEAN can benefit more from these initiatives. Due to suspicion of China’s hegemony, ASEAN countries would need closer strategic relations with United States in order to counter China’s threat, especially on territorial disputes in South China Sea. For instance, Viet Nam and Philippines have recently pursued a robust political and military cooperation with the US and Japan, such as exchange of high-level visits and joint military exercises. With such a close Western relationship, ASEAN can use this alliance as an economic and military shield in order to face off with China’s economic and military threat. In case of armed conflict erupts in the South China Sea, America is assumed to help ASEAN countries any time.

Fourth, ASEAN enthusiasts would prefer “Safeguard of ASEAN centrality”. ASEAN may pursue balance of power with the use of ASEAN way to hammer out a delicate balance between China and the US for survival and prosperity from ever-changing regional landscape. ASEAN finds itself that being too close to China or the US is rather harmful to ASEAN centrality and its unity. Appropriate balancing could be done by using ASEAN way of consultation and consensus to accommodate all voices and needs of its members. Fear of domination by major powers prompt ASEAN to strengthen itself and maintain unity, safeguard its principle, and engage with the regional powers carefully in order to secure its regional leadership. In addition, ASEAN centrality in East Asian Regionalism is mostly sustained because of its neutrality. Regional powers, such as China and Japan, might not trust each other but ASEAN is believed to be neutral in the region. With this priceless asset of neutrality and ASEAN way, ASEAN is able to take into account interests and preferences of all parties.

Above all, safeguard of ASEAN centrality is the most acceptable and unavoidable strategic choice for ASEAN to advance its strategic position in the global system to maintain regional peace, stability, and prosperity. In this self-help policy, ASEAN may focus on ASEAN community building and regional initiative on dispute settlements. ASEAN has to strengthen itself and find the right distance between the regional powers. 

Other Articles on ASEAN:  

1. Cambodia's Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012: A Success After All
    (5 January 2013)

2. ASEAN In Review
    (5 January 2013)

3. The Building of East Asian Community: the Role of ASEAN
    (May 2012)

4. Cambodia's Priorities for ASEAN 2012.
    (March 2012)

5. Three Critical Questions on Maintaining ASEAN Centrality.
     (4 February 2012)

6. Challenges for ASEAN
    (22 August 2011)

7. Outlook for ASEAN and East Asian Community Building (EAC)
    (25 August 2011)

8. How Can ASEAN Centrality in East Asian Community be Maintained?
    (15 August 2011)

9. ASEAN Centrality Under Pressure
    (6 September 2011)

10. What is ASEAN Centrality?
    (7 September 2011)

11. Asian Regionalism and East Asian Community Building
    (29 August 2011)

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