ASEAN centrality: a contested concept

The discussion about challenging ASEAN centrality needs to be set in context. The view that the QSD sidelines ASEAN centrality is imprecise and based on a number of assumptions that need clarification themselves. The key assumption here is that ASEAN centrality is a well-recognised and uncontested concept. In reality, it has always been strongly contested and challenged. Moreover, doubts about ASEAN centrality had emerged long before the revival of the QSD 2.0. In fact, ASEAN centrality has been undermined by its track record of refusing to address the major regional security challenges. These include the South China Sea, the Rohingya crisis, and the transboundary haze problem, to name but a few. In fact, in recent years, criticism about ASEAN being ineffective and indecisive in the wake of major crises outweighs public confidence in its ability to resolve Southeast Asian issues. It is clear that ASEAN’s pattern of responses towards Beijing’s coercion of Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea has shaped its reputation of being a mere ‘talkshop’ and that its alleged centrality is geographical—mostly as a summit convenor—rather than strategic. Therefore, the doubts about ASEAN centrality had been in place long before the revival of the QSD. In fact, one could also argue that if a couple of informal meetings (not even at ministerial level) not ending in any concrete statements or commitments can challenge ASEAN’s centrality, it only testifies to its fragility. Hence, this rhetoric that the QSD presents a challenge to ASEAN centrality risks oversimplification, if not inaccuracy.

Respondents to my survey living in the ASEAN region have, however, a clear view of the challenges that lie ahead for the QSD (see Figure 6.2). About 73 per cent of the respondents identified the QSD’s challenges as being internal, while 24 per cent saw the challenges as external (such as coming from China and ASEAN). In total, only 2 per cent thought that criticism from ASEAN could be a challenge for the QSD. So, despite the (mis)perceived thorny relationship between ASEAN and the QSD, the former is the least of the latter’s problems.

What are the biggest challenges facing the QSD? Source

FIGURE 6.2 What are the biggest challenges facing the QSD? Source: Le Thu (2018).

In fact, ASEAN-style multilateralism has been experiencing setbacks for some time. The debate over ASEAN multilateralism vis-à-vis minilateralism, whether in the form of the QSD or not, diverts attention away from the core problem of ASEAN—its diminishing unity, which ultimately poses an obstacle to ASEAN centrality. ASEAN multilateralism is affected by domestic as well as external factors. China’s preference for bilateral negotiations has had an impact on ASEAN and regional dialogue overall. Beijing’s insistence on holding exclusively bilateral talks about the South China Sea has made the multilateral settings less salient. This stepping back from multilateralism also coincides with the current inward-looking tendency in some of Southeast Asia’s major democracies. An overall weakened commitment to multilateralism is certainly having an impact on the concept of ASEAN centrality. The tendency for each member state to promote, above all, its own national interests has contributed to a sense of zero-sum competition among the ASEAN states who fear being left out if they do not have at least as much connection with China as their counterparts. Each of the ASEAN members is keen to receive an economic or/and infrastructural boost from China accompanied by preferential access to the Chinese market or a favoured supply of resources and materials. Hence, there is almost a race among the Southeast Asian countries to deepen their bilateral relations with Beijing.

None of those factors are new to the region: economic nationalism, security bilateralism and political authoritarianism have been shaping Southeast Asian architecture since the era of decolonisation. ASEAN has never been immune to the impact of powerful global forces. The debate over whether, and to what extent, the great powers and their rivalry undermines the region’s coherence continues as the ASEAN community-building process develops. But the very perception of the presence of external forces militating to provoke internal divisions has its role in the overall sense of Southeast Asian (dis)unity. The Southeast Asian countries’ continuous nightmare is about being caught between the grindstones of competing superpowers. While American engagement seems to be more constructive, Chinese support for a strong ASEAN is less obvious. Indeed, China’s practice of pressuring some ASEAN members not to take a stance on the South China Sea has proved to be an effective mechanism in emasculating the association’s solidarity.

In this regard, a number of developments took place in 2016 that reconfirmed the image of Phnom Penh’s client-patronage relationship with Beijing (Ciorciari 2013). Once again, Cambodia blocked an ASEAN statement on the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling at the leaders’ meetings. Along with Brunei and Laos, Cambodia also agreed to China’s four-point consensus on the South China Sea disputes in April (Ministry' of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2016). In June regional leaders issued a communiqué that expressed ASEAN member countries’ concerns about the rising tensions in the South China Sea; however, it was retracted the next day due to Cambodian opposition. This incident seemed to epitomise a divided ASEAN. China’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics have proved to be working. The current deadlock in regard to the South China Sea disputes can be explained by the lack of a shared perception of a direct security threat. While some claimants have experienced increased levels of vulnerability vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea, for others such a threat remains indirect. If ASEAN’s role in resolving the Cambodian conflict in the 1990s was hailed as a success, the inability to achieve a consensus on the South China Sea dispute epitomises ASEAN’s failure. By effectively blocking ASEAN’s decision-making process and sowing the seeds of disunity, confusion and even mutual distrust, China has been able to prevent any collective regional actions in what the country considers as its ‘periphery’ vital regional space. Thus, China has been successful in diminishing the efficacy of an ‘institutionalized hedging’ strategy, in which institutions become instruments in balancing against more powerful countries (Beeson 2015). Cambodia’s behaviour signals that not all ASEAN members realise that without unity ASEAN cannot maintain its central position in the Asia Pacific.

The argument that other minilaterals are put in juxtaposition with ASEAN centrality assumes that ASEAN centrality is widely understood and accepted. This assertion is far from true. Acharya (2017), for example, who was once one of the most vocal proponents of the ASEAN institution, points out that ASEAN centrality

is related to a number of similar concepts: ASEAN as the ‘leader’, the ‘driver’, the ‘architect’, the ‘institutional hub’, the ‘vanguard’ the ‘nucleus; and the ‘fulcrum’ of regional processes and institutional designs in the Asia-Pacific region. A second popular misconception about ASEAN centrality is that it is about ASEAN itself. More accurately, it is really about the larger dynamics of regionalism and regional architecture in the Asia Pacific and even beyond. The third myth about ASEAN centrality is that it is the exclusively handiwork of ASEAN members—it is not.

With this in mind, the changes in the geostrategic environment suggest that the era of ASEAN being in the driver’s seat has gradually passed. Some members of ASEAN have recognised this, but others prefer not to.

The notion of ASEAN centrality has a number of inter-related dimensions. In its most direct and limited sense, ASEAN centrality means that ASEAN is, and must remain, at the core of Asia’s regional institutions—through ASEAN Plus mechanisms such as the AKF and the East Asia Summit, among many others. ASEAN provides an institutional platform to which the wider Asia Pacific and East Asian regional institutions are anchored. To put it another way, without ASEAN it would not have been possible to construct these wider regional bodies.

ASEAN’s role as an institutional anchor is not likely to be overshadowed. Even if it is challenged, it can be a positive challenge. ASEAN centrality needs to be earned, rather than taken for granted. It is no surprise that ASEAN would resist the presence of another institution in the region for a number of reasons. One often-echoed reason is that it would risk sidelining ASEAN-centred institutions. Another reason is that given the rapid proliferation of regional institutions, there is no need for yet another one. While these arguments are logical and put ASEAN’s interests at the core, they can be misleading and indeed hamper regional interests.

The conflation between ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity is also conceptually misguiding, although one could also argue that ASEAN centrality is impossible to achieve without ASEAN unity. Clarity on what ASEAN centrality is, as well as its application and manifestation, is still absent, as is a common agreement across all ASEAN members on the concept. By now, it is clear that the QSD leaders do not harbour intentions of sidelining ASEAN centrality, as policy documents and speeches have paid due recognition to the principle. Whether the QSD can really achieve that is another matter, but that does not mean that such expectations do not exist. If ASEAN is not willing to deal with hard security, it needs to come to terms that there is a need for others to do so. Again, strategic and diplomatic centrality need to be exercised, not just claimed. Neither can it be achieved by simply obstructing or preventing other institutions from emerging. ASEAN centrality needs to be earned. Indeed, the late Surin Pitsuwan, the former ASEAN Secretary-General, distinguished between the ‘centrality of goodwill’—that is, lip service—and ‘centrality of substance’ which includes setting the regional agenda, providing directions and resolving disagreements (Pitsuwan 2009).

While Southeast Asians are unsure whether the QSD will ever become a fully developed institution, their perceptions about the challenges facing it are accurate. The lack of commitment of the QSD members themselves is the main obstruction to the QSD’s success. The longer their hesitation, the worse it is for the QSD’s image.

Another clarification is that any multilateral or minilateral security cooperation is only supplementary to national strategies. As such, the QSD, or any other minilateral, is far from taking up a central security role in the Indo-Pacific. This is not a purpose for the QSD either. After all, any multilateralism or minilateralism has to complement other forms of security cooperation: ‘[n]one of the countries can entrust their national security to multilateral security cooperation’ (Ohara 2015).

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