By Collins Chong Yew Keat

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia:The 42nd ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Indonesia earlier this month (May 10-11) took place at the most critical crossroads for the immediate and long-term relevance of ASEAN and its role in the region and beyond.

The ten-member ASEAN was born in 1967 out of a common fear of communism and external threats. However, objectively speaking, its current capacity to stand up to external threats from a collective joint deterrence and capacity point of view remains lost.

The Myanmar crisis and the growing tensions in the South China Sea are just two of the main indicators highlighting the failed approach of ASEAN in being limited by its inability to exert credible and solid actions. Jakarta, the current chairman, realizes this, and so do other member states. However, decades of status-quo benefit derivation have created a common reluctance to make significant shifts that would shake up current regimes and regional security.

Historical regional cohesiveness in the region is primarily tied to trade and economic relativity and common yearning for security assurances.

Fears and wariness on China’s ambitions for the region, the quest to deny the West’s containment foothold, the security dilemma in the South China Sea, and the fallout of a full-blown Taiwan conflict inhibit measures that could destablise the current status quo.

The West sees ASEAN as a lost cause in standing up against China, while Beijing wants ASEAN to remain in its status quo status of diplomatic and strategic neutrality, which means a freer option for China to expand its regional grip and denial of space for the West.

AEAM ambiguity and status-quo politics

Years of ASEAN and regional strategic ambiguity and strategic status quo maintenance have only provided a three-pronged result. Firstly, it gives ASEAN the weakest returns and makes it even weaker with its trapped dogma and inability to provide credible solutions apart from the futile preventive mechanisms and confidence-building measures.

Secondly, it denies the full space needed for the West to galvanise collective regional cohesion and unity in creating a more able and credible shield and deterrent effectiveness. Thirdly, it gives Beijing the green light to deepen its hard power postures and build on the increasing dominance in the South China Sea and the region. The divide is apparent and growing between the continental state (Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) and the archipelago states (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Philippines)

The region and ASEAN bask in the false sense of security from its avoidance of the hard truth and in refraining from directly challenging the risks in the region, while hoping for the tacit Western counterbalancing act, especially in direct economic and trade support. While the region has no qualms in being quick to embrace RCEP, the BRI and direct economic overtures from Beijing, it faces a pushback in embracing the IPEF.

The Indo Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) is no match for its Chinese counterparts in terms of capital and trade capacity, and it does come with the moral high-ground values of labour standards, climate initiatives, normative democratic adherence and human rights. All these are as unappealing to the region as a carrot to a lion.

Declining deterrence impact will only weaken the region’s collective resolve. There is only so much the returns from Track I and II diplomacy can do if policymakers are reluctant to initiate bold changes.  

AUKUS is actually serving as the most effective deterrent, but ASEAN cannot welcome it due to its self-limitations.

Direct bilateral defence engagement and agreements with the West, as can be seen now in the Philippines, are meant to secure individual states but also will give the region needed assurance and credible hard power deterrence.

Fight for future relevance

ASEAN needs to be bold in calling out law-defying behaviours by external parties, especially China, to ensure that it walks the talk in maintaining regional stability. Failure to address the current systemic shortcomings will see it fade into irrelevance.

For it to be relevant in the future, changes in its orientations and non-interference stand are a must. It will have to adopt a more EU-like common policy on defence and re-enact movements of the old SEATO concept with the help of the West with a regional NATO-like framework. This remains the realistic and needed framework in dealing with both Beijing’s increasing bellicosity in the region and in ensuring ASEAN’s strength and relevance.

The founding principles of non-interference and consensus decision-making are what have held member states together, forming a common platform for autocrats, monarchs, and democracies. These principles assured individual regime survival and security. These also serve as the needed assurance against third-party influencing factors and the need to cede sovereignty in certain segments to a supranational entity like the EU.

Mutual distrust and mistrust, economic disparity, intra-trade deficiencies, redundancy, and internal peer competition are some of the many structural deficiencies affecting ASEAN.

A grouping of dwindling returns

The returns from ASEAN affiliation as a grouping are dwindling in the long term, as member states seek external support individually to safeguard their survival.

ASEAN remains ill-equipped to handle the fallout from the tensions in the South China Sea or the potentiality of a full-blown Taiwanese conflict. The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific offers nothing more than the usual panacea of safe play and dependence on futile past efforts.

ASEAN has been trapped between a rock and a hard place for decades but lacks the audacity to implement significant changes. It wanted to remain neutral, hoping it will prevent the worst outcome and will bring desired stability, but that option has now thrown up glaring deficiencies.

The time is now for ASEAN leaders to be open to admitting the mistakes of the past, and to chart their own legacy to enact credible changes that will ensure the region’s future sustainability and survival.

*Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.*