US President Barack Obama is about to play host to the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While this motley collection of autocrats, kleptocrats, and even some democrats will no doubt welcome the attention, it’s not obvious that the meeting is cause for great celebration.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that the meeting wouldn’t be happening at all if China’s regional foreign policy hadn’t become such a focus of American attention. Many of the ASEAN countries are even more concerned.
Not only are ASEAN’s perennially nervous Nellies worried about the strategic implications of Chia’s rise, but most have been disappointed by the US’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to the region. The big idea a couple of years ago, you’ll recall, was that the US would free itself from unwanted entanglements in the Middle East and concentrate on responding to the re-emergence of China – the most formidable challenge to its dominance since the height of the Cold War.
Despite the first part of the plan having not worked out too well, the Obama administration is pressing on with its own charm offensive in Asia. Ironically, the task has been made considerably easier by China’s maladroit and aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where its implausible looking territorial claims pose an immediate threat to the likes of Vietnam and the Philippines in particular.
Thus far, ASEAN’s collective response to the China challenge has been startlingly ineffective – even by its own undemanding standards. The much-vaunted ASEAN spirit of collegiality and consensus has been in short supply as deep divisions have been revealed between the organisation’s maritime countries and the likes of Cambodia, which has benefited from large-scale Chinese aid and investment.
It might be impolite and actionable to suggest that the rather thuggish regime of Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen has been bought off by China, but there’s no doubt it’s undermined the idea of Southeast Asian solidarity. Given that the bar of diplomatic achievement is set rather low in ASEAN’s case, this is a bit of an indictment of the so-called ASEAN Way, to say the least.
And yet ASEAN boosters still claim that it is “in the driving seat” when it comes to regional diplomacy and leadership. The argument goes that when the rivalry between China and Japan makes “normal” regional leadership impossible, ASEAN fills the gap.
The actual evidence for this thesis is remarkably thin. On the contrary, it is difficult to imagine China doing anything it doesn’t want to, as its continuing belligerence in the South China Sea reminds us.
The chances of ASEAN influencing the US look equally remote. The reality is that the US has “pivoted” to the region because American policymakers judge it to be in its national interests to do so. This calculus has informed American actions since it became the hegemonic force in the region following the second world war.
This is not necessarily a criticism of the US, just recognition that this is what powerful states tend to do given the opportunity.
No doubt China would like to do the same sort of thing in what it regards as its region, too. East Asia without an American presence really would be a different place and a much more congenial one as far as China is concerned.
Grand strategists are right to fret about China’s intentions. Whether ASEAN is an effective part of any possible response to the rapidly changing strategic environment in East Asia is another question. The ASEAN Regional Forum, which ought to be well placed to manage regional security tensions has been conspicuous by its absence.
Because the competition between the US and China, rather than ASEAN, is actually shaping events, there’s something depressingly reminiscent of the Cold War “containment” strategy emerging in the region, even if it’s considered very bad form to call it such.
Not only is the US sweet-talking some rather unsavoury authoritarian leaders as part of its efforts to counter Chinese influence in just the way it used to 30 or 40 years ago, but the institutional architecture of the region is beginning to reflect these divisions, too.
The US-backed Trans Pacific Partnership, for example, looks primarily like another mechanism with which to marginalise China. What sort of trade agreement wouldn’t want to include the biggest economy in East Asia? Understandably enough, perhaps, China has begun to establish its own institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which also has the additional merit of driving a wedge between the US and key allies like Australia.
A more effective and coherent ASEAN grouping might be able to influence events, or at least play off some of these regional rivals against each other. The reality, however, is that China is demonstrating how this might be done by dividing the ASEANs themselves.
The idea that ASEAN can offer leadership in such circumstances – or any others – looks increasingly unlikely. Perhaps Obama can produce something more than a photo op and some lofty rhetoric. It would be a major break with ASEAN traditions if he did.