For decades the polite fiction in East Asia has been that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been “in the driving seat” as far as regional diplomacy was concerned. Only the Southeast Asians could provide leadership in a region where historical animosities and rivalries made co-operation difficult, ASEAN’s admirers claimed.
This story was always rather unlikely. The recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane revealed just how wide the gap between rhetoric and reality has become. The meeting was overshadowed by China’s expansionist, destabilising policies in the South China Sea – a sobering reminder of where power actually lies in the region.
Not that you would know this from reading the joint communiqué that emerged from the meeting. Even by the standards of ASEAN’s notoriously bland statements, this one was long on rhetoric and short on what policy wonks like to call “deliverables”.
No surprise here, either. The reality is that divisions with ASEAN mean that it’s incapable of coming up with a coherent position on what may prove to be the most important issue since the organisation was founded in 1967.
Even mainstream commentators are now questioning whether ASEAN can actually survive. China’s refusal to be swayed by the international rule of law, much less the sort of norms and values that ASEAN is supposedly promoting, provides the definitive test case of the so-called “ASEAN Way” of consensus, consultation and voluntarism.
Even at the best of times it was never clear that powerful states could be persuaded to do things they didn’t want to do by their weaker counterparts. But when China has also skillfully divided the ASEAN states by buying off the likes of Laos and Cambodia, ASEAN’s vaunted consensus politics looks like irrelevant wishful thinking.
The problem for the region generally and for Australia in particular is that there are simply no regional organisations with the capacity or the political will to actually deal with key concerns like the rise of China. Other institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which ought to be the organisation par excellence with which to deal with such issues, are equally impotent because they subscribe to the ASEAN Way.
While all of this may suit China and any other state that doesn’t like being told what to do, it’s a real problem for Australia. It should come as no surprise though. Australia’s own contribution to regional diplomacy – APEC – has also been invisible and ineffective because it, too, has had to subscribe to Asian diplomatic values to keep the ASEANs onside.
In the absence of any regional institutional architecture worthy of the name, some of the usual suspects have had to step into the breach. Australia, along with its close strategic partners the US and Japan, issued a pointed statement about the importance of the rule of law and the need to abide by the recent ruling made by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Such a statement might carry more weight if the US also agreed to be bound by such judgments, but it highlights an important problem, nevertheless: in the absence of any effective regional organisations, “extra-regional powers”, such as the US, feel obliged to, if not lay down the law, then at least draw everyone’s attention to it.
By joining the US in this effort, Australia will undoubtedly irritate the increasingly prickly and defensive Chinese. Hopefully China’s increasingly nationalistic diplomats will be satisfied with some outraged blustering that will also mollify the all-important domestic audience.
But things could go badly wrong, too. China’s leadership has painted itself into the proverbial corner. Unfortunately, it is one that is piled high with an assortment of historical grievances, national sensitivities, not to mention military hardware, that make it highly combustible and unpredictable. Retreating from it gracefully will require diplomatic and political skills that China’s leaders may not have or even wish to cultivate.
In the meantime Australian policymakers have to grapple with the worst of all possible worlds: in the absence of a credible regional alternative, the US and key allies like Australia feel obliged – rightly, perhaps – to “do something”. Giving a free pass to aggressive land grabs that violate the rule of law is not a good precedent to set. The key question is what any state is prepared to do to defend such principles.
We know the answer as far as ASEAN is concerned, at least: not a lot. In such circumstances it’s a reasonable bet that China will once again come to dominate the region in which it has been such a formidable historical presence – in precisely the same way the US dominates the American continent.
Navigating from the contemporary reality to what looks like a long-term future in which the region is dominated by China rather than the US will be the defining diplomatic and strategic challenge for generations of Australian policymakers. Wish them luck.