Myths and platitudes abound in international relations discourses and in the conduct of relations between states. Scholars and leaders alike use or invoke them with gay abundance without going into the relevance of some of the concepts and ideas in the changed global and regional strategic environment.
One such concept is ASEAN Centrality, the principle assuming that the South-east Asian grouping of 10 countries should remain at the centre of regional cooperation. ASEAN’s central position in evolutionary formation of regional institutionalised architectures such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus, East Asian Economic Group (EAEG), East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC), ASEAN +3 and East Asia Summit (EAS), have to be accepted unquestioningly and credited for long years of peace and stability in Southeast and East Asia or what was known as the Asia-Pacific region. But with the increased US-China economic and strategic competition and military posturing currently underway, its relevance is questionable and perhaps ended.
US-China Strategic Understanding behind ASEAN centrality
ASEAN’s success in the past, despite being a less powerful entity, came essentially due to a conducive strategic environment, or what the leading thinker in ASEAN, Kishore Mahbubani, called ‘strategic luck’. That luck has run out now, as the strategic environment has changed drastically and is no longer conducive for it to play a central role.
ASEAN centrality was essentially premised on convergence of strategic goals and interests between the United States and China, the two principal actors in the Asia-Pacific region, and the cooperation and patronage they provided in the evolution of the ASEAN-led institutions as the backbone of their preferred Asian security and economic architecture. As the basic or core interests of the two did not clash until China gave up the pretence of its peaceful rise and began to challenge the US-led global order and its hegemony in the region, both allowed the ASEAN to take the lead in shaping the regional architecture, from which grew the concept of its centrality. Both benefited from this arrangement to give an impression that the whole processes of integration and institution-building for securing economic prosperity and territorial integrity of the region was endogenous-driven with ASEAN at its Centre.
Chinese military exercises in South China Sea
While ASEAN was formed in 1967 amidst turmoil in the region with US patronage for the primary objective of checkmating the advent of communism in the region, after Sino-American rapprochement and unification of Vietnam in the 1970s, it turned out to be containment of Soviet-backed Vietnamese Communism. ASEAN gave full support to the Sino-American goal. As a trade-off, it received massive investment from the US and its supporters like Japan to promote their economic development and modernization of their societies.
China under Deng Xiao Ping also took advantage of the situation and charted its course towards its emergence as the factory of the world. ASEAN emerged as economic tigers with resultant political stability in their member countries. The US was happy to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and declare the victory of the West. The arrangement was working quite well for all three until the mid-1990s.
ASEAN and US taken for a ride by China
ASEAN was the first one to realise its basic weaknesses in this triangular arrangement and the folly of trusting China, when the latter, as part of its salami-slicing tactics, occupied mischief Reef, an atoll in the Spratlys Island in the South China Sea, where the Philippines also laid its claim as per the norms of the UNCLOS. But ASEAN had no option as it was too weak militarily vis-à-vis China. It was content with issuing just a joint statement of foreign ministers expressing concern at the developments in SCS.
Beijing was already emboldened with its earlier occupation of Paracels in SCS from the Vietnamese in 1975 when both the USA and ASEAN had acquiesced because Hanoi was considered an enemy then. China in the meantime had already weakened ASEAN’s resolve to protest against the former's salami-slicing by driving a wedge within the latter by dividing the countries into claimant and non-claimant states.
The US then was basking in the glory of their success in the Cold War and did not bother much what China was doing under its so-called peaceful rise. Washington, as yet, did not realise that Beijing was taking it for a ride. American, European and Japanese investments in massive scale enabled Beijing to keep the Western consumers hostage by supplying cheap luxury goods to them and buying time to strengthen its economic and military capabilities so that it could secure its core interests, and challenge the United States-led global order – economic, political and strategic, when convenient. ASEAN and its institutional mechanism, directly or indirectly, only helped Beijing to consolidate its position.
Now, with China’s increasing assertiveness, bellicosity and wolf-war diplomatic behaviour and the response it generated from the West and other countries that are affected by it, ASEAN-led institutions are now found to be wanting, because the earlier US-China understanding has broken down completely. Even ASEAN itself, though not admitting it openly, have realised this to their dismay, forcing them practically reconciling to a Beijing-led regional order with minimum damage to their economic stakes and territorial integrity. Even that may be difficult to achieve under the existing US-China economic and strategic rivalry and the latter not making any amends to its aggressive and intimidating behaviour to those that stood up to it, including India, Australia, Japan and Australia.
Inaugural Edition of BIMSTEC Military Exercise, MILEX-2018
Indian Stakes in ASEAN centrality
New Delhi’s stakes in ASEAN are quite high because of its geographical location between the two oceans – Indian and the Pacific- together with its control over strategic outlets and the choke points. This is manifested in our Act East Policy (AOP) and the Indo-Pacific strategy, both of which reaffirm our commitment to ASEAN’s centrality. Together with our troubled relationship with China and a hostile Pakistan ready to work at Beijing’s behest, we cannot afford to lose ASEAN. With India opting out of RCEP, its economic engagement with the region has suffered a setback, even while it brought certain urgency in having a fresh look at its FTA with ASEAN and bilateral FTAs with Japan and Australia. Strategically, ASEAN is unwilling to join any grouping that Beijing perceives hostile to its interest. In such a situation New Delhi along with its other strategic partners like Washington, Canberra and Tokyo, who have a common goal to create a more open, inclusive and rule-based order, must try to lure ASEAN countries away from Beijing’s economic stranglehold by offering an alternative in the form of quality infrastructure and supply chain resilience initiatives that they have undertaken in recent years to lessen their own dependence on China. At the same time, India must strive for strengthen the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), where Thailand and Myanmar are already members, by inviting Indonesia and Vietnam to widen and broaden its economic engagement with ASEAN and bring South and Southeast Asia close to each other.
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(Baladas Ghoshal is a former Professor and Chair in South & Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)