As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks its 50th anniversary, members are facing uncertainty over the changing shape of power in the region. Meeting in Manila, officials from the bloc's 10 members have tackled a code of conduct for the South China Sea and a response to North Korea's missile tests. The 24th ASEAN Regional Forum brought in top diplomats from 27 countries, including the United States, China and Russia, on the region's key security matters. But the broader issue facing the group is U.S.-China relations. The stage is shifting, and each ASEAN country is trying to find its place in the new geopolitical balance.
Beginning with five members in 1967 under the Bangkok Declaration, ASEAN was created by small countries seeking protection in a region rocked by the world-straddling great power competition of the Cold War. For the bloc's originators, solidarity was as necessary as sovereignty, and they founded their pact on neutrality, non-interference and consensus. Subsequent decades brought extensive regional changes that transformed ASEAN economies, making the group one of the largest economic blocs in the developing world. Nonetheless, the region remains highly divided along geographic, ethnic and linguistic lines. ASEAN's loose structure and lack of cohesion have kept it together but have also left it largely unable to present a strong front. Instead, as it was during the Cold War, Southeast Asia remains a region beset by the machinations of greater powers and disagreement about how to align with them.
ASEAN in Flux
Those challenges continue to shape members' responses to the evolving geopolitical balance. For some time, China and its growing economic, military and political clout were counterbalanced by the United States and its long-standing security and economic infrastructure in the region. But now that appears to be changing. The United States has retreated from the regional trade agenda and faces suspicion of disengagement, while China is expanding its military activity and shoring up its trade and diplomacy initiatives. At the same time Japan – though less so than Russia – is making up for missed diplomatic and security opportunities by reaching out to Southeast Asia. In the midst of all this, states in the region are striving to find their footing.
Against this backdrop comes the 50th anniversary of ASEAN — as well as a new set of challenges. Chief among them is a move by the new Philippine government to temper its six years of hostility toward China. In a risky balancing act, Manila did this without compromising its security alliance with the United States while also broadening its strategic portfolio by making connections with Japan and Russia. Malaysia and Thailand have largely followed its lead, though each must consider its respective domestic circumstances. Vietnam and Singapore, on the other hand, have stepped up efforts to align with the United States, Japan and other powers in order to collectively counterbalance Beijing. Indonesia has pursued a middle tack between the Philippines and Vietnam, stressing neutrality while bolstering its own defenses and strategic standing.
While members of ASEAN reconsider their stances, tensions keep flaring on different fronts. China's maritime expansionism and coercion of defiant rivals, as well as the potential spread of transnational jihadist networks as seen in the siege in Marawi City in the Philippines, are complicating a difficult situation. Making matters even more complex is North Korea's accelerated push to develop a deliverable nuclear device. These problems will be key agenda items during this year's summits and will influence decisions on regional strategy and security.
South China Sea
The South China Sea, which has long been the center of Southeast Asia's simmering security challenges, is still in the spotlight as well. However, the disputed waters have calmed somewhat over the past year. China and the Philippines are working through a dispute settlement mechanism. And while disagreements over fishing resources continue to fuel regional spats, notably between Vietnam and Indonesia, major tensions have eased when compared with the past six years. Nevertheless, China is showing little will to back off its maritime expansion and countries such as Vietnam are resisting, leaving the waters murky.
To ease these tensions, ASEAN ministers on Aug. 6 adopted a long-awaited framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. The framework, aimed at guiding behavior in the contentious waters, has been through nearly two decades of negotiations. Repeatedly delayed by China, the talks accelerated after the landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016, which compelled Beijing to substantially rethink its strategy. The framework's nonbinding nature, coupled with its exclusion of sensitive matters — such as China's military activity and island building — has disappointed many. Even so, the deal could herald follow-up negotiations toward a binding code of conduct, and those talks could allow China and some ASEAN states to score a rhetorical win with no true costs.
The toothlessness of the framework is in part a result of ASEAN's consensus decision-making amid divisions on whether to confront or cooperate with China. Vietnam, in particular, reportedly pushed for stronger wording and a binding code of conduct. But regional stakeholders were hard-pressed to find an alternative because of Washington's lagging focus toward the region beyond the Korean Peninsula, its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its slow action on freedom of navigation operations. Combine these with a regionally focused China willing to make limited concessions, and the reasons for the outcome become apparent. So U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines) and attending ASEAN meetings for the first time, will have to reaffirm Washington's commitment to the region and rebuild connections there if he hopes to ease the bloc's concerns.
North Korea Comes First
However much Washington would like to use the venue to clear up the South China Sea issue, Tillerson's agenda will be absorbed by a much higher U.S. priority: North Korea. The summit comes on the heels of North Korea's accelerated missile and nuclear tests, most prominently the July 28 tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile reportedly would be able to hit large swaths of U.S. territory, and the tests led to new U.N. sanctions. The cooperative mechanism with China to rein in Pyongyang has proved insufficient — if not an outright a failure. And Washington is moving to constrain the North Korean government financially and isolate it diplomatically, while ratcheting up talk of nondiplomatic options.
The ASEAN Regional Forum served primarily as an opportunity for Washington to further pressure North Korea, to shore up political support from ASEAN states and U.S. regional partners, and to urge them to reduce their diplomatic and financial links with Pyongyang. It is no surprise, therefore, that Washington sought to suspend North Korean participation in this year's regional forum. Tillerson and his allied counterparts are also pressuring Beijing and Moscow to take more action against Pyongyang. South Korea, on the other hand, continues to look for opportunities for contact with the North. But Pyongyang's lack of interest in such dialogue will limit Seoul's ability to take a softer approach.
But how much are ASEAN states willing to align with U.S. strategy on North Korea? The answer is still unclear, because most ASEAN members have economic connections to North Korea. These include hosting the country's oversea laborers and conducting trade, as well as other unscrutinized financial connections. So ASEAN states must carefully weigh their options against the costs of inaction, while considering pressure from Washington.
Among the Great Powers
Barring a regional war, most ASEAN states — unlike the United States, South Korea and Japan – see North Korea only as a secondary issue. Instead the bloc is faced with a bigger potential challenge: a significant slide in U.S.-China relations. In light of this potential downturn, each member must take into account its myriad internal and external challenges. For Thailand, this means handling the political impasses under a new king, and for the Philippines, it means managing threats from regionalist and ethnic separatist groups while balancing its relationships with the United States and China. With elections approaching in 2018, Malaysia's ruling coalition is recovering from scandal and Indonesia's president is focused on defending against an Islamist alliance with the opposition to forward his reform agenda. All of these aims require stability and a balanced U.S.-China relationship, giving countries the space they need to achieve their goals at home.
And considering U.S. President Donald Trump's harsh rhetoric, increased contact with Taiwan and likely imposition of trade restrictions, including measures under Section 301, as well as China's unwillingness to further pressure North Korea, the limited detente between Washington and Beijing over the past six months appears to be drawing to a close. While both powers will probably avoid a significant downgrade in their relations, the next few months will likely see some of their geopolitical competition re-emerge – whether on trade, the South China Sea, Taiwan or some other issue.
For Southeast Asian states, a heated confrontation between the United States and China — while unlikely — is most unwanted. Stuck between the two powers, their ability to play both sides and use the bookend powers of the Pacific Ocean as counterweights may prove untenable. And with their weak economic foundations and reliance on each power, ASEAN members have little ability to weather a serious trade spat between the two. Few in the region are eager to choose sides, and all hope the uneasy dance can continue.