International relations, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia

22 August 2022

Safeguarding ASEAN’s centrality, especially to managing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), is the most effective way of managing potential conflict between major powers in Southeast Asia, Duong Van Huy writes.

In recent years, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has strived to maintain peace in its region by managing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). Those efforts, however, are under threat.

The prospect of conflict in the SCS and a more general increase in geopolitical competition among major powers is a threat to the stability, peace, and development of the entire Southeast Asia region. ASEAN recognises this, but it is also important to note that managing the SCS disputes is crucial for its future as an organisation.

Ever since the advent of the ASEAN Charter, the goal of ASEAN ‘centrality’ was codified, becoming both the goal and the guiding principle for all activities of ASEAN. It describes centrality as “the primary driving force in its relations and cooperation with its external partners.”

This centrality, it believes, is crucial to upholding international law and building an ‘open’, ‘transparent’, ‘inclusive’, and ‘rules-based’ regional architecture.

When it comes to the SCS, it is clear ASEAN believes disputes are a concern for all member states, and it highlights its role in fostering consensus continually on the issue. Unfortunately though, its members and their neighbours are noticing that this hasn’t borne much fruit.

More on this: The AUKUS alliance and ASEAN’s waning centrality

It might not be ‘job done’ by any means, but ASEAN has been more effective than any other forum for managing potential conflicts and building any sense of regional security in the SCS. After all, ASEAN was able to get China to sign the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, which could form the basis of future security in the SCS, even if enforcing it has proved unfeasible so far.

ASEAN has an opportunity here. The region’s security can be improved if policymakers around the region support its centrality in managing the SCS disputes.

ASEAN centrality is also important to those outside Southeast Asia, for managing potential conflict between major powers such as the United States and China, and in building security architecture for the rest of the Asia Pacific.

Territorial disputes, like those in the SCS, have escalated tensions and possible military confrontation between rival claimant states, particularly between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines. These have been calmed by ASEAN intervention. ASEAN also hosts the most meaningful official multilateral security forums in the region.

Still, the grouping is at danger of becoming even more divided if it isn’t supported to do more in the SCS.

More on this: ASEAN’s dilemma in the South China Sea

A strong ASEAN is the only way for a group of relatively small countries to come together as a mediating power in the world.

Accordingly, its centrality should be reflected in more ASEAN-led regional forums to promote regional cohesion, economic integration, and crucially, greater international influence.

Although there are members of the bloc, such as Vietnam, that are doing much to actively support the bloc’s centrality on the SCS issue, other ASEAN members are allowing the disputes to undermine its centrality by going their own way.

This is partly just a function of the inherent looseness of linkage that typifies ASEAN – and indeed holds it together despite old rivalries between members – but when some members’ interests in other bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms is placed ahead of their ASEAN membership, there is serious danger of division.

Great powers’ diplomatic ambitions, like the United States’ desire to strengthen security relations with the Philippines and China’s recent deepening of military ties with Cambodia, cannot be allowed to undermine ASEAN’s hard-fought gains towards forming a security structure in the SCS. If these relationships become the primary forum for managing disputes, it could make ASEAN irreversibly more fragile and unable to contribute to regional peace.

Decision-makers need to acknowledge that Rome wasn’t built in a day. ASEAN is actively managing the peace process among conflicting parties in the SCS. While the level of success that ASEAN achieved has been relatively modest, it is the best forum available for the job and its centrality is at stake.

Rather than scrambling to other solutions out of impatience, security policymakers both in and outside of Southeast Asia must support ASEAN’s dispute management in the SCS, and do more to help it succeed at a project crucial to the region’s future.

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