ASEAN and its Dilemma of a Rising China

in Program

By Nguyen Vo Dan Sinh – Michelle Ker is a Research Associate with the Future of Peace Operations program at the Stimson Center. Her main research area is the rule of law, focusing in particular on the UN’s role in reestablishing rule of law institutions in post-conflict environments. Before joining Stimson, Michelle worked with the International Crisis Group and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. She holds a honors Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Peace, War and Defense from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is widely viewed as one of the more successful regional organizations in the developing world. Formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, ASEAN managed to maintain solidarity during the Vietnam War and its aftermath while deepening its institutional base and engaging with extra-regional powers to expand market access, attract foreign investment and promote stability. The 1997 Asian financial crisis however, found the organization incapable of a collective response. Now, the group is confronted with the challenges and opportunities of a swiftly rising China, yet indecision as to the best approach for dealing with their powerful neighbor again threatens cohesion.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the grouping tried to reinvent itself as a dynamic actor in the Asia-Pacific region, creating the “Plus One” dialogue with China, and the “Plus Three” dialogue with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Ambitious attempts to envision ASEAN as a dynamic community were most clearly spelled out in the ASEAN Charter which was adopted in November 2007 and subsequently ratified by all ten members. In these efforts, ASEAN has generated or attempted to strengthen an array of institutions, including the ASEAN Free Trade Area created in 1992, cooperative mechanisms to address transnational issues, prospective development of an internal dispute settlement mechanism and a soon to be established regional human rights body.

However, when it comes to the rise of China and its bid for regional leadership, which may very well define the basic characteristics of the regional and even global security environment in the 21st century, ASEAN has not demonstrated any coherent direction. ASEAN repeatedly expresses its desire to remain in the “driver’s seat” in the track-I ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the track-II Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and the ASEAN Plus mechanisms. To date, the results of the Plus One, Plus Three, and less formalized dialogues with the US, the EU and others have been meager. ASEAN has had the least success in engaging China and the US on regional political and security issues.

In practical terms, ASEAN’s efforts to manage China’s rise through strategies of engaging, balancing and/or hedging are all fraught with complications. First, engaging China through accommodation may end up increasing its assertiveness with little hope of peacefully socializing China into the “ASEAN way” of decision by consensus. The appearance of excessive accommodation towards China may also alienate extra-regional powers, especially the US and Japan. An accommodation strategy is especially risky because many ASEAN countries have unresolved territorial disputes with and historical suspicions of China, legacies that could further divide the group.

Second, attempting to balance Chinese influence through strengthened regional unity within the bloc is virtually impossible for ASEAN at present. Such a strategy would require the grouping to first achieve a high degree of intramural coherence in perceptions of threat, a scenario that does not presently exist. Such unity may be impossible due to widely different geographical situations, historical legacies and individual capabilities among ASEAN states.

Third, a strategy that attempts to hedge Chinese influence through strengthened ASEAN relations with other regional and global powers might prove unsustainable because it contains incompatible elements of external balancing and accommodation. Recent moves by Vietnam to balance Chinese power by strengthening bilateral relationships with extra-regional powers like the US, EU and Russia indicates deep doubt and dissatisfaction over the value of ASEAN in the face of a rising China.

To fulfill their vision of a peaceful and stable community, ASEAN countries will have to develop a new institutional identity and accelerate the evolution of ASEAN norms to gradually replace the difficult “ASEAN Way” that requires consensus in decision-making. Such efforts could have a spillover effect in engaging China, and more importantly, contribute to a shared identity based on positive norms rather than the least common denominator approach. A shared identity would enable the grouping to develop common threat perceptions as a basis for more unity in strategy. ASEAN’s recent decisions such as ratifying the ASEAN Charter, conferring legal personality for the Association and considering the establishment of a human rights body are moves in the right direction. Increased support from the US, Japan, and others can help ASEAN to simultaneously engage with and hedge against China. The results would be mutually beneficial.

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