Longstanding debates about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) often revolve around the organisation’s importance and value to regional peace and stability. Advocates of ASEAN underscore its contributions to dialogue and confidence building in the region, while critics point to its lack of influence both on big strategic questions facing the region as well as in shaping the behaviour of some of its own member states.
As Sino-US competition intensifies and the Indo-Pacific witnesses a proliferation of cooperative arrangements set around like-minded coalitions, the role and centrality of ASEAN – with its traditional championing of broad and inclusive multilateralism – in the regional architecture has come under increasing pressure. Certainly, as a 53-year old organisation comprising ten small and medium-sized Southeast Asian states, ASEAN is familiar with navigating the vagaries of major power dynamics. Recent trends in regional multilateralism, however, indicate that ASEAN may be at a critical juncture in its evolution.
Competing Indo-Pacific groupings
The first trend this article will examine is the growth of mini/multilateral mechanisms that could, in the long run, develop to run in parallel to ASEAN-led arrangements – and eventually supersede them.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which held its inaugural leaders’ summit on 12 March 2021, is the prime example. Under the guise of the Quad, the nascent ‘Quad-Plus’ arrangement could eventually see countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, France, Germany and/or the United Kingdom join a cooperative framework centred on the four Quad members. Examples of other competing trilateral initiatives include the Australia-India-France forum, that was launched in 2020.
Although a Quad-centred security architecture may remain a distant possibility for now, some structural similarities have emerged between the Quad and ASEAN. As I have written elsewhere, both sets of arrangements have a core group (the four Quad countries and ASEAN members respectively), and both have sought to build a second layer of multilateral dialogue and cooperation with key partners. In this sense, the Quad’s establishment of potentially competing mechanisms across the Indo-Pacific should be watched closely.
Multilateral platforms centred on the Mekong sub-region
The second trend involves the rising prominence of issues surrounding some of ASEAN’s newest member states, such as Cambodia and Myanmar. Questions have been raised about their socialisation into ASEAN’s norms and way of cooperation. For instance, after an informal ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting called for a stop to the violence arising from the recent coup in Myanmar and urged restraint, the death toll from the protests actually increased the following day.
Beyond domestic politics, the position of newer ASEAN states centred on the Mekong River has recently come to the fore of regional dynamics. As a river that runs through China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, the Mekong has in recent times received an upsurge of attention from countries such as the United States, and South Korea. The former launched the Mekong-US Partnership with the five lower Mekong countries in 2020 – expanding on its previous Lower Mekong Initiative – while the latter established the annual Mekong-ROK Summit in 2019. These arrangements exist alongside China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism launched in 2016.
A proliferation of mechanisms centred around Mekong sub-region affairs now exist in parallel to ASEAN, which has played a relatively minimal role in Mekong issues thus far. Reminiscent of the rise of the Indo-Pacific and its accompanying mechanisms, increasing external engagement in the Mekong – particularly in the form of multilateralism – could be another factor shaping ASEAN’s (ir)relevance in the region going forward.
Scenario one: irrelevance
Assuming the two abovementioned trends persist and become entrenched throughout the next decade or beyond, this article will outline two possible future scenarios for ASEAN. Neither predicts the demise of ASEAN, but suggests opposing trajectories for ASEAN’s role in the region.
The first possibility is that ASEAN grows increasingly irrelevant in the region. Under this scenario, major powers such as China and the United States would step up their respective efforts to build competing regional multilateral arrangements. Alongside worsening rivalry, Beijing and Washington would find that bilateral dialogue is no longer useful and consequently that inclusive multilateralism no longer serves their interests.
For its part, ASEAN’s continued inability to address the big strategic questions of the region – in a manner satisfactory to the majority of its participants – would see the organisation gradually slide into insignificance.
Essentially, this means that issues such as the South China Sea and Mekong affairs become characterised more by tensions and disagreements, than by cooperation.
As regional countries become drawn into a rising number of exclusive cooperative networks, they may ultimately be forced to make a decision between committing more fully to the mechanisms led by the respective major powers or supporting an ASEAN-centred architecture that has ceased offering substantive value. While US partners such as Australia, India and Japan are the pillars of a Quad-centred architecture, smaller Mekong countries, on the other hand, may find themselves engaging more with China-led networks, whether by choice or pressure.
Although ASEAN and its mechanisms continue to exist in this scenario, it becomes ever more difficult to reach consensus on regional challenges amid deepening fault lines. As a result, ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture progressively weakens to a point where the organisation ceases to be consequential.
Scenario two: cohesion
The second scenario this article outlines depicts a future whereby, despite the growth of newer forms of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN retains its utility and value to regional states and successfully maintains its place as the central platform in Southeast Asia’s multilateral architecture. Looking back at the way that ASEAN assumed the convening and agenda-setting roles of the inaugural East Asia Summit amidst Sino-Japanese rivalry, one could arguably make the case that major power competition could, under certain conditions, end up benefiting ASEAN.
In the current context, this scenario would entail many other Indo-Pacific countries, including ASEAN member states themselves, continuing to regard ASEAN platforms as one of the most effective channels to further national interests in the region. Assuming that China does not increase pressure on regional powers, countries that have been hesitant to formally join Quad-led arrangements – such as South Korea and Vietnam – would see little impetus to deviate from engagement with ASEAN.
In this scenario challenges such as Sino-US rivalry, the South China Sea dispute, and Mekong friction would persist. It is likely that tensions surrounding such issues will wax and wane, as they have in the past. What is important is the perception by regional states that ASEAN and its mechanisms still play a constructive role in furthering their national interests.
To arrive at this optimistic picture, however, ASEAN cohesiveness – or at least the perception of it – is a key condition. This scenario is thus premised on the reduction of differences between the founding and newer ASEAN member states, and the increasing alignment of interests within the ASEAN core. Strong ASEAN leadership, both internally and externally, would be crucial.
While the two scenarios above may sound simplistic, it would be useful to think of them as the two extreme ends of a spectrum forecasting ASEAN’s importance in the region between now and 2040. Between complete irrelevance and strengthened centrality in the regional architecture ASEAN could very well find itself at various points along the spectrum depending on how these trends play out. Nevertheless, whether the trends this article outlined endure or fade in the longer term, ASEAN will need to adjust and adapt its value proposition accordingly.
This article is published as part of a series of analyses that considers the key trend lines with the in region which see the regional order, critical technology and geoeconomics as arenas of competition and tools for strategic influence, and how they will influence regional security over coming decades.