The Australian

ASEAN Is a Danger to Itself and the Neighbourhood

Senior Fellow
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks during the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, Australia, on March 6, 2024. (Photo by George Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks during the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, Australia, on March 6, 2024. (Photo by George Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Colleagues in The Philippines and Vietnam have been gently teasing me about Australia again paying homage to ASEAN centrality during its hosting of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

ASEAN centrality is the idea that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations take the lead in identifying the agendas that matter most to all nations, shape regional conversations in the attempt to manage tensions in the region and sponsor the most important multilateral meetings such as the one held earlier in the week in Melbourne.

The 10 member states, none of which is a great power, are Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, The Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar. East Timor applied to become a member in 2021 and is likely to be admitted next year.

Leaders and officials in these states privately admit that ASEAN centrality is a convenient fiction to increase the standing and relevance of 10 smaller powers vis-a-vis great regional and global powers such as the US, China, Japan and Australia.

The Albanese government would be aware of this even though it has gone to special lengths to carry on the pretence. In a speech in Jakarta last September, Anthony Albanese assured his hosts that he was there to affirm Australia’s belief in the power and value of ASEAN centrality. During the special summit this week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong placed responsibility on Southeast Asians to commit to some kind of “preventive architecture” to reduce the risk of conflict through miscalculation and misunderstanding.

This notion that Southeast Asia could be a strategically pivotal subregion shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific might well be correct.

But if peace and the status quo are what all participants at the special summit desire, then some truth telling is required. Not all fictions, even if convenient, are harmless. In recent years, ASEAN is becoming a problem. This week was a missed opportunity to gently warn Southeast Asian states that ASEAN needs to adapt its thinking or fade into irrelevance.

Dangerous fiction

Let’s begin with the easy part, which is to expose the convenient fiction that is ASEAN. It consists of 10 relatively small or weak states with differing views on how to respond to the major issues confronting the region. But rather than airing these differences, ASEAN has a stubborn devotion to unanimity and complete consensus, which is an impossible standard to attain when the 10 sovereign members have different interests and perspectives. When there is disagreement among members insisting on unanimity, the result is generally passivity and silence on the issues that really matter – which is exploited by China and is leading to the organisation’s insignificance.

For example, when the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal declared in a legally binding decision that China’s expansive claim to most of the South China Sea was illegal, it was non-ASEAN states such as Australia, Japan and the US that raised their voices in support of claimants such as The Philippines. Other ASEAN members, except Vietnam, were mainly silent.

It is the same with Chinese activities in maritime areas also claimed by Vietnam and The Philippines such as the Spratly Islands chain. As Beijing illegally built artificial islands spanning thousands of acres in places up to 2000km away from the Chinese mainland, constructed ports, airstrips, radars, bunkers and jamming stations, and deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on these features, it was the same three non-ASEAN members voicing opposition. When Filipino or Vietnamese ships are rammed by Chinese militia craft, ASEAN is usually quiet while its members tend to look the other way.

An ineffective fiction that is ASEAN is one thing. An entity that has become a danger to the interest of its members and other states is a more serious matter.

The idea of ASEAN centrality is that its members come together to shape the diplomatic conversation, regional agendas and common narratives. The problem is that China has hoodwinked or manipulated many ASEAN states into accepting they have a sense of false agency, and that has been to Beijing’s advantage.

Consider ASEAN’s non-con­frontational approach to China. This is being done in the belief that avoiding offence to China allows ASEAN to maintain diplomatic centrality, even though it is China setting the agenda and conversation. While Beijing went through the motions of negotiating a binding code of conduct with ASEAN as an insincere nod to ASEAN centrality, it used the ASEAN-backed process to admonish and ward off other powers, especially the US and Australia, for seeking to interfere in what Beijing claimed was an exclusively ASEAN-China matter.

Some ASEAN members parroted the same argument, which raises the question of why tensions in the South China Sea ought to be an issue led primarily by ASEAN when only five of its 10 members are claimants. Drawing out these intentionally fruitless negotiations gave China cover and time to achieve the military position in the South China Sea that it enjoys currently, all with ASEAN’s blessing.

China’s gaslighting of some Southeast Asian states, much of it with ASEAN approval and through ASEAN mechanisms and platforms, has created an extraordinary situation. Rather than collectively admonish China for its coercive and illegal activities or raise alarm at China undertaking what is probably the most rapid military build-up in peacetime history, some Southeast Asian nations using ASEAN platforms scold the US and its allies for supposedly destabilising activities when confronting China for the latter’s misbehaviour. Under this construction, it is US freedom of navigation operations in contested waters or AUKUS that is condemned as provocative rather than China illegally militarising its artificial islands.

The US, Japan and Australia have co-ordinated strategic policies to keep China in check. But when asked to contribute to a collective stance against these Chinese activities, some ASEAN states such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia admonish the US for forcing them to choose sides.

To be fair, some ASEAN members are more honest and strategically proactive than others about what is really going on as well as the threats they face – The Philippines and Vietnam to name two. But ASEAN as an entity is hardwired to promulgate a false equivalence in framing the problems in the Indo-Pacific as a US-China issue – that both great powers are equally responsible for tensions in the region. And there are signs that some senior members of the Albanese government are under the persuasion of this same fallacy. There even might be a few true believers that ASEAN should be supported as an entity that can serve as an honest and impartial broker between the great powers. How can the solution be to give more authority to ASEAN as an impartial and honest broker that does not take sides when only one great power – China – is forcibly and coercively changing the status quo? This will only deepen the falsehood that the US is as responsible for the region’s troubles as China.

Muddled thinking

Australia is one of the countries many others rely on to bear the burden and cost of keeping China in check, which is why most Southeast Asian nations quietly support arrangements such as AUKUS – a form of free-riding on their part. Which is why some signs of muddled Australian thinking is a concern. As foreign editor Greg Sheridan noted earlier in the week, Wong’s identification of deepening strategic competition between the US and China rather than the latter’s actions as the primary causal factor for instability is incorrect. That is to confuse cause with effect.

That word stability so valued by the Albanese government, and the centrepiece of an ASEAN foreign policy to the extent it has one, needs to be assessed more forensically. If it is Chinese moderation we want, then we must be prepared for instability – in our relationship with China and in a more systemic or structural sense.

China is actively preparing for war and aggressively advancing in the region. Pushing back against it will unavoidably entail instability. This is because Australia is part of a coalition to reverse adverse trends in the balance of power, regain the material advantage and engage in a contest of will – all actions that work against stable relations with China.

An alternative, which will fail, is to fall back on the notion that some ASEAN-led security architecture can somehow place sufficient restraints on Beijing. It won’t. Only collective hard power and demonstration of resolve will do that. And when an entity cannot even advocate for the central interests of some of its own members when under direct assault from China, then continued genuflecting by Southeast Asians or Australians at the altar of ASEAN centrality is outliving its usefulness.

Read in The Australian.