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Strengthening the ASEAN-centric multilateral security architecture

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In Brief

For a good part of the post-Cold War period, ASEAN enjoyed relative success as the central multilateral organisation in its region. Its expansion through the late 1990s, as well as its inclusive approach towards non-ASEAN powers, helped it become the main convener of multilateral dialogue and cooperative platforms in the wider Asia Pacific.


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But over the last decade, ASEAN’s role in the multilateral architecture has faced challenges from what some analysts call the rise of ‘multilateralism 2.0’ — multilateralism driven by major powers rather than ASEAN — and the proliferation of non-ASEAN-centric minilateral arrangements.

Such developments resulted in concerns about the robustness of the ASEAN-centric multilateral architecture amid a period of structural and strategic transitions. These concerns have been exacerbated by the current US administration’s apparent disdain for multilateralism, including those centred on ASEAN.

The danger is that in light of criticisms of ASEAN’s ineffectiveness, the Association’s so-called centrality in regional multilateralism could rapidly diminish if non-ASEAN powers succeed in creating credible alternatives to ASEAN-centric forums. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States, as well as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism comprising Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are examples that evoke such concerns.

Yet, the ASEAN-centric multilateral security architecture may be more robust than commonly acknowledged. ASEAN currently has a reasonably full suite of mechanisms to address a range of issues, including the leaders-level ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit, the foreign ministers-led ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as the defence ministers-led ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus.

For security and strategic issues, avenues already exist for dialogue and practical cooperation — both at the ASEAN and the wider Asia Pacific levels. China may have its Xiangshan Forum and Boao Forum and the United States is typically seen to dominate the Shangri-La Dialogue but ASEAN remains the best equipped for bringing together all the main regional actors across different sectors.

The key is to strengthen this ASEAN-centric multilateral security architecture and ensure that it remains the best option for both ASEAN and non-ASEAN countries when it comes to wider-level regional multilateralism. In this sense, even if the major powers form like-minded coalitions to address specific issues, they would still turn to ASEAN-centric platforms because they offer the highest returns for broader multilateral consultations and collaboration.

One way to strengthen the ASEAN-centric multilateral security architecture would be to enhance ASEAN’s capacity as an independent actor.

Since its establishment, the ASEAN narrative has been one of strength in weakness. Because its member states possess neither sufficient economic nor military resources to be threatening, ASEAN is able to leverage this ‘weakness’ to serve as the convenor of regional multilateralism that includes major powers such as China, Japan and the United States. The competition between China and Japan over leadership of the East Asia Summit in the mid-2000s, for instance, resulted in ASEAN assuming the reins of the new multilateral platform by default. A similar scenario may well repeat itself to ASEAN’s benefit.

But going forwards it is likely that ASEAN will find such opportunities rare as major power rivalry intensifies and the major powers create networks aimed specifically at their own interests. For example, some observers have highlighted the potential for China to extend its influence southwards through the LMC mechanism — this may pose the risk of deepening divisions within ASEAN. Likewise, the Quad, even with the debates surrounding its sustainability, reflects the priority concerns of its four members that may not necessarily dovetail with ASEAN’s.

Whether ASEAN retains its position as the hub of regional multilateralism largely depends on the extent it can come across as a credible independent actor. Declarations that ASEAN does not wish to choose between China and the United States must be backed up with the capacity that actually allows ASEAN the option of not choosing.

A starting point towards acquiring this capacity is to strengthen the cohesion among ASEAN member states. The aim should be to prevent another instance of ASEAN failing to agree on public statements, akin to the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. It would involve trying to build closer ties between 10 countries with diverse interests and priorities, and to ensure that their strategic outlooks align — or at the very least, do not conflict. It is not so much that regional interests should take priority over national ones but rather that there is a sustainable way for interests at both levels to coincide.

The ADMM, for instance, could consider having more multilateral exercises that involve only the 10 member states. This is not only about building confidence but also augmenting ASEAN’s own capacity to address common defence and strategic concerns. More joint drills will be an additional strain on limited resources and time, but might pay off in the longer term. A strong, cohesive ASEAN will naturally attract the commitment and participation of non-ASEAN powers in its regional multilateral architecture.

While ASEAN may have begun as an organisation aimed at alleviating tensions among its member states and maintaining stability within Southeast Asia, there is urgency now for the Association to consider how it can ensure its durability in the wider Asia Pacific.

Non-ASEAN powers have historically engaged with ASEAN because they lacked alternatives in regional multilateralism. As this changes, so will their attitudes towards ASEAN-centric platforms. It is time for ASEAN to re-examine its position in the regional multilateral security architecture and consider bolstering its strategic credentials.

Sarah Teo is Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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