ASEAN seeks to maintain centrality in regional security affairs. Photo: iStock

The US-China contest for hard and soft power domination of the region was front and center at the recent round of ASEAN-hosted senior officials’ talks. In the run-up to – and at – the meetings, China and the US sharply criticized each other and appealed to the Southeast Asian countries to support their position. In response, the statement of the ASEAN Regional Forum chairman bravely reaffirmed ASEAN’s centrality in regional security affairs.

But to some, this was whistling by the graveyard of high aspirations. Without unity, ASEAN will likely lose its cherished centrality. As the US-China confrontation in the South China Sea heats up, it is not clear that ASEAN can maintain either in the face of great-power involvement in the region.

The ASEAN states recognize the challenge and that they may be losing control of the situation. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, “ASEAN must always cooperate to maintain our regional peace and stability and not be dragged into the storm of geopolitical tension or be forced to choose sides”.

Her message to her fellow foreign ministers was “we must remain steadfastly neutral and united.”

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he was particularly concerned that the China-US struggle could split ASEAN.

The situation is daunting, and the opportunities to influence it are limited. The US considers China a “strategic competitor” and a “revisionist” nation. It believes that it and China are engaged in “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” in the Indo-Pacific region.

It has now even framed their conflict in existential terms, saying “the world cannot be safe until China changes.”

China already believes that the US wants to contain and constrain its rightful rise and thereby continue its hegemony in the region. This is the context of their confrontation in the South China Sea where China is politically and militarily challenging US hegemony and the US is resisting in every way it can.

The US cannot match China’s economic prowess and largesse and hopes that its political, social and economic systems and – more important – its values will be sufficient to keep much of Asia in its camp. But this is increasingly proving to be a false hope.

So the US is falling back on its tried and true advantage – dominant military power and the threat of its use. But even in this sphere China is making rapid advances, and the looming specter of its eventual domination of the region will lead some Asian countries to choose between the two, despite hopes for their preferred peaceful co-existence between China and the US.

The problem for ASEAN and its “centrality” is that this is only a prelude of what is to come. The US and China see the contest as a win-lose struggle, and neither – especially the US – likes to lose. Indeed, the US in its appeal to common values and to join an anti-China front is in essence saying “you are with us or against us,” and it has a much shorter time frame than China for making that assessment.

So far China and the US have been playing nice. But this contest for regional domination is now going to get more overt and nasty – especially in the run-up to the US presidential election.

ASEAN is responding. The ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement reaffirming their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability.”

But it can and must do more to prevent an adverse outcome. It could increase the tone, tenor and decibels of its “unified” voice admonishing China and the US to show more diplomatic restraint and cease their military posturing. They could also appeal to third parties to assist them in this task – although they would have to be acceptable to both China and the US lest they be seen by one as surrogates for the other.

Already cracks in ASEAN have developed, with members like Cambodia clearly supporting China and others like Vietnam opposing it. If more ASEAN members side with one or the other, its centrality in regional security affairs will be greatly diminished.

As the two superpowers step up their soft and hard power pressure and hedging space narrows, it will be even more difficult for ASEAN to stay “central” in regional security affairs. Indeed, this may be a bridge too far. Perhaps it always was.

Whatever it does to maintain its centrality, it has to do it with uncharacteristic dispatch, gusto and bluntness. But this is not “the ASEAN way.” Thus ASEAN needs to change its “culture” or the situation will worsen and spiral beyond its control.

Where it goes from there will be up to China and the US – not ASEAN.

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Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.