US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, shown here in a file photo, was a prominent speaker at the June 2022 Shangri-la Dialogue. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

On June 9, the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a piece asserting ASEAN’s centrality in regional security affairs. The irony of the IISS publishing such a piece on the eve of its annual Western-centric Shangri-la Dialogue was lost on the institute. Worse, the argument was full of holes and contradictions.

To begin with, the piece tried to redefine ASEAN centrality as meaning the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ “place at the center of the region’s diplomatic architecture.” In doing so it ignored the carefully crafted definition by longtime analyst of ASEAN Amitav Acharya.

Acharya defines ASEAN  “centrality” as the association being “the leader, driver, architect, institutional hub, vanguard, nucleus or fulcrum of regional cooperation.” This includes regional security.

By Acharya’s definition, such ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs is a “holy grail” – strenuously sought after but never to be attained – especially regarding matters regarding big powers like the US and China. Worse, ASEAN’s confidence and credibility in its pursuit thereof have been shaken by its failure to manage major security issues in its region, such as the crisis in Myanmar and rising tensions in the South China Sea.

The IISS piece seems to say, “If the definition does not match reality, change the definition.” But even under a “dialogue only” definition, ASEAN centrality is questionable. Indeed, the Shangri-la Dialogue is the premier regional defense talk shop, and it was originated and is organized by a European think-tank. 

As usual, the dialogue in Singapore this past weekend focused on the US-China contest for hegemony in the region. The issues of Taiwan, US and Chinese regional military postures, and the influence of their struggle on the region were first and foremost, not ASEAN concerns. Also as usual, the dialogue provided a prominent platform for Western views – particularly those of the US – blaming China for the sad state of affairs in the region. 

 US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was a prominent speaker. Ironically, he paid the usual lip service to ASEAN centrality while speaking at a forum that is undermining it. Saying it obviously does not make it so. 

Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe responded by vehemently denying and opposing Austin’s  criticism of China. It would seem that talking is making the situation worse – and that ASEAN can do little about it.

More talk is not what ASEAN needs. Indeed, it is increasingly perceived as too much talk and too little effective action. Because of its perceived inability to resolve regional security issues, the US has gone around it to create two anti-China security agreements that cover the Southeast Asian region, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of the US, Australia, India and Japan, and AUKUS, the agreement for the US and the UK to supply nuclear submarine and drone technology to Australia.

This technology is likely to be used in the region whether ASEAN likes it or not – and some members do not. 

These agreements usurp ASEAN’s aspiration of “centrality” in regional security affairs and further undermine its unity. ASEAN cannot attain security-policy “centrality” without unity, and this is being undermined by the US-China contest for regional dominance.

Despite its defense of ASEAN centrality, the IISS piece is actually an effective critique thereof. It argues that “many regional leaders focus on domestic affairs at the expense of regional leadership” and that “important conversations about the region’s future are taking place in Quad meetings where no Southeast Asian states are present, let alone chairing or setting the agenda.”

The piece also engages in self-delusion. It argues that “ASEAN’s consensus-based decision- making exercises a gravitational pull on the mainland states of Southeast Asia that helps to counteract China’s influence.” But it is ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making that enables China to block its attempts to take united stands against it – as well as US attempts to manipulate it as a whole.

The piece concludes with an advocacy of “substantive, rather than rhetorical, support for ASEAN centrality from non-members.” But based on US and China actions and interests, this is highly unlikely. Indeed, ASEAN centrality in regional security policymaking is an illusion. Wishing for it will not make it real.

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.