Fifty years of ASEAN: the China conundrum
29 May 2017|

As the dog that barks regularly but never bites, ASEAN has been yapping at China for 15 years to get a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. At last, China is throwing ASEAN a bone—a framework for the Code. Not the Code itself. Just the framework for getting, eventually—one day—to the Code. Perhaps it’s not the biggest bone. No matter. Here’s a win for the ASEAN underdogs. The yapping works.

ASEAN needed a win. China has been kicking hard. Being treated like curs is bad for the spirit, hurting the unity and purpose of the ASEAN hounds. The ASEAN Way has taken a whipping. The worry is that Chinese pressure could break apart the ASEAN pack, so it no longer runs together.

Now ASEAN foreign ministers can gather in Manila in the first week of August to celebrate the 50th birthday of ASEAN’s creation, with the promise of a well-wrapped Chinese present. The framework, agreed by officials, will be embraced by ASEAN and China. Just to make sure everyone identifies the top dog (and just who’s throwing the bone) China made the announcement that the framework deal had been clinched; although the ASEAN Summit at the end of April flagged the hope that the framework would be agreed within months.

What a difference a year makes. Last July, China suffered a huge loss of face in The Hague decision on the South China Sea and fears of crisis and conflict mounted. The US drew red lines and China talked ever tougher, as Southeast Asia shivered towards the brink. Rodrigo Duterte is a maddening, murderous maverick, but in the South China Sea he’s taken the pressure down.

The change of tone means that when ASEAN foreign ministers gather in August, they can proclaim a win for the ASEAN Way that doesn’t sound like a whine. This will be one of those Beijing win-win moments where China nearly wins twice; still there’s some meat on the bone for ASEAN.

Having spent four decades thinking and writing about East Asia, Michael Vatikiotis offers his typically shrewd reading of the score card, judging that what’s transpired since The Hague ruling ‘demonstrates the pragmatism of regional states, the limited extent of US influence in Asia, and says a lot about how China intends to wield power’.

The framework for the Code of Conduct will be judged by what it delivers today in the South China Sea as much as the loose frame for negotiations that will run for many more years. Is China ready to declare victory, pocket its gains and ease off on its terraforming, using great walls of sand to create new islands on rocks and reefs?

An end to Beijing’s build would be an achievement to prize. Even the most optimistic, however, can’t expect much ‘framework’ for any understanding or definition about what constitutes ‘militarisation’. Still, the framework can be proclaimed as stepping beyond confidence building towards preventive diplomacy. That brings us to another bit of slow-motion building, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

ASEAN’s Manila meeting will host the annual ARF ministerial, the 27-nation security dialogue created in 1994. When the ARF was born, the plan was that it’d evolve through three stages:

  1. Confidence building
  2. Development of preventive diplomacy mechanisms
  3. Development of conflict resolution mechanisms

More than two decades later, the ARF spends most of its time dancing around stage one. The ARF moves at a pace comfortable for all participants—‘characterised by consensus decision making and frank dialogue’, in diplomat-speak—and that’s more about comfort than pace.

Security building around these parts is always a matter of what the traffic will bear. And, increasingly, China reaches to be the traffic cop. Nick Bisley’s new paper on Asia’s dangerous strategic geography describes a China-centric integrated Asian strategic system, drawing together the once-discrete theatres of Northeast, Southeast, South and Central Asia. Nick’s recommendation is that Australian diplomacy should focus on the mechanisms that reflect this larger integrated Asia: the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defence Minister process spawned by the EAS. Less attention should be given, he says, to ‘outdated bodies like APEC and the ARF’.

All these structures, though, merely carry the traffic rather than driving the players. And ASEAN’s DNA is at the heart of APEC and the ARF in the same way that it’s central to the EAS and ASEAN Defence-plus effort.

A series pondering ASEAN’s 50 years needs to describe that DNA as it’s expressed through ASEAN’s shadows and substance—more respectfully expressed as the dignified and the drives of the ASEAN Way. Both elements, the dignified and the drives, start from ASEAN’s central purpose, as a mutual reassurance system among the 10 member states of Southeast Asia. From that base, the dignified dressings of the system and the base drives aim to:

  • Help deliver peace and prosperity by protecting state sovereignty and maximising influence;
  • Leverage the collective influence of the ten states to give ASEAN members a central role in developing Asia’s strategic system;
  • Influence the way strategic competition is conducted, aspiring to the creation of regional norms;
  • Use ASEAN to manage the big powers;
  • Get maximum diplomatic and security space. Avoid ever having to choose between the US and China.

Over half a century, the ASEAN believers argue, the combination of the dignified and the drives has delivered a Southeast Asian miracle. Amid the celebration in Manila in August, the quiet question will be whether the old miracle formula can still deliver the magic.