How Does the ASEAN Region Play a Balancing Role?

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Southeast Asia’s ten nations regional organization ASEAN comprises of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Founded in 1967, it has grown into a regional bloc with a distinctive position in international affairs, distinguished by a dedication to stability, collaboration, and diplomacy. It reflects a rich tapestry of cultures, economics, and political systems within Southeast Asia. Since its inception, the organization has worked to promote economic integration, regional collaboration, and dispute resolution among its member nations. The alliance is a significant player in the global economy with a combined population of over 600 million people and a collective GDP exceeding $3 trillion.

The rivalry between China and the United States, both seeking influence in the Indo-Pacific region, has been fueling the region’s rising instability in recent years. With China as a neighbor and development partner as well as the USA exerting significant political and economic influence in the region, the competition is sometimes even being played out within the region itself. However, in response to the complex contemporary power dynamics, ASEAN’s historical principles of neutrality and non-alignment are being applied and the alliance has maintained a balanced relation with both parties, without aligning towards a side. The region has set a perfect example for balancing role. This short brief delves into ASEAN’s historical principles of neutrality and non-alignment and analyzes its balancing role in different avenues.

Historical evolvement of ASEAN and key principles

The formation and evolution of the ASEAN have been deeply influenced by the historical context of Southeast Asia, characterized by post-colonialism, regional conflicts, and the dynamics of the Cold War. It emerged as a response to these challenges, as a commitment to regional stability and cooperation. In the aftermath of World War II, Southeast Asia was in turmoil as colonial empires withdrew, leaving a power vacuum in the region. Several conflicts and confrontations erupted, including the First Indo-China War, the Malayan Emergency, and the Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia. In addition, the region has repeatedly been used as the primary theater of competition and conflict among the major powers due to its strategic location and abundant resources. In addition, the region has repeatedly been used as the primary theater of competition and conflict among the major powers due to its strategic location and abundant resources. During the Cold War, the region witnessed the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. sought to contain the spread of communism, while the Soviet Union aimed to expand its influence in the region. Against this backdrop, five Southeast Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – came together on August 8, 1967, in Bangkok, Thailand, to establish ASEAN. Their primary motivation was to promote regional stability and prevent the spread of communism.

The leaders believed it must take a proactive role in managing its relations with external powers to ensure the region’s security and stability. In alignment with the traditional values of Southeast Asia it adopted the principle of the “ASEAN Way”– A consensus-based decision making procedure for promoting unity among member states. Moreover, maintenance of neutrality and non-alignment in the face of major power rivalry, advocating for peaceful resolution of conflict through dialogue and negotiation, commitment to respect each other’s sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs are key founding principles of the alliance.

The Contemporary Dilemma

ASEAN’s ability to manage relations with the major powers and even to ensure Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy has been increasingly challenged in recent years. Its unity on various issues has been weakened by China’s rapid rise in economic and military might and its increasingly assertive approach in establishing its claim to the entirety of the South China Sea, portions of which are also claimed by ASEAN members like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

This reality was eloquently demonstrated in an unfortunate incident in 2012, when ASEAN failed to publish a joint communiqué at its semi-annual summit for the first time ever. At China’s request, the summit’s host nation, Cambodia, objected to a line in the drafting communiqué that was critical of China. The United States-China geopolitical rivalry, as the incumbent superpower in the region and as an ascendant great power, respectively, threatens to pull ASEAN members in opposite directions.

ASEAN– the regional settings for balancing acts

ASEAN firmly believes that only an ASEAN-driven regional architecture would secure the three cardinal conditions that it holds important. These are maintaining Southeast Asia’s strategic autonomy, ensuring an inclusive regionalism, and preventing any one power or a concert of powers from exerting regional hegemony. ASEAN’s regional security maintenance endeavors are centered in bringing together major powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, under the ASEAN-led framework. The five-and-a-half-decade-old alliance takes pleasure in not just fulfilling these goals but also in creating an open regional architecture that unites many more nations than just its 10 member states.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which fosters multilateral diplomacy and dialogue between its member nations and external partners, acts as a critical platform for ASEAN’s balancing act and a venue for negotiations in the region.  In order to avoid disputes and misunderstandings in the Asia-Pacific area, it encourages dialogues and confidence-building initiatives. The ARF discusses regional security challenges like North Korea and the South China Sea disputes, as well as other issues like military transparency, defense policies, and the non-proliferation of WMDs. The forum applies preventive diplomacy, confidence building measures, capacity building utilizing its various platforms. These include the various ASEAN Plus One dialogues, ASEAN Plus Three (with China, Japan, and South Korea), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) since 1994, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) since 2005, various Track 1, Track 2 and Track 1.5 diplomatic initiatives.

ASEAN plays a balancing role

The ASEAN region has historically played a balancing role in the international arena, particularly in the context of great power politics. Some key aspects of ASEAN’s role in balancing:

  • Economic Balancing: With big countries like the United States, China, Japan, and others, ASEAN has been successful in striking a balance in its economic relations. China is ASEAN’s greatest business partner, whereas ASEAN is China’s third-largest trading partner. Simultaneously, it maintains robust economic connections with the United States and Japan. However, it has diversified its economic relations to ensure it doesn’t become overly dependent on any sides. It leverages these ties to secure investment, technology transfers, and market access. The ASEAN-U.S. Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) are prime examples of such engagements. To maintain economic autonomy and reduce reliance on external powers, it also has fostered intra-regional economic cooperation. For instance, Initiatives like the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with an aim to create a Schengen like single market and production base.
  • Political Balancing: Its commitment to political neutrality and non-alignment, which has been essential to the group’s identity and success in Southeast Asia’s complicated geopolitical environment, serves as the foundation for ASEAN’s political balancing acts. They are able to engage with several partners without being involved in geopolitical disputes because of their strategic decision to remain non-aligned. Moreover, the consensus-driven approach of the “ASEAN Way” has ensured intra-regional political stability and contributed to regional stability and unity. Forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) provide the platform for dialogue not only among the members but also with international communities.
  • Security Balancing: The region’s strategic location, drags ASEAN at the heart of current global security challenges. Neighboring China and North Korea’s aggressive behavior put the region at the forefront of security challenges. The organization, however, plays a crucial role in security balancing in Southeast Asia by actively managing security challenges in the region. Their approach centers on dialogue, cooperation, negotiation and peaceful conflict resolution. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is a key component of ASEAN’s security balancing efforts. It serves as a platform for building trust, addressing regional security concerns, and promoting conflict prevention. The ARF’s track record includes discussions on nuclear disarmament, counter-terrorism, and maritime security. For example, ASEAN’s role in facilitating the Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations between some of its member states and China regarding the South China Sea dispute is an example of its efforts to address this complex issue through diplomacy and dialogue, ultimately contributing to security in the region.
  • Soft Balancing and Diplomacy: ASEAN effectively regulates its ties with major nations through the use of soft balancing and diplomacy. Soft balancing entails influencing dominating states’ behavior without resorting to coercion in order to preserve regional stability. Institutions led by ASEAN, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN+3), are essential to this approach. China, Japan, and South Korea are members of ASEAN+3, which promotes economic cooperation and communication. Discussions on political and security problems are facilitated by the EAS, a larger forum that consists of ASEAN, its dialogue partners, Russia, and the United States. Through these forums, ASEAN interacts with major countries in a way that fosters constructive negotiation and conflict prevention. Confidence-building measures, such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) and efforts to combat transnational issues like piracy and terrorism, further enhance cooperation and trust among nations. Perhaps the epitome of ASEAN’s balancing role in soft power and diplomacy would be the two Trump-Kim summits. Where US president Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jun Un at two different occasions, both under mediation of ASEAN nations, first at Singapore in 2018 and at second summit at Vietnam in 2019.

Through its multidimensional approach to economic, political, security, and diplomatic balancing, ASEAN has demonstrated its ability to play a balancing role in Southeast Asia’s complex geopolitical landscape. Using its fundamental ideals of neutrality and non-alignment to advance regional stability, the organisation has successfully navigated the difficulties presented by major power rivalry. Platforms like the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have been used by ASEAN to promote communication and collaboration amongst key states. Additionally, it has sought peaceful resolutions to conflicts, particularly in the South China Sea, through diplomacy and confidence-building measures. As the region evolves, ASEAN’s balancing role remains pivotal in ensuring peace, security, and prosperity in Southeast Asia.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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