Questioned Centrality: Will ASEAN Stand Stronger in the South China Sea?

Written by Rahina Dyah Adani, University of Gadjah Mada (picture: Reuters)

The unimproved situation in the South China Sea has questioned ASEAN’s so-called ‘centrality’ in security of the region. The association is said to be more divided in regards to the South China Sea dispute as U.S. and China have divided the group by working arduously behind the scenes in lobbying the members to support their positions in the South China Sea. Regarding ASEAN centrality, the superpowers are more likely to be treating the claimed position of ASEAN only by paying lip service without actually treating it in a way ‘centrality’ should be faced.

The overall image of how ASEAN Centrality is handling the situation in the South China Sea does not make it any better. It is agreeable that security matters in the region are not inseparable from both U.S. and China as proven by the recent dangerous, physical confrontation of U.S.’s USS Decatur and China’s Luyang Destroyer. However, despite the need to involve both superpowers in security issues of the South China Sea, the Centrality’s role in this matter seems to have lesser relations to the U.S. and becoming more Sino-centric. With increasing skepticism about ASEAN’s ability in bridging the competition in the South China Sea, the ideal implementation of the centrality of ASEAN remains unachieved.

Indeed, ASEAN is not staying silent in showing its centrality. There have been several occasions where the member states remind other powers about the centrality belonging to the Association. This includes expressing concerns over several situations in which one of them is the aforementioned physical confrontation of the powers’ warships. In addition to that, ASEAN has been working on the Code of Conduct (C.O.C.) for the South China Sea since 2002, along with China, who finally agreed on the first single draft in 2018. Despite the slow progress in approaching the final draft, this is seen as a huge step as ASEAN has been urging China to cooperate with the making of C.O.C. for years.

For years now, ASEAN has insisted that it must be central in security issues regarding this. Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen offered three reasons for this argument. First, any other alternatives would be worse both collectively and for the larger powers. Second, ASEAN member states border two key maritime domains—the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca which are pivotal for global trade. Lastly, ASEAN’s values assure the larger powers as the Association is “neutral, inclusive, and open.”

Regrettably, even with the efforts and arguments given, centrality seems to remain unobtainable. The actions taken by ASEAN are perceived as less assertive in carrying out its centrality. No bold decision has been made as the Association could only express concern and question things without doing anything aside from working on the gradual drafting of the C.O.C.

As a result, the questioning of ASEAN centrality is more heard. Though Ng had argued that ASEAN’s values would assure the larger powers, it is never what the superpowers want. Both China and U.S. are fighting for dominance in the region. It is less likely for ASEAN to properly mitigate the strong competition of dominance when its values are rather soft and meant to play safe. At the end of the day, the ability of the Association in making bolder decisions have prompted questions to arise regarding the competence of it carrying out centrality.

This inability is not without cause. It is said that the key barricade for ASEAN in reaching its highest potential in centrality is the asymmetrical relations of power existing between the actors involved. Holding the position of centrality, ASEAN has to face two of the global superpowers whose influences exist in most, if not all, of its member states. With each of its member states having their own dependency on the superpowers, ASEAN has become more fragile compared to the two. This surely affects ASEAN’s power in relations to U.S. and China as well as to how the superpowers view it in the South China Sea.

The idea of ASEAN as the weaker one has influenced the actors’ actions toward one another. Meanwhile, China and U.S. show regular acts of two competing powers against each other, their actions towards ASEAN leaves the impression of ignorance. U.S. acts as if ASEAN is not to be thought of as the issue and China knows very well that the Association would not be daring enough to take a strong stand against it.

China’s impression of the weaker ASEAN explains how it managed to take advantage of the delays in the arrangement of C.O.C. by distracting the Association to build reclamation island in the South China Sea. Ideally, ASEAN should act upon this. However, as ASEAN’s dependency on

China is now greater than ever, the Association seemed to have turned a blind eye. This shows how the asymmetrical relations of powers in the South China Sea have affected ASEAN centrality’s effectiveness in ensuring security of the region.

This is not to be separated with how ASEAN’s solidarity is considered to be weak. It is divided both by differing dependency to superpowers and by interests. Taking a bold unified decision for the group would not be easy, especially with consensus decision-making. A strong stand in facing the superpowers might affect members’ individual interests as they are under the influence of the greater powers. This low solidarity has become the reason of ASEAN’s weakness in facing the powers in the South China Sea. With the member states not having enough unified interests in facing the external actors, ASEAN has become rather fragile in the region.

Now that the problems barricading ASEAN centrality’s effectiveness are discussed, it is considered that ASEAN should focus first on strengthening its solidarity at the fundamental level. It has been urged to re-examine its Charter and redefine its consensus-building mechanism to become more flexible and adaptive to achieve unity. This might be agreeable as ASEAN has been too rigid in keeping its peaceful system that conflicts are more likely to be buried rather than solved. Still, the rigidness of ASEAN and its principles are not something that can be easily changed as they were built and agreed on by the member states with strong backgrounds. Redefining these values would not be simple and the possibility of it becoming a distraction for ASEAN is bigger.

Thus, an alternative is given as a solution. It is said that ASEAN’s member states with high bargaining power should step up to take initiatives to face the superpowers on behalf of ASEAN. Member states with considerable bargaining power are said to have the potential to push ASEAN’s bargaining position in facing the superpowers if they agree to take collective initiative to use their bargaining positions as a weapon for ASEAN. Member states such as the ASEAN-5 are considered strong enough to take this initiative as they are important enough for U.S. and China despite being dependent on U.S. and China as well. These interdependences, when perceived as unified, are enough to ‘put the larger powers in their place’ for they will start to take the ASEAN member states seriously.

It is to be noted that it is important for other ASEAN member states to prepare themselves to support these initiating states as this solution might be dangerous for the states’ interests if anything goes wrong. With this solution, it is believed that at least the asymmetrical relations of power in the South China Sea will not be as severe as how it is currently playing out to be.

Unfortunately, this solution is much easier said than done. Knowing that some member states’ interests might be in danger, it will not be easy just to take one starting step. Trust issues will be a hindrance if the initiating states start to question one another’s sincerity. The possibility for betrayal is big if one party decides to step back to protect its interests.

In addition, the assurance of ASEAN’s complete support is severely needed. There has to be a way to prove to the initiating states that the whole member states of ASEAN are all in to support them in this initiative. Above all, taking the daring first step is not easy. Unless the member states are brave and faithful enough for this action, this initiative will not go well and even lessen ASEAN’s solidarity more than ever.

Whether this solution is taken or not, ASEAN will have to keep walking on eggshells in the South China Sea. Its solidarity is challenged as it is forced to step away from its comfort zone when people are questioning its so-called ‘centrality.’ As the U.S. and China keep its grip on the main roles in the region, ASEAN is faced with the choice of playing along with the superpowers’ game or taking a stronger and bolder position. Unless ASEAN fixes the asymmetrical relations of power in the region, the game in the South China Sea will never belong to the Association.

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