Norms Competing, East or West in ASEAN

By Seon Young Yang

Political pundits, scholars, and diplomats have been inculcated with steadfast notions, i.e., norms and rules-based manners. Led by the school of liberalism, the values of multilateralism and international cooperation have been kept for decades as the ground rules to deter unnecessary bloodshed. Multilateralism, arguably spearheaded by the West, has been the unwavering doctrine in which the international and regional organizations, including the UN, EU, and ASEAN, have followed suit.

The invincible truth is that nothing lasts forever. Norms and rules-based frameworks are no exception. The United States, for example, the champion of these notions, cannot avoid reprimand as the Trump administration has caused upheavals in the multilateral trading system and in the international pledges to protect the green planet. Another champion, the United Kingdom, decided to leave the EU and went through a years-long divorce process.

While the West has been busy in their backyards, China has been quietly but substantially growing its power aspiring to become one of the superpowers, nudging the United States. Emerging hegemonies have cast a shadow looming in the region and elsewhere. Globalization and multilateralism have been recently challenged, and Asian countries, including ASEAN, have been almost pushed near the edge to choose the US or China. Nosy parkers even posit that ASEAN is stuck in the strategic proxy war between the US and China. Is this true? Recently, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong expressed his modest but well-thought answers on this matter with BBC Interview.

The prime minister does not “hope the time would come” to choose either one or the other as the defining influence in the region. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, have extensively interconnected with the two superpowers. While ASEAN has been cautious as per usual, the US and their allies, mostly in western Europe and Japan, have leaned towards the US to counterbalance China’s rise under the fashionable term, the Indo-Pacific. In order to gain legitimacy to empower the Indo-Pacific logic, not only the US but also the UK, Germany, and France have become proactive to promote the ideas and advance their diplomatic strategies, heralding the “free and open” concept, deep-rooted norms in the liberalism. As reflected in the article published in Foreign Affairs (Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, January 2021) early this year, the Biden’s administration is expected to focus on regaining the US’s image in multilateral orders. The two largest member states of the EU, Germany and France, have also reiterated to enhance partnership with the Indo-Pacific countries. This month, the UK government has finally issued the Global Britain in a competitive age (March 2021), the strategy heavily focused on again, Indo-Pacific. The vivid commonality of all these Indo-Pacific strategies by the West caters down to respect and uphold norms and the rules-based orders in free and open manners.

Unlike the EU, ASEAN has actively engaged external parties in the so-called ASEAN-led mechanism, such as APT, EAS, ARF, and ADMM-Plus. ASEAN Centrality often leads to a chain of criticism of being vague and inefficient. Consensus and unanimity are the core of the ASEAN Centrality. In the second layer, ASEAN’s common position and stance have supported such a decision-making process. ASEAN often refers to itself as a family of 10 members, and they finalize their common position before vis-à-vis many in the regional meetings where the US and China also engage. Those who prefer straightforwardness can barely stand on the ASEAN Centrality, but so far, ASEAN has demonstrated a diplomatic adroitness to make everyone seemingly happy.

ASEAN has encouraged external parties, including its nearest neighbors, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, to engage in the regional matters. Naysayers can argue that ASEAN is incapable of moving their regional integration forward, which is why external engagement matters much. Nevertheless, ASEAN has amplified the sphere of a new age of diplomacy where different parties across the region can meet at least once a year to exchange views and explore ways forward. ‘Manners maketh men’ suits the ASEAN way. ASEAN will never degrade any country or make it lose face. China has advanced its influence in the region for the last few years, and the BRI initiative has consolidated its economic muscle even more, particularly in ASEAN. Japan, for example, has always been respected by ASEAN, as reflected in the 2021 ISEAS Survey. Japan is even considered one of the most preferred nations to counterbalance US-China rivalry in the region and the EU. Heralded by its enamoring K-Wave, Korea has gained popularity in the region, especially among younger generations.

Looking at the figures, ASEAN Plus Three reached USD 869.1 billion, equivalent to 31% of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade volume as of 2018 (ASEAN Secretariat, April 2020). ASEAN is economically intertwined with their neighbors in East Asia noticeably. However, ASEAN does not block the gate for other guests who wish to sign formal relationships. Despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN welcomed France and Italy as Development Partners along with Germany and Chile last year. Cuba and Columbia signed the Treaty of Amity. There are more stakeholders than ever in the region. According to the 2021 ISEAS Survey, ASEAN prefers the US and other western countries, noticeably the EU. Economically, China is de facto the most influential power, but politically, the U.S. and the western influences still matter significantly. Thus, ASEAN has hedged between the norms and approaches from the East and the West. ASEAN will probably not whither its neutral position, at least in the foreseeable future. It is premature to tell which one is better, but ASEAN will again develop an inclusive concept to make every party satisfactory, as witnessed in ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific.

ASEAN has paved its way to survive and develop regional integration for more than five decades. Some political pundits still pompously neglect ASEAN as the talk shop of insignificant emerging nations in the southern hemisphere. Despite all odds, ASEAN has achieved external parties’ engagement and has made ASEAN relevant to various stakeholders. ASEAN has embraced every guest who wishes to tie a knot, and it will continue its practice. Those guest countries have expressed and unveiled new norms to attract ASEAN’s attention. What can be reassured is that there will be competing norms with ASEAN’s subtle permission, but ASEAN reigns in the throne to cherry-pick the best options available no matter how hard external parties accentuate their norms.


Seon Young Yang (Ms)

Seon Young Yang is a Senior Research Officer in the Mission of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN in Jakarta (2013-Present). Her academic qualifications are BA in Linguistics (University of East Anglia, the UK, 2006-9), MSc in European Studies and Communication Science (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium, 2011-12), and Graduate Diplomat in International Relations (London School of Economics, the UK, 2016).

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