By Laura Gormley

Laura Gormley is a Masters of Global Policy candidate at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Her research interests include China’s role
in reshaping sustainable development and international development finance, and global environmental policy.

The past few months have dealt Southeast Asia a losing hand. The region has been hit by a devastating third wave of the pandemic, fallout from a coup in Myanmar, and a worsening environmental crisis at the Mekong Delta. Now the region has become the stomping ground for the US and Chinas’ gunboat diplomacy. AUKUS is not the deus ex machina to Southeast Asia’s China problem that America would like to believe it is. It poses a serious risk to ASEAN’s stability and legitimacy. ASEAN will continue to serve as the force of collaboration and authority to Southeast Asia, if it can demonstrate solidarity and careful navigation of US-China escalations. At the October 24th summit, it will be critical for ASEAN to reach a consensus position on a co-engagement strategy with the US and China to defend Southeast Asia’s voice in a realm of great power politics. 

Agreement is rare at the UN General Assembly, so at the 76th session, it was surprising to see indictments one after another of the failure to cooperate on global challenges. Southeast Asia’s cooperation through ASEAN is, unfortunately, an anomaly in both its survival and its contributions to conflict reduction and collaboration. ASEAN’s inharmonious responses to AUKUS and public chastising of the Philippines’ open backing of the deal are concerning symptoms of internal division. Supporters of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” are worried that division in ASEAN will mean vulnerability to China’s increasingly aggressive seizures of territory and resources. It is critical for ASEAN to come to a consensus on a South China Sea strategy to protect the organization’s authority in the region, and to ameliorate tensions. 

The member countries of ASEAN are positioned in a complex web of economic and security relationships with the US and China. The asymmetry and opacity of these relationships creates insecurity for the US and China. Asserting ASEAN’s independent authority as a third actor in the South China Sea is a less stressful outcome for both powers, who fear the other co-opting the regional order. A consolidated and independent response from ASEAN thus serves a two-fold purpose. First, it affirms the authority of ASEAN in setting precedents of conduct in the South China Sea. Second, it reduces the voice of external powers, such as the US, from dispute resolution and decision-making processes, diffusing the need for an assertive response from China. This solution has a proven track record of success and is highly probable with the current goals of member countries. 

ASEAN’s shared priorities have been the linchpin to combatting attempts to co-opt an ASEAN-led governance strategy. From 2011-2013 China failed to prevent the drafting of the ASEAN Code of Conduct. China challenged the organization directly and used Cambodia’s vote as a proxy to halt drafting. ASEAN’s resolve in the face of this external threat to its authority demonstrates a shared preference among its members for ASEAN to serve as the regional authority over China. It also showed the organization’s power to withstand individual dissenters. Member countries’ deference to an ASEAN-determined strategy, as opposed to individual action, reinforced the authority of ASEAN in defining the involvement of other powers in their affairs. With its unity and authority under threat from the US’s unilateral power move, presenting a unified South China Sea strategy will increase ASEAN’s voice on the global stage. 

As President Biden reorients foreign policy towards an active Indo-Pacific approach and begins panning for allies amid China’s increasingly aggressive actions, the stakes of taking a stance on the US-China conflict have increased. It is yet to be seen if the US’s South China Sea presence accelerates or counter-balances China. Regardless, direct interference in the US-China power play cannot be rectified with an ASEAN-led mandate and would not serve to diffuse tensions in the South China Sea. An active co-engagement strategy is necessary because of the delicate economic network tying most member countries to China, and ASEAN’s inability to compete with US military power. 

Based on China’s responses to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the US’s pivot away from Indo-Pacific engagement under President Trump, scholars Huiyun Feng and Kai He observed that a balancing approach that includes China will be the most effective method of limiting aggression. Carlyle A. Thayer puts the idea of co-engagement another way by characterizing Vietnam’s foreign policy approach to China as “cooperation and struggle,” referencing the duality of engaging in trade relations with China without comprising state sovereignty. This approach is least likely to provoke an aggressive response that escalates existing tensions in the region. It is also a feasible compromise for member countries that cannot extricate themselves from trade connections. A policy demonstrating ASEAN’s consolidated position and co-engagement with the US and China will put ASEAN in the best position to handle its current challenges. Doing nothing will enable the entropy of China-US tensions to wrench apart the foundation ASEAN has carefully constructed.