Announcement of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during the ASEAN-Australia Summit in 2021. (Photo: ASEAN Secretariat, Flickr)

Is ASEAN’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Becoming A Farce?


Joanne Lin explains what a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership status means and how it should be leveraged to achieve ASEAN’s strategic interests.

Editor’s Note:
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.

Following the publication of this article in September 2022, India and the US established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) with ASEAN in November 2022.

ASEAN accorded the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) status to China and Australia at their respective Summits in October 2021. The establishment of the two CSPs has opened the floodgate for similar requests from other dialogue partners. It is expected that a round of elevation among ASEAN dialogue partners will take place in the next couple of years.

Observers have often wondered what the CSP means. ASEAN was clear that the new coveted partnership title is a recognition of the depth and breadth of the dialogue relations and not an upgrade. It has also emphasised that the new partnership should be meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial. The three words that are inseparable from the mention of a CSP are understood but undefinable. It was perhaps to allow ASEAN to justify its decisions, especially political ones.

These three criteria were not referred to when ASEAN granted the strategic partnership status in the last two decades to its dialogue partners (except Canada which is still in the process of gaining one, and the UK which has established a dialogue partnership with ASEAN in 2021). Prior to the CSP, a strategic partnership was understood to be the highest form of engagement between ASEAN and a dialogue partner, although ASEAN claims that it does not confer a hierarchy of status. Many of the elevations followed recommendations made by an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) set up between ASEAN and the dialogue partner, reflecting a more deliberative process.

As a new nomenclature, it makes little sense that the CSP does not denote an elevation of partnership. One can wonder what value it can bring to a dialogue partner if there is no differentiation in status. One would even wonder how ASEAN decides if a partnership is indeed meaningful, substantive, and beneficial.

Regardless of what ASEAN says, the new title would evidently give China and Australia a higher status than the other dialogue partners. Now that ASEAN has granted the CSP to China and Australia, it needs to ensure that other dialogue partners will also have a chance to upgrade their relations with ASEAN. This is to make sure that ASEAN is not seen to be taking sides or tilting towards any particular country.

So how did it all begin? China as the first partner to receive the strategic partnership status in October 2003 probably felt that the title could no longer give it any leverage in status within ASEAN, given that almost all dialogue partners had ended up with the same status — several of whom within the last ten years. India, Australia, and the US for example had their relations with ASEAN elevated to a strategic partnership in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively.

China, as a growing hegemon in a highly contested region, needs to stay ahead in its relations with ASEAN — a bloc that is at the centre of the regional architecture. According to China, its relations with ASEAN had created multiple “firsts”. It will not accept itself as being second to others. As such, although China claims that the elevation to a CSP is to highlight the solid foundation and broad cooperation with ASEAN, the unspoken reason is to maintain its number one status with ASEAN.

Political competition aside, it may be argued that both China and Australia do indeed enjoy comprehensive partnership statuses with most ASEAN countries. Thus, a CSP with ASEAN is a natural progression stemming from the longstanding bilateral relationships with deep and broad cooperation spanning across all dimensions.

Considerations were made based on their substantive cooperation with ASEAN. China has approximately 40 cooperation mechanisms (including more than ten at the Summit and Ministerial levels) with ASEAN while Australia has over 25 such mechanisms. However, that does not mean that other dialogue partners have less substantive cooperation with ASEAN. It just means that either they have not officially requested for a CSP, or awaiting an appropriate moment such as a Commemorative Summit to announce an “upgrade” in relations. After all, the best things should be reserved for special occasions.

The timing of the requests plays a part in ASEAN’s decision-making. In the case of China, the establishment of the CSP was made during the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China relations last year. Similarly, US and India will likely receive their titles at their summits with ASEAN in 2022 as both sides commemorate the 45th anniversary of ASEAN-US dialogue relations and the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations.

Now that the stars are aligned for China and Australia, what’s next? China and Australia will not be basking in new glories without work. Following the establishment of the CSPs with Australia and China, the ASEAN ministerial meetings with Australia and China in 2022 adopted new annexes to their Plans of Action with ASEAN to include new commitments befitting a comprehensive strategic partner. These include new initiatives like digital transformation and future skills, energy security, green recovery, regional and global supply chain resilience, fin-tech, new health initiatives, and upgrading existing free trade agreements.

In the case of China, new items include synergising the Belt and Road Initiative with ASEAN’s plans on connectivity, nuclear technology, joint production of vaccines, and technology transfer, as well as exploring cooperation under the priority areas of the Global Development Initiative. This is to ensure that the CSP is not an empty shell of nomenclature without substance.

While appeasing CSP requests, it seems reasonable that ASEAN may use such opportunities to extract benefits and find ways to strengthen its cooperation with important partners furher. However, ASEAN could have used such an occasion to ensure that dialogue partners are willing to promote ASEAN’s values, goals, and purposes, and to seek greater strategic alignment with ASEAN’s core interests.

Dialogue partners will signal their strongest support for ASEAN centrality and will promote many new initiatives. However, ASEAN should go beyond accepting such promises at face value and truly assess the real benefits to the region. After all, words are cheap and action speaks louder. Announcements of new cooperation initiatives should be jointly consulted with the relevant ASEAN sectoral bodies to ensure support for ASEAN’s priorities and not just the dialogue partner’s agenda.

Getting China to accept the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific has been a significant win for ASEAN — albeit, only to have it linked back to the Belt and Road Initiative. Similarly, ASEAN should have used such an opportunity to seek greater security assurances from China especially in the South China Sea. ASEAN could have made China agree to certain important clauses under the negotiation of the Code of Conduct before granting the CSP.

Also, in ensuring that comprehensive strategic partners will serve the strategic interest of ASEAN, the bloc should ensure that they consult or at least inform ASEAN beforehand on any new initiatives that could have a profound implication on the region’s security. In the case of the AUKUS (trilateral security pact between Australia, the US, and the UK), ASEAN was not consulted. Unilateral actions do not bode well for the region. It is important, therefore, for dialogue partners to respect ASEAN’s instrumental role in the region by consulting with ASEAN on key developments in the regional architecture.

More dialogue partners, including Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Russia, will be coming ASEAN’s way to gain a new title. ASEAN should leverage such opportunities to ensure greater strategic alignments rather than just piecemeal cooperation. China’s ambition has certainly got the ball rolling as no dialogue partner wants to be left out. ASEAN’s agenda will be filled. Will ASEAN ever say no? How ASEAN may stand up to its dialogue partners will be bared when all dialogue partners eventually end up with the same status.

Dialogue partners that have not received the CSP would have figured out some recipe for future success — timing, packages of new initiatives, some bilateral diplomatic lobbying and not forgetting to mention the sacrosanct word “ASEAN centrality” in every meeting and statement. Once the ingredients are in place, the stars will align to tick off the checklist of “meaningful, substantive, and mutually beneficial”. It is up to ASEAN to make sure CSPs are not turned into a farce.

Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.