The national flags of the various countries attending the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit are displayed in Bangkok on November 4, 2019. (Photo by Romeo GACAD / AFP)

Finding ASEAN’s Voice Amid the Din of Geopolitics

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The re-emergence of the “neutrality” term in a recent ASEAN statement shows the underlying tensions between a fallback position based on neutrality and autonomy, as opposed to a more forward “principled neutrality” position based on international law.

On 8 August 2020, ASEAN celebrated its 53rd anniversary under an especially somber environment. As the number of Covid-19 infections and death tolls have hit new heights, US-China relations – so important for the stability of the grouping – has hit new lows every day. Speaking at the online ASEAN Day celebration, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi emphasised the importance for ASEAN to maintain “regional peace and stability, not to be dragged into the storm of geopolitical tensions or being forced to choose sides.” Echoing her views, Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh acknowledged that “the new dynamism in our geostrategic landscape, emerging regional and global issues require ASEAN to be ever more cohesive and responsive.” This year’s ASEAN Day thus provided a fitting occasion for ASEAN foreign ministers to release their Statement on the Importance of Maintaining Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia, which aims to stake out ASEAN’s position on the region’s emerging geopolitical fault-lines.

Notable in the statement is the re-emergence of the term “neutrality” and the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration. Adopted in 1971, ZOPFAN sought to secure Southeast Asia’s neutrality and freedom from external interference, mainly driven by Indonesia and Malaysia’s aspirations for regional autonomy and apprehensions of Cold War entanglements. However, ZOPFAN was no longer in vogue after the Cold War as ASEAN has transitioned from insulation to inclusiveness in its strategic outlook. Since the 1990s, ASEAN has proactively and successfully engaged all external powers through ASEAN-led mechanisms in pursuit of an “open and inclusive” regional architecture. The re-introduction of ZOPFAN in the latest ASEAN foreign ministers’ statement, however, suggests an instinctive fallback position, at least on the part of some ASEAN member states, to rely on “neutrality” (not taking sides) and “autonomy” (keeping external powers at bay) in response to the current great power rivalries.

Yet, in its overall balance, the statement reveals both the tension and reconciliation between the fallback position and a more forward-looking approach that does not see “neutrality” in a static, passive equidistant condition vis-à-vis the external powers. It adopts international law (notably mentioned three times in the statement) as an anchor for regional peace and a qualification for the region’s neutrality. In other words, this approach embraces “principled neutrality” based on the benchmarks of international law to guide ASEAN’s position on specific issues even as this might put ASEAN at odds with either or both great powers. It recognises the growing importance of using international law to protect ASEAN member states’ interests and to cope with more geopolitical turmoil ahead.

The statement reveals as much about the divisive dynamic among ASEAN member states as their efforts at bridging the gap so as to put up an ASEAN common position on the unfolding US-China rivalry.

This approach is also outward-looking as it projects ASEAN not as a detached oasis but as an engaged hub of multilateral diplomacy that is open to and inclusive of all major powers. The statement reiterates the importance of observing the purposes and principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) and the Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations. These are the purposes and principles that ASEAN member states and all its major partners, including the US and China, subscribe to. The juxtaposition of these outward-looking ASEAN documents and the relatively closed posture of ZOPFAN appear to be incongruous, but such is the ASEAN way of accommodating divergent views in a negotiated text. In fact, being an oasis is neither a reality nor an option as the statement explicitly encourages “the constructive engagement of ASEAN’s external partners, through ASEAN-led mechanisms”. It also urges them to “work with ASEAN in promoting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and undertaking cooperation on the key areas of cooperation identified in the Outlook” to build mutual trust and benefit. This is a far cry from the “regional solutions to regional problems” quest in ZOPFAN.

The statement reveals as much about the divisive dynamic among ASEAN member states as their efforts at bridging the gap so as to put up an ASEAN common position on the unfolding US-China rivalry. It also speaks to the region’s heightened fear of entanglements and the urgency for ASEAN to find its voice and avoid making binary choices. But binary choices will not be made in a single, grand sweep but on various specific issues. One of the crucial tests would be on the South China Sea disputes. For example, how can ASEAN exercise its “principled neutrality” on this sensitive issue? Where does ASEAN stand in the collision between the “regional solutions to regional problems” approach and the search for external balancing power(s) in the regional maritime order? Most likely, the voice that ASEAN can collectively garner will continue to be loaded with nuance and ambivalence – one that is safe but would make few ripples beyond the shores of Southeast Asia.

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