The term “ASEAN centrality” is used so often that one assumes the concept is alive and well. But as recent polling suggests, ASEAN centrality is at the risk of going bankrupt.
From one perspective, ASEAN centrality seems to be alive and well. After all, world leaders highlight the importance of ASEAN centrality seemingly every chance they get. The United States’ National Security Strategy affirms “the centrality of ASEAN.” The leaders of the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) pledge their “unwavering support for ASEAN unity and centrality.” China promises to “unswervingly support ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architecture.” The European Union promotes an “open, inclusive, transparent and rules-based regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific region, in which ASEAN is central”. At least rhetorically, ASEAN is still “in the driver’s seat”.
But despite these positive affirmations lies a different reality: ASEAN centrality is on life support. While those outside of ASEAN insist it is central, Southeast Asian experts suggest otherwise. A shocking 82.6 per cent of respondents in the 2023 State of Southeast Asia survey said “ASEAN is slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments, becoming irrelevant in the new world order”. Six out ten polled also warned that “ASEAN is becoming increasingly disunited”. The warning signs could not be more clear.
Former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan once cautioned: “ASEAN centrality and leaderships (sic) need to be earned.” Today, new minilateral groupings are emerging in the Indo-Pacific and many are designed to offset the failures of ASEAN, not amplify its successes. Indeed, none of these new minilateral coalitions have ASEAN at their core. Rather, they are attracting interest due to the perceived failure of ASEAN-led multilateral institutions to address the region’s most serious challenges, such as the South China Sea disputes. This casts doubt on ASEAN’s unique leadership role.
The most notable example of this phenomenon is the Quad. Geographically it represents a diamond, with Japan to the north, Australia to the south, India to the west, and the United States to the east. What lies at the middle? ASEAN, of course. The Quad is looking for ways to support Southeast Asian countries from the outside, which is itself a recognition of ASEAN’s struggles. It should come as no surprise that many in Southeast Asia view the Quad and other minilateral arrangements as threats to ASEAN centrality (although it is notable that half of Southeast Asian experts view the Quad as positive for the region). The Quad’s attraction is a telling signal that ASEAN centrality can no longer be assumed.
Of course, the weakening of ASEAN centrality does not mean that ASEAN itself is unimportant. Preventing a resurgence of hostility and conflict among Southeast Asian states is still a chief objective and major accomplishment of ASEAN. As Singapore’s Bilahari Kausikan notes, “ASEAN’s essential purpose thus remains to manage relationships between its members.” Maintaining ASEAN unity will be both more important and more difficult due to Myanmar’s continuing political crisis and a host of other simmering intra-ASEAN tensions.
ASEAN unity may be a precondition for ASEAN centrality, but it is by no means sufficient. ASEAN centrality has several meanings, which Amitav Acharya describes as serving as an institutional platform, a hub for Asian regionalism, and even a model for other sub-regional groups. Today, however, each of these concepts is under strain. As new regional institutions are built outside ASEAN, they increasingly serve as hubs for cooperation. At the same time, ASEAN’s own struggles call into question the attractiveness of its model and its role as an “honest broker”.
To stay relevant, ASEAN members cannot simply attempt to maintain neutrality or non-alignment. Across-the-board alignment is unlikely, but even à-la-carte coalitions come with big risks, including to ASEAN unity.
Southeast Asian leaders continue to want to avoid being “forced to choose between the United States and China”, as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has frequently noted. But outside Southeast Asia, many regional players — India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan — are rethinking their alignments. Few are aligning with or against other countries across the board. Instead, most are making clearer choices on individual issues. For example, India is not picking a side, but it is expanding technology cooperation with Washington. In this new environment, ASEAN’s pursuit of across-the-board non-alignment or neutrality no longer appears to be an attractive or sustainable model.
This is not to argue that the U.S. or China should force regional states to choose. ASEAN centrality has long helped to protect the autonomy of its members. But the difficulty of hedging appears to be increasing. As the prospect of conflict between the U.S. and China has grown more real, the security competition has intensified and spilled over into non-security spheres. For example, even choices about adopting non-military technology (such as signing up to the Digital Silk Road) now sends a signal about alignment choices. Shuxian Luo has therefore warned that “as U.S.-China strategic competition intensifies, the geopolitical buffer ASEAN has instituted in the past three decades is rapidly shrinking.”
It has often been said that Southeast Asian states “look to China for economic growth and to the United States for security guarantees”. This approach no longer appears sustainable, at the least where economic and security issues are being merged into a common concept: economic security. Economic decoupling and security competition will increasingly force businesses and governments to opt into one system or the other, particularly in sectors with national security implications, such as semiconductors and information technology.
Non-alignment and neutrality will, of course, remain options. But the attractiveness of these approaches will decline if the benefits they bring shrink. And to the extent that ASEAN hews to across-the-board non-alignment while other regional players adopt more differentiated strategies, it risks undermining ASEAN centrality. In short, difficult choices are coming into focus and ASEAN appears less and less capable of helping its members (or others in the broader region) to avoid tough decisions.
The dominant forces in Asia today are centrifugal – they are pulling the great powers apart. But maintaining ASEAN centrality requires pulling the outside powers back in. To stay relevant, ASEAN members cannot simply attempt to maintain neutrality or non-alignment. But alignment – be it across-the-board, which is unlikely, or à-la-carte, which is actually happening – comes with big risks to ASEAN unity. ASEAN centrality is therefore at risk of going bankrupt “gradually, then suddenly” (to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway). The “gradual” portion has already occurred. One can only hope that the “sudden” portion does not.
Zack Cooper is Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University and Princeton University.