ASEAN must unify, reassert itself for the sake of regional stability

While China is expanding its influence, divisions among member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have deepened, and ASEAN is unable to play a role in bringing about regional stability. ASEAN must stop the decline in its presence.

An international conference was held online, attended by foreign ministers from 10 ASEAN member states plus Japan, the United States, China and other countries.

China, based on its close ties with ASEAN nations, again made clear its stance of taking the initiative in regional affairs and excluding U.S. involvement.

Regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that China has been working with ASEAN to create norms to prevent conflicts. Wang also took a jab at the United States, saying that interference by countries outside the region constituted the biggest threat to regional stability.

Regarding measures against the novel coronavirus pandemic, China also emphasized that it has provided a large amount of Chinese-made vaccine to the region. While China is attempting to win over ASEAN members to its side with its military and economic power, the United States has been put on the defensive.

ASEAN, which was launched during the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union with the aim of avoiding involvement in conflicts between major powers, expanded, overcoming members’ differences in political systems and degrees of economic development. It is surely significant for ASEAN to maintain its unity even amid the current U.S.-China confrontation.

In reality, however, ASEAN’s role as a regional organization has declined, and it has been unable to demonstrate its presence in its relations with China, the situation in Myanmar and other issues.

Indonesia and Thailand had been the leading members of ASEAN, but a current lack of such leading countries may be a reason for ASEAN’s declining influence.

During a recent Asian tour, a senior U.S. government official, bypassing Indonesia and Thailand, visited Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore, which are of great strategic value to the United States. This seems to demonstrate the United States’ distrust toward the current situation of ASEAN.

The fact that differences among member countries in terms of political systems have widened compared to that at the start of the organization has also contributed to the group’s declining presence. In Cambodia, the prime minister has established a long-term dictatorship, and in Thailand the military is leading the government after having staged a coup.

Countries with iron-fisted rule tend to lean toward China, which does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, rather than Western nations, which demand democratization. If member nations are more starkly divided into pro-China and pro-U.S. camps, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain unity.

The only way for ASEAN to regain its leadership may be to stop the outrageous activities of the military in Myanmar and to promote dialogue with the pro-democracy camp.

An ASEAN special envoy to be dispatched to Myanmar has finally been appointed. The special envoy needs to meet not only senior military officials but also members of the pro-democracy camp, including Aung San Suu Kyi — who is still in custody — and make efforts to rectify the situation in the country.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 13, 2021.