One thing overlooked amidst China’s dramatic territorial claims in the South China Seas is how their actions have impacted the region’s most successful institution: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN’s reputation varies depending on the audience, but it serves as the region’s preeminent political organization. Certainly one can argue that ASEAN has not done enough, but it has accomplished some remarkable things in its history – assisting in encouraging Burma to open up to the outside world, push forward the pace of economic integration in Vietnam, helping to create a shared SE Asia economic plan (particularly after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis), and generally increasing the amount of bilateral and multilateral interaction within SE Asia. ASEAN may not be the most important international organization in existence, but it has served the region well (especially when comparing it to South Asia’s equivalent – SAARC).
Yet, for all its accomplishments, ASEAN seems more divided today than ever before. This is partly due to the global economic downturn and the increased national pressures such a global change causes, but an additional reason is China. Specifically, Chinese foreign policy in relation to the South China Sea became a flashpoint for division among the ASEAN states.
Thus far, Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea have put them in conflict with Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. Indonesia and Malaysia have sought a balanced approach between their neighbors and China (but Malaysia has started to sour on China). Cambodia, Laos, and Burma have traditionally backed the People’s Republic. The South China Sea dispute was a major topic of discussion during the past ASEAN member meeting, but for the first time the member states were unable to issue a joint communique.
China has successfully deployed their military resources and commercial fishing fleets to “acquire” substantial territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese have coupled their actions at sea with a political offensive designed to breed discord among the ASEAN member states. Few seem to be talking about this issue, but they should be. ASEAN is one of the few institutions that could serve as a natural body by which to decide the territorial disputes. With the organization weakened and sidelined, SE Asian states will pursue other options – like appealing to the United Nations or seeking greater ties to the United States. In short, a weakened ASEAN makes it more likely that conflict will escalate.
Analysts and scholars around the world should be examining the health of ASEAN, as it likely serves as the best legitimate means by which to alleviate rising tensions in SE Asia.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.