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Photo illustration by John Lyman

While it may lack the might to decisively alter China’s course, its importance as a diplomatic forum and counterbalance should not be underestimated.

The 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta has, once again, unmasked the complex power dynamics and seeming apathy in confronting emergent threats and the escalating urgency of risks. This perpetual cycle is a knotted tapestry of conflicting self-interests and collective ambitions, eroding the organization’s efforts to enhance its conflict-prevention architecture.

For Malaysia, ASEAN serves as an essential bastion of economic security. It remains a reliable, proven, and geographically sensible framework for trade security and sustainability—particularly in an era of global volatility. With a combined GDP nearing $3 trillion, ASEAN ranks as the world’s fifth-largest economy, and it’s projected to ascend to the fourth position by 2030.

While intra-ASEAN trade has languished at a mere 22.3%, and economic disparities between member states continue to widen, the organization nonetheless remains a bulwark of economic stability and a dependable supplier of energy and food security for its members, Malaysia included.

Malaysia’s vision for ASEAN is a cornerstone for both economic and geopolitical stability, particularly when it contemplates long-term strategy. Kuala Lumpur is acutely aware that its current deep-rooted economic dependence on China is unsustainable, especially as signs of China’s waning growth and internal socio-economic upheavals emerge.

This downturn in China’s public demand and consumption, along with its deflationary pressures, reverberates within Malaysia, affecting Belt and Road Initiative projects and other investments in the country.

The geopolitical tremors from Myanmar also put Malaysia and its neighbors in a precarious position, particularly in managing the looming refugee crisis. China’s ever-increasing foothold in Myanmar—spanning from security to natural resources like rare earth minerals—has caused jitters among regional stakeholders. Beijing’s advances not only allow it access to the Indian Ocean but also offer an alternative geopolitical chessboard to strengthen its continental influence.

Kuala Lumpur’s assertive stance on the Myanmar issue aligns with a values-based approach, aiming to stem the regional tide of authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic norms. The festering crisis in Myanmar, coupled with ASEAN’s lackluster response, threatens to dissolve the unity of the regional bloc. This myopia underscores the organization’s inherent limitations, rooted in its cumbersome consensus-building model and glacial decision-making processes. These flaws are exacerbated by the diverse political landscapes of its members, ranging from nascent democracies to outright authoritarian regimes.

In the grand scheme, the unchecked crisis in Myanmar could destabilize the region, serving as a potential incubator for extremism. It stands as the Achilles heel of ASEAN, revealing the organization’s deep-seated constraints and the ramifications of its inability to act decisively. Amidst this backdrop, member states are in a frantic quest for unity as the discord and differences in handling the crisis continue to foment.

ASEAN’s evolving role in regional security

Viewed as an essential diplomatic buffer, ASEAN has long been embraced by member states like Malaysia as a forum to temper confrontations with China. This stands particularly true when it comes to the contested waters of the South China Sea, where countries in the region seek a more robust, unified ASEAN stance to counter China’s divide-and-conquer approach.

Manila, for its part, has been advocating for ASEAN to pivot from its traditional economic and diplomatic functions to assume a more pronounced role in security matters. In essence, the Philippines desires that the alliance shift from being an amiable facilitator to a robust wielder of hard power.

However, skepticism abounds, particularly in Western circles, about ASEAN’s ability to deter Chinese aggression without possessing significant military and economic clout. Ironically, for ASEAN to preserve its cherished tenets of neutrality and centrality, it may well need assurances from external powers.

Recognizing this conundrum, key regional players such as Manila, Hanoi, and Jakarta continue to view ASEAN as a crucial counterbalance. Despite its limitations, they consider the organization to be a vital instrument for mitigating China’s assertiveness. Moreover, they see ASEAN as a mechanism to attract greater Western economic engagement and military backing.

The sobering reality remains that, either individually or collectively, ASEAN and its member states lack the leverage to dictate China’s economic or military activities in the region. The geopolitical scales are weighted more heavily in China’s favor, although recent signs of its economic decline might slowly tip the balance back towards ASEAN.

China, for its part, is wary of overextending itself. A multi-front conflict—spanning Taiwan (which would likely draw in Japan and South Korea), the South China Sea, the Himalayan border with India, and a potentially strained relationship with Russia—would stretch its resources thin. The latter scenario gains particular credence in light of Washington’s speculated strategy to sever the Moscow-Beijing alliance, especially if there were a return to power by Donald Trump.

In this complex web of relationships and conflicts, ASEAN finds itself at a pivotal juncture, grappling with its evolving role in regional security. While it may lack the might to decisively alter China’s course, its importance as a diplomatic forum and counterbalance should not be underestimated.

ASEAN and China’s calculated security dance

Why Beijing’s involvement in the region is about more than economic ties.

In a world defined by shifting power dynamics, China’s intricate relationship with ASEAN increasingly revolves around more than just trade. At its core, Beijing aims to keep the region from tilting toward the West—a strategic pivot that would complicate China’s military ambitions in the South China Sea, hinder its long-term goals related to Taiwan and jeopardize its broader Pacific strategies.

When China finds alternative trade routes—be it through Myanmar and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port or future pathways in the Arctic—its focus on the South China Sea will turn increasingly militaristic. Far from merely guarding oil and gas deposits or bountiful marine resources, these waters will become a fortified stronghold aimed at limiting U.S. naval power and extending China’s strategic reach as far as the continental U.S. and Alaska.

Beijing cleverly utilized the recent ASEAN Summit to strengthen its economic leverage. Capitalizing on the absence of President Biden, China reinforced the narrative that Washington is more interested in containing China than genuinely investing in the region’s development. Amid these high-stakes discussions, Beijing inked new agreements with ASEAN in key areas such as agriculture, portraying it as the newest engine for mutual growth.

China’s increasing climate woes and rising food insecurity make these agricultural agreements vital. With internal food production dwindling and the possibility of food resources becoming a weaponized commodity, Beijing seeks assurance from the region to stave off its looming food crisis.

In terms of geopolitics, China sees Southeast Asia as a cushion against the adverse effects of the United States’ technology embargo and potential economic decoupling. Beijing knows it must deepen its involvement in the region, especially as U.S. sanctions loom larger.

The stakes are high, especially as Beijing considers its String of Pearls strategy aimed at containing India and breaking the West’s First Island Chain—a series of archipelagos off the eastern coasts of the Asian continental mainland. The region also offers a refuge for top firms fleeing Beijing’s stringent rules, offering an alternative hub in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The narrative China is carefully crafting revolves around its image as an “inevitable neighbor” with hard power to spare. Economic coercion is a less viable strategy for Beijing as its own economy stumbles. The message is clear: ASEAN nations must consider China, not India or a combined Republic of Korea-Japan, as their most reliable long-term partner.

This persuasion extends to defense diplomacy. China seeks to depict itself as a responsible military power, contrasting its nearness and historical ties to the region against what it portrays as the West’s distant and self-serving agendas.

China’s pressure on ASEAN to maintain a stance of neutrality serves Beijing well. It wants to deter any collective action from the West and prefers bilateral negotiations, which allow for easier manipulation. The focus is particularly on continental Southeast Asia, where China already wields significant influence, as opposed to archipelagic nations that have proven more resistant to its charm offensive.

Caught in a geopolitical quagmire, ASEAN is paralyzed by the conflicting forces around it. Power plays and posturing have left the association in a state of suspended animation, especially with potential conflicts looming in the South China Sea and Taiwan. For years, China has orchestrated its regional policies to serve one ultimate goal: bringing Taiwan under its control. In this grand strategy, ASEAN must remain pliable, susceptible to Beijing’s influence, and largely disengaged from Western military alliances.

In sum, while ASEAN grapples with its own existential challenges, its fate is increasingly woven into China’s calculated tapestry of regional and global ambitions—a game that Beijing intends to win at all costs.

Fading into make-believe reality

In an era of shifting global power dynamics, ASEAN remains caught in an existential quandary: to adapt or to stick with the tried-and-true. For the organization, the path ahead is strewn with both urgency and critical implications. It’s a classic double bind: a perilous scenario where each option carries its own set of drawbacks.

To maintain relevance, ASEAN has made attempts to diversify its partnerships, extending olive branches to the European Union, Canada, Japan, and South Korea, among others. This is not merely a diplomatic maneuver; it’s a strategic message to China. ASEAN aims to make it clear that its future economic stability and ambition—encapsulated in its Community Vision for 2045—will not be hitched solely to Beijing’s wagon.

The member states recognize that the ASEAN platform serves as a magnet for collective investment and broader geopolitical interest. No individual nation within this grouping can hope to thrive in isolation; different players bring unique capabilities to the table. A united and unequivocal stance from ASEAN could thus amplify its collective bargaining power.

The issue of security looms as the ultimate litmus test for ASEAN’s future relevance. The organization is carefully calibrating its steps to build a compelling case for a regional ethos of shared burden and vulnerability. The aim is to attract greater investment and involvement from global powers, both in economic and security sectors, without eliciting increased aggression from China. Failure in this endeavor could leave the group vulnerable to the direct impact of hard power and influence.

Inextricably linked with China’s own expansive vision—its so-called “Chinese Dream” of 2049—ASEAN’s destiny is tied to Beijing’s ambitions. In a worst-case scenario, this relationship could deteriorate into outright conflict, particularly if the arms and power races escalate beyond a point of no return.

At present, ASEAN is hobbled by a strategy of cautious neutrality and diplomatic hedging, which essentially equates to serving all sides without making waves. This approach has left the organization in a perpetual cycle of unease and potential irrelevance unless there’s a fundamental reassessment of its core tenets and alliances.

In this precarious landscape, ASEAN must navigate carefully. The stakes are high, the options fraught, and the consequences of inaction could relegate the organization to the sidelines of history.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.