CENTRALITY is the foundation of the Asean Charter. It is the driving force for relations and cooperation with non-members.
US President Joe Biden’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” claims to endorse Asean centrality and support its efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.
But the strategy actually undercuts the bloc’s core objective by building the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) as a “premier regional grouping” and bringing together Asia-Pacific allies in AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US), a trilateral security pact that was criticised by Indonesia and Malaysia.
These institutional initiatives, as well as the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), contradict America’s commitment to Asean and its centrality. The exclusion of Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos from the IPEF casts doubt in the alliance on Biden’s seriousness about the grouping’s unity.
Unsurprisingly, Asean’s response to the Quad, a product of the US strategic rivalry with China, has been muted.
The IPEF isn’t received well in the region either. People of the major economies hold negative views about the initiative or are uncertain whether it will have a positive impact on the region.
People in Asean are ambivalent about cooperating with minilateral alliances such as the Quad. The institutional competition between the Quad and Asean is another factor that urges regional states to draw closer to China in an attempt to hedge against the consequences of Washington’s strategic rivalry with Beijing.
Asean centrality barricades the success of the Biden administration’s goals. But America has been forcing regional states to take its side against China.
Some Quad diplomats are also striving to link the “Asean Framework of the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) with the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP). But the use of the term “Indo-Pacific” by the bloc doesn’t mean it is climbing on the institutional bandwagon with the Quad or supporting its vision.
Rather, the AOIP responds to the four-nation alliance’s presence in the region and reaffirms Asean’s common interest to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia and the wider region.
China’s endorsement of several key elements, including independence, openness, development and cooperation, has fostered an integrated approach to regional growth and stability.
This concerted effort has propelled bilateral trade to nearly US$1 trillion. This is set to grow with the launch of the third version of the China-Asean Free Trade Area (ACFTA 3.0).
Ninety per cent of the goods traded between China and Asean already get zero-tariff treatment. The ACFTA 3.0 will further reduce duties and enhance trade and investment liberalisation and facilitation.
It is expected to provide strong impetus for high-quality regional development, including in the digital economy and green transformation. It will also complement the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
In a number of meetings this year, China and Asean states agreed to uphold multilateralism, deepen economic engagement, support Asean neutrality and inclusiveness, and reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation.
Diplomats emphasised the regional countries didn’t want a conflict between China and the US, and sought to maintain a strong economic relationship with Beijing and others.
The US, which failed to rally support from the region for its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” and IPEF, is jeopardising Asean centrality and fomenting divisions in the alliance.
These coercive tactics risk the stability of the Asia-Pacific, and have led to a decline in the US influence and credibility in the region.
Asean practices a policy of non-intervention. In its foundational document, the alliance showed determination to safeguard regional stability from external interference.
It was solidified through Article 2 of the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which embodied universal principles including mutual respect for independence and every country’s right to lead an existence free from external interference, subversion and coercion.
Regional countries cannot be taken in by US assurances that it isn’t trying to create a Nato in the Asia-Pacific, and that AUKUS is just a technology-transferring arrangement.
Southeast Asian countries have long realised that AUKUS is part of a much bigger dynamic, the Quad. They remain concerned about regional security as the US continues making efforts to militarise the region.
Source : NewStraitsTimes