The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta last week once again demonstrated the paralysis of this decades-old multilateral forum in the face of increasingly tense security dynamics in the region. ASEAN tirelessly proclaims its “centrality” to the region, but its inability to develop a coherent response to Chinese aggression against several members of the bloc or the crisis in Myanmar has all but destroyed that claim.

When the bloc was founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand (later joined by Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), the group’s stated intention was to work together to maintain regional stability and peace. But today, ASEAN faces the greatest risk since its founding of failing to achieve this fundamental goal. Much of the blame lies with the bloc’s consensus principle, which requires all nations to agree on policies before moving forward. In fact, ASEAN’s lack of consensus has paralyzed its response to key security challenges.

The most pressing security challenge currently facing ASEAN is, of course, the increasing rivalry between the United States and China, which threatens renewed war in the region. China has asserted sweeping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, embroiling it in maritime territorial disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Beijing bases its claims on its own narrative of historical territorial rights, while ASEAN and the United States uphold existing international laws and norms that define maritime boundaries. Despite ASEAN’s official support for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which codifies these laws and norms, only the individual member states whose maritime territories have been invaded by China have spoken out and are willing to do something about it.

For example, following the release of Beijing’s new official map of China in late August, affected ASEAN states, with the exception of Brunei, moved the map’s expansive boundaries into the South China Sea. (China’s map also shows areas that India and Russia consider their own.) At the summit, ASEAN chairman Indonesia abstractly emphasized the need to “strengthen stability in the maritime domain in our region… and new initiatives in this Direction to explore,” but the block could not find a consistent or actionable answer. Instead, the summit’s communiqué said that ASEAN members share a “common commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the South China Sea, particularly in light of recent developments” – language carefully avoided, either China or the map to mention. When Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was asked directly about the map by a reporter, he ignored the question.

Another issue crippling ASEAN is how to deal with Myanmar, which is mired in a brutal civil war following a coup in February 2021. ASEAN wants to skip the junta-led nation’s planned chairmanship in 2026 and replace it with the Philippines. But the group failed to come up with an actionable policy on Myanmar and only regretted the fact that ASEAN’s “five-point consensus”, which calls for peaceful negotiations between “all concerned parties” as well as access to the country by an ASEAN special envoy, was not implemented was failed. In typical talk shop fashion, ASEAN members simply stated that they were “deeply concerned about the lack of significant progress in implementation by the authority in Myanmar.”

Because ASEAN lacks the ability or willingness to act, individual ASEAN members are building their own bilateral partnerships and coalitions. The Philippines has been hit particularly hard by Beijing’s recent escapades, including the Chinese coast guard’s firing of a water cannon at a Philippine resupply mission in the Spratly Islands last month and China’s use of a “military-grade” laser to block an earlier Philippine mission blind February. Hoping to deter further Chinese incursions, Manila has strengthened its treaty alliance with Washington by expanding U.S. military access to several bases across the country, including air and naval facilities in Cagayan, directly across from Taiwan on the Northeast tip of the island of Luzon.

Vietnam also took matters into its own hands. China continues to harass Vietnamese fishing boats and natural resource exploration activities in Vietnam’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. A Chinese coast guard water cannon attack on Vietnamese fishermen late last month prompted Hanoi to upgrade its partnership with Washington from “comprehensive” to “comprehensive strategic.” The historic upgrade following US President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi last weekend was all the more remarkable as Vietnam skipped the middle level of “strategic” partnership and placed the United States on a par with China in Vietnam’s foreign relations hierarchy. Hanoi has traditionally been extremely reserved and cautious in its relations with Washington so as not to unnecessarily antagonize Beijing. That Vietnam took such a bold step strongly suggests that it felt it had no better option. Undoubtedly, Hanoi’s actions were at least partly due to ASEAN’s continued inaction on Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. Even when Vietnam held the chairmanship in 2020, it was unable to persuade its partners to take a concrete response.

Indonesia is also increasingly wary of China’s plans in the disputed region. Although Jakarta is not an official maritime plaintiff against China, it almost came to blows with Beijing in late 2019 and early 2020 over the intrusion of Chinese coast guard ships and fishing boats into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Tensions have centered in the waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which overlap slightly with the southern tip of China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea. In recent years, both sides have quietly restored their bilateral ties primarily through economic engagement. But ongoing security concerns are pushing Jakarta closer to Washington. In June, for example, the US Air Force received approval for the first time to land two B-52 strategic bombers on Indonesian soil. Last month, Jakarta opened the second edition of the multinational military exercise Super Garuda Shield with ASEAN member Singapore as well as Australia, Britain, France, Japan and the United States. The exercise includes combat training such as amphibious, airborne and airfield seizure operations.

The Philippines is not waiting for the bloc to act either. It has expanded its multilateral security arrangements with other partners to strengthen China’s deterrence in the South China Sea. When Manila was informed late last month about joint naval exercises between the United States, Australia and Japan, a Philippine official said the country was open to future participation. Last week, Manila and Canberra upgraded their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership, primarily to counter Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. The Philippines has also welcomed support from minilateral security groups outside ASEAN, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States) and the Australia-UK-US Security Pact (AUKUS). In contrast, other ASEAN members (with the sole exception of Singapore) generally either remain silent about these groups or raise concerns, as Indonesia and Malaysia have done with regard to AUKUS.

ASEAN’s paralysis toward Myanmar has also led at least two members to seek alternative solutions. In early 2022, for example, Cambodia – while holding the rotating ASEAN chairmanship – engaged in so-called “cowboy diplomacy” with the Burmese junta. Cambodia’s then-Prime Minister Hun Sen defied the bloc’s five-point consensus by traveling to Naypyidaw and meeting directly with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to legitimize the regime and reverse its blacklist status. In the end, Phnom Penh deviated from the plan, but the intention to bypass ASEAN was clear.

More recently, Thailand, which shares a long border with Myanmar, has also decided to bypass ASEAN by working directly with the regime. In July, Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai met with detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi – which would not have been possible without the regime’s prior approval. Previously, in December 2022, Thailand organized a multilateral discussion between the junta’s then foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin and representatives of several ASEAN members, including Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Other ASEAN members were also invited but declined. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry attempted to cover up disagreements by stating that “the consultation was a non-ASEAN meeting but was intended to complement ASEAN’s ongoing joint efforts to find a peaceful political solution.”

The recent ASEAN summit simply confirms the longstanding argument that the forum is unwilling or unable to address increasingly acute regional challenges. As a result, ASEAN members have inevitably and will continue to seek alternative ways, whether bilateral or multilateral, to resolve contentious issues. Not only will they form coalitions of the willing among themselves, but they will also look beyond ASEAN to partners such as Australia, Japan and the United States, and increasingly to countries such as India and South Korea.

At the ASEAN summit, Indonesian President Joko Widodo warned that the bloc was becoming caught up in major power rivalry and held hostage by the crisis in Myanmar. Instead, he stated: “I see it as Indonesia’s task, together with other ASEAN countries, to ensure that the ASEAN ship must continue to sail.” However, due to the bloc’s continued inaction, the ship appears to have sailed without ASEAN on board .

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