The post-Cold War 1990s were a peaceful era in Asia. All the great powers were benign and the Sino-U.S. relationship was good. China still needed help from other countries, including ASEAN members.
Today, we are back in the age of great-power rivalries — China versus the U.S., China versus India, Russia versus Europe and so on. China now prefers playing its own games, such as with One Belt, One Road and the South China Sea artificial islands, while professing support for ASEAN-led regional institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or the East Asia Summit.
It is increasingly reminiscent of the 1960s, when ASEAN was founded amid fierce great-power rivalries at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
Back then, ASEAN’s key strategy was unity and neutrality vis-a-vis great powers. The great-power rivalry itself was a bad thing on home soil, as proved in Vietnam, so the issue was not which side is good or bad, but how to keep the rivalry itself away. And that was done by not taking sides. ASEAN members were cleverly focused on the collective interest of the region.
But in the 1990s, they started pursuing “centrality” rather than neutrality. This led to taking initiatives at such institutions as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, ARF and ASEAN+3 to play a central role in the entire Asia-Pacific sphere.
But now such an expansion of scope may have placed ASEAN dangerously close to great-power rivalries, fueled by China’s territorial advances in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. These have divided ASEAN. While ASEAN remains obsessed with pursuing the centrality agenda, it lacks a robust unity to sustain it.
It is time for ASEAN to refocus on its own region, rather than the bigger Asia-Pacific picture, and bolster neutrality again as a basic survival principle.
As told to Ken Koyanagi, Nikkei Asian Review editor-at-large. Amitav Acharya is professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service in Washington.