Where is the ASEAN South China Sea Great Power Challenge Headed?
Managing great power politics in a critical flashpoint may be an aspiration for the regional grouping, but how well is it reflected in reality?
A new book argues that far from being toothless on the South China Sea disputes, ASEAN has actively developed a multipronged institutional strategy over time to manage intensifying great power politics on the issue.
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Where is ASEAN's South China Sea Great Power Challenge Headed?
“In the face of multidimensional challenges in the evolving landscape, we need to examine the current way of doing things to ensure multilateralism remains relevant in the future,” then ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi pointedly noted in one of his final interviews last year before leaving the post1. Though the list of ASEAN’s multidimensional challenges may be long, the South China Sea has arguably been the issue that has most dominated headlines in terms of questioning the institution’s relevance. To be sure, ASEAN continues to keep the diplomatic track alive and maintain the issue on the agenda in the annual summitry it hosts, a role that far surpasses its modest beginnings since being founded in 1967. But getting consensus in a ten-member grouping where only four countries are officially claimants — Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam — has proven difficult, let alone making inroads with China, which has not been shy about leveraging its vastly greater economic and military capabilities to stymie diplomatic advances and enforce its invalidated claim over nearly all of the South China Sea at the expense of others. This dynamic has continued on into 2023 (see table of select recent developments below).
Select Related Developments on the South China Sea in 2023
A new book entitled Managing Great Power Politics by scholar Kei Koga argues that ASEAN has adopted shifting institutional strategies over the decades to manage the challenge of great power politics in the South China Sea. The book contends that though ASEAN realizes it cannot solve the issue with its limited capabilities, it has adopted flexible diplomatic strategies and nurtured a quasi-division of labor among newly created forums to form a “strategic institutional web” that constrains great power behavior and insulates it from entrapment in strategic competition2. The book examines ASEAN’s evolving position on the South China Sea since 1990 with a focus on six major institutions – the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM); the ASEAN Summit; ASEAN-China dialogues; the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); the East Asia Summit (EAS); and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus3.
The book sheds light on ASEAN’s evolving management of the South China Sea disputes within the broader strategic dynamics. As noted previously in these pages, while ASEAN has not stood still on the South China Sea, the risk for it is that evolving strategic realities are outpacing its ability to adjust to them. Managing Great Power Politics documents this in four phases: 1) the advancement of confidence building measures culminating in a declaration on the code of conduct or DOC (1990-2002); 2) the emergence of turbulence, including ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communique in Phnom Penh (2003-2012); 3) attempts at a “new normal” which saw a decision on the Philippines arbitral case against China (2013-2016); and 4) the search for a new equilibrium, with an intensified pursuit of a binding code of conduct or COC (2017-2020)4. The account of these phases paints a richer picture than a static ASEAN being knocked over by a Chinese juggernaut, and one which will be more familiar to close observers of South China Sea dynamics. This includes unilateral efforts by Southeast Asian claimant states to reinforce their own claims on the water; laborious intra-ASEAN negotiations over language in draft documents; and divisions over how much to “internationalize” the South China Sea question — including seeking U.S. support — in the face of China’s assertiveness5.
The book also deserves credit for attempting to connect ASEAN’s institutional evolution with its management of practical challenges. While it is not difficult to find an uninitiated outside observer drowning in the alphabet soup of forums ASEAN utilizes, this is also an important part of how the grouping leverages its convening power and “ASEAN centrality” as part of a limited toolkit available to non-great powers6. ASEAN’s record here has admittedly been mixed. The ARF or EAS have not come as far as might have been expected, but the ADMM — now recognized as the principal ASEAN-led defense institution in the Indo-Pacific — saw significant progress even in the first decade of its founding in 2006, with the addition of the ADMM-Plus with external partners in 2010, an increased biannual frequency in 2013 and then annualization in 20177. Managing Great Power Politics contends that this messy institutional mix affords ASEAN greater flexibility in formulating strategy in the South China Sea, with some forums more suited to hedging or balancing and others more for co-opting China8. For those interested in forecasting, the book traces the evolution in these strategies over time and notes areas of continuity and change in the future9.