Southeast Asia is a region of the world where Confucian, Hindu, and Islamic notions of order and society converge, making it an incredibly diverse and culturally rich region of the world. Although it would be expected that a balance of power would emerge between China and India in Southeast Asia, this has not been the case. For the most part, India’s competition and focus is oriented towards Pakistan, whereas China’s competition has largely been with Japan and the United States. On its own and without much outside help, Southeast Asia has forged a multilateral association and organization that deals with economic and security issues in a collective manner called “ASEAN,” which stands for the “Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”
As Henry Kissinger has noted, the rules and norms of ASEAN are quite ambiguous when compared to the rules and norms of Western organizations. Issues are dealt with on a case-by-case manner rather than by set rules and norms. Due to the cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical diversity of the region, it is perhaps important to maintain a level of collegiality and flexibility in order to address regional issues in an effective manner within an Asian context. Fostering an atmosphere of collegiality and friendship in Asia, which is incredibly diverse from an ethnic, linguistic, and religious standpoint, is the first step towards fostering a notion of Asian “order” along the lines of European notions of order.
ASEAN was founded in 1967, and its headquarters are in Jakarta, Indonesia. ASEAN began as a common front with only six members against communist influence in Southeast Asia. Now, it comprises of ten members: Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. The “ASEAN Declaration” states the basic objectives of this multilateral organization in a rather simple manner, which are:
- To accelerate the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian nations, and
- To promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries in the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.
ASEAN is considered to be one of the world’s largest free trade blocs and most integrated regions of the world. For the most part, ASEAN member states are using economics as the primary vehicle for the type of political and social integration which would prompt both a common order and a widespread consensus on political and social issues. Political and social development is still an ongoing process in Southeast Asia due to the ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences between the different communities within this particular region of the world, in addition to the effects of centuries-long colonization by Western powers which have stalled democratization efforts.
But despite a population of 650 million people and a GDP of 2.8 trillion dollars annually, ASEAN has failed to forge a unified approach towards China, whose power and influence over the region is rapidly expanding and whose claims over certain islands in Southeast Asia overlap with claims made by certain ASEAN members. As a unified bloc, ASEAN may not have the economic and military weight to balance itself against an assertive China in the Asia-Pacific region. In response to China’s growing power and influence in Southeast Asia, the United States has strengthened its economic and military ties with ASEAN member states such as the Philippines and Vietnam as somewhat of a counterbalance against Chinese power and influence. The Philippines is not only 94 percent Christian, but it is also 94 percent pro-American, and it is worth noting that the United States began its global presence from the Philippines. Whether the Philippines’ elective affinity for the United States withstands Chinese power and influence remains to be seen. Under Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has flirted with the idea of joining the Chinese orbit after a number of fallouts with the United States.
Vietnam became the focal point of America’s “Asia Pivot” during the Obama Administration. Although the United States sought to make inroads into Myanmar as well, much of the leeway that the United States had in implementing a “pivot” towards Asia was through Vietnam. Due to certain outstanding issues which relate to military rule and human rights, Myanmar has not fully opened up to the idea of a full-on immersion into an American sphere of influence. On the other hand, Vietnam appeared to be more of a plum for the picking per se. As Henry Kissinger wrote, Vietnam is somewhat of a paradox, in the sense that it absorbs Chinese cultural influence while resisting Chinese military and political domination. Kissinger added that there has long been “latent hostility” between the Vietnamese people and the Chinese, which perhaps the United States sought to exploit through its “Asia Pivot” during the Obama Administration.
But American influence over Southeast Asia remains limited, and the United States stands as only the fourth-largest trading partner of ASEAN, trailing China, Japan, and even the European Union by wide margins. America’s “Asia Pivot” will amount to nothing more than a bit of pestering in a region of the world where the economic and social trendlines are heading towards deeper relations between ASEAN member states and China. The foremost political and social challenge for ASEAN member states will be asserting autonomy and independence in the face of growing pressure from both the United States and China to favor one side over the other.
There is also a Pan-ASEAN identity of sorts developing amongst the youth of Southeast Asia, which is perhaps to the chagrin of China, given that China seeks both cultural and political dominance over Southeast Asia. For one, Singapore is a model for how a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society can exist harmoniously without much disruptions to overall order and stability. Whether Southeast Asia retains its autonomy and continues its economic and social integration, or whether it succumbs to the zero-sum game being played between Washington and Beijing is something for analysts and observers to look out for.