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"Keeping the Balance: Power Transitions Threaten ASEAN's Hedging Role", in 'East Asia Forum Quarterly'

Power transitions threaten
ASEAN’s hedging role
S INCE its inception in 1967,
ASEAN has served as a platform
for multiple gradually expanding
functions for its member states and
the wider Asia Pacific community.
One relatively understudied function
of ASEAN is its role as a platform for
‘hedging’ in the post-Cold War era.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN and the
ASEAN Plus multilateral mechanisms
have provided an additional avenue
for small- and medium-sized states
to hedge against the risks associated
with the rise of China. e states’
converging efforts (not necessarily
collective nor coordinated actions)
occur alongside traditional unilateral
and bilateral channels for hedging and
allow them to simultaneously pursue
actions that engage and constrain
China at the regional level.
Engagement is the active use of
multilateral and bilateral processes
to forge increasingly close,
comprehensive and productive ties
with China. Constrainment involves
the contradictory action of keeping
distance from and even containing
the rising power, by using the very
same ASEAN-based platforms as the
diplomatic, economic and strategic
mechanisms for other regional powers
and players to provide checks and
balances on Beijing. Engagement and
constrainment are two sides of the
hedging coin.
ASEAN-centred platforms create
and cultivate the offsetting space for
weaker states to keep their options
open to deal with the rise of China.
is allows smaller states to avoid
becoming subservient or over-
dependent on their giant neighbours
(the risks of engagement without
constrainment). ey can also avoid
antagonising any power or forgoing
any economic gains (the risks of
constrainment without engagement),
while mitigating the risks of
entrapment and abandonment in the
face of uncertainty.
is space may be shrinking. e
power dynamics surrounding the
South China Sea are challenging
Southeast Asian cohesion and ASEAN
centrality. Beijing’s increasingly
assertive actions at sea are not
significantly constrained by any
actors such as the United States or
arrangements such as the Declaration
of the Conduct of Parties in the
South China Sea.
e United States’ growing
unpredictability under the Trump
administration further weakens the
capacity of ASEAN Plus platforms and
processes to pursue constrainment.
Regional scepticism intensified after
President Trump’s tour of Asia in
November 2017, especially after
his last-minute decision to skip
the East Asia Summit. e Trump
administration’s lack of attention
towards ASEAN-based regional
multilateralism (alongside the
other liabilities of Trump’s ‘America
First’ agenda), is undoing some
of the diplomatic and strategic
accomplishments of the Obama
administration’s ‘rebalancing to Asia’
is is all taking place at a time
keepINg the balaNce
Welders at work on a bridge in Phnom Penh, one of many projects in Cambodia supported by the Chinese
government. In Southeast Asia, infrastructure development is far more than an economic issue.
when China’s connectivity-based
Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and
various Beijing-initiated multilateral
mechanisms (such as the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank)
are gradually gaining momentum
in Eurasia and beyond. China’s
expanded presence globally and Japan’s
corresponding infrastructure-centred
foreign policy are turning connectivity
cooperation into the new chessboard
of Asian geopolitical competition.
As geoeconomics increasingly
converges with geopolitics in Asia,
the United States and other Western
nations have thus far remained
bystanders not effective players. is
is a cause for concern. In Southeast
Asia, infrastructure development is
far more than an economic issue—it
is a matter of political significance.
Infrastructure is regarded by the
ruling elites of ASEAN states as the
key to governance performance and
economic growth, upon which they
rely to enhance or preserve their
political authority.
China’s trillion-dollar BRI agenda
is thus a growing inducement to
many Southeast Asian political
elites, as shown by the increasing
number, scope and scale of the
negotiated and ongoing infrastructure
partnerships involving China in
the region. A growing inducement
may not necessarily translate into
growing influence, but a simultaneous
increase in China’s inducements and a
perceived decrease in US commitment
to the region may accelerate power
shifts and regional transformation.
ASEAN remains a useful platform
for Southeast Asian hedging precisely
because of these challenges. ASEAN-
based forums are the only institutional
pillars of Asian architecture that are
not centred on or dominated by major
powers. Preserving this institutional
buffer role is crucial to preserving
a stable distribution of power, a
sustainable peace and a durable
prosperity in Asia.
One danger of the ongoing power
shift is that more and more Southeast
Asian states may move closer to
Beijing to benefit from China’s
numerous economic carrots and its
growing geopolitical clout. If the trend
continues, this may further threaten
Southeast Asian unity and ASEAN
centrality. Over time, if more ASEAN
states repeatedly show a greater
commitment to their big-power
patron’s preferences than the interests
of other members of the group,
ASEAN risks becoming divided,
weakened and marginalised.
e growing gravitational pull of
China’s power is not the only concern
for Southeast Asian cohesion and
centrality. Other powers, importantly
the United States and its allies,
may forge a coalition of likeminded
nations in the Indo-Pacific if their
current efforts at constraint turn into
containment. is would happen if
such a coalition’s military actions
targeted China explicitly and directly.
e China policies of these states
would be characterised less by the
current cooperation-amid-competition
approach and more by all-out
confrontation. is would likely divide
the region and undermine ASEAN’s
role as a platform for hedging.
ese possibilities are likely to
result in regional polarisation and
international instability. Any shift
in regional alignments would spark
reactions among the big powers, each
vying to win back or further expand
its own sphere of influence and
deny or limit its rival’s geopolitical
gains. Conflict might erupt at some
point, which would entrap states and
undermine regional security.
Southeast Asian states’ current
hedging posture is far from the
optimal choice for anyone. But it
is the second-best option that is in
the interest of everyone, including
China and other powers. e current
ambiguity of neutral omni-alignment
is far better than clear cut rivalry,
outright confrontation or all out tug-
Any power may make some
immediate gains by inducing other
states to side with it. But these short-
term gains would be at the longer-term
expense of provoking other power(s)
to push back. is could create a
vicious cycle of actions and reactions
that distracts states from domestic
governance, deepens alignment
dilemmas, creates camps, exacerbates
existing disputes and leads to conflicts
that no state wants.
ASEAN’s role as a hedging
platform—despite all its limitations
and shortcomings—is good for all
Southeast Asian states and also good
for all other powers and players.
Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate
professor and co-convener of the
East Asian International Relations
(EAIR) Caucus, National University of
Malaysia (UKM).
The current ambiguity of
neutral omni-alignment
is far better than clear
cut rivalry, outright
confrontation or all-out
... Many authors have tied ASEAN's weak grip on regional centrality to the increase in relative power of neighboring states as well as its persistent organizational constraints (Acharya, 2017). The organization is judged unable to sustain coherence when faced with external interest (Jones, 2010;Jones & Jenne, 2016;Le Thu, 2019), and the increasing great power conflicts in the region (Kraft, 2017;Kuik, 2018). As power is typically tied to resource endowment, this criticism can easily be understood as an insufficient ability to reduce the leverage possessed by actors that ASEAN is dependent on. ...
Since 2010, ASEAN has made efforts to increase its coherence and visibility as an actor in regional infrastructure development, under the umbrella term of connectivity. Its most recent strategy, 2016’s Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, is notable for its more focused agenda as well as a tableau of institutional innovations, including new policy coordination mechanisms and a project preparation pipeline. Nonetheless, ASEAN struggles to maintain coherence in the implementation of its connectivity agenda, both internally as well as towards its dialogue partners. Utilizing the concepts of centrality and hedging as parts of a unified theoretical framework, this paper analyzes ASEAN’s efforts to mobilize and manage external resources in connectivity. ASEAN’s resource dependence and its failure to establish institutional centrality creates issues at the regional and the national levels. Regionally, ASEAN’s lack of centrality and its perpetuation of ASEAN+1 relations have contributed to the emergence of contesting agendas and institutional frameworks by external actors. Nationally, the hedging strategies of ASEAN member states are at odds with the regional vision, highlighting a lack of intra-ASEAN coherence. The perpetuation of contesting institutional frameworks by external actors at the national level solidifies existing incoherence in ASEAN’s connectivity governance, further undermining its centrality. ASEAN’s efforts to assert centrality and execute a hedging strategy in connectivity are emblematic of its attempts to extend its reach into new policy areas, but also of its persistent governance constraints.
... However, it has previously been questioned how much longer ASEAN can maintain its central position given the great power interests in the region as well its organizational constraints, namely its divergent member state interests and strategic priorities (Jones 2010). Given the current engagement of external actors in the region, first and foremost China, ASEAN may find it increasingly difficult to take up a neutral position in the future, depriving it of the ability to hedge against great power influence in the region in the future (Kuik 2018). ...
Full-text available
The establishment of the connectivity agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was supposed to mark a watershed moment for physical, institutional and people-to-people linkages in the Southeast Asian region. But little progress was initially made following the introduction of the first Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) in 2010. A new master plan was introduced in 2016, reframing the connectivity agenda and introducing governance reforms within ASEAN. Even though the institutional reforms include a strengthened ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC), ASEAN's intergovernmental processes have remained unchanged. Implementing the connectivity agenda therefore faces the challenge of intra-ASEAN coordination. With the introduction of the master plan came significant interest in engagement by external partners at the regional as well as the member state levels. External partners are attempting to engage with ASEAN's connectivity agenda throughout the policy process, from setting the agenda regionally to funding its implementation nationally. Taken together, ASEAN's internal and external challenges in governing connectivity are exacerbating old challenges and creating new opportunities for the region. This paper explores the emerging governance dynamism involving the ASEAN member states, the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN's dialogue partners.
Full-text available
This contribution takes stock of ASEAN centrality in trade and the emerging policy area of trade infrastructure, also known as connectivity. ASEAN centrality in the East Asian and Indo-Pacific regions has increasingly been called into question, but most studies have failed to specify what ASEAN centrality is and how it can be measured. Outlining both a technical and a substantial definition, this study presents the state of affairs and current trends of ASEAN centrality in the areas of trade and connectivity. Disaggregating the concept, the paper assesses ASEAN’s role in the two policy areas as a leader, convener, convenience, and necessity. ASEAN’s central position in trade is under threat due to a changing environment, with trade ties increasing between ASEAN’s partners. In addition, ASEAN leadership in the RCEP negotiations has been symbolic rather than substantial. In connectivity, ASEAN centrality is even more questionable. Its regional connectivity vision is contested by other states and relationships act as conduits for the exercise of power.
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