ASEAN Must Choose: America or China?

December 18, 2018 Topic: ASEAN Region: Asia-Pacific Tags: ASEANChinaThe QuadAsia-Pacific RegionSouth China Sea

ASEAN Must Choose: America or China?

It is time for Southeast Asian states and ASEAN to think, act and speak consistently and clearly for its own interests—or else court irrelevance and ruin of its own strategic objectives.

One priority is to address paralysis resulting from the need to secure unanimity in ASEAN’s decisionmaking by including stronger statements of its position on issues. Under the present system, China need only buy-off or else threaten one or more states to prevent ASEAN behaving more boldly to advance its members’ key interests.

Just as majority verdicts replaced the strict requirement for unanimity to prevent the prevalence of “hung juries” damaging the institution of trial by jury in many jurisdictions, it could be proposed to ASEAN that it abandon its cherished convention of decisionmaking by full consensus—perhaps to allow decisionmaking through agreement by a quorum of eight or nine states. Such a change, although momentous, is not prohibited by its charter, which is silent on this issue.

Initially, the proposal would be strongly resisted by all members. Over time, and once the seed of the idea is planted, reluctance may well subside. It should be made clear to member states that the inevitable consequence over time of continued paralysis is lessening of emphasis on ASEAN by external powers and several of its own member states. Its diplomatic centrality can only remain if the organization serves to advance the interests of its own members and that of like-minded great powers. On the other hand, if stubborn adherence to unanimous decisionmaking persists, then its members will be the unchangeable guardians overseeing that organization’s demise.

Moreover, the reluctance of Southeast Asian nations to endorse the principles of the FOIP on the basis that it would antagonize China and deepen regional competition demonstrates the muddled strategic reasoning which must be confronted. During the Obama administration, these states lamented that the “pivot to Asia” was not more effective in providing checks against Chinese actions. In the face of ongoing and illegal Chinese advances in disputed areas, these same states are distancing themselves from principles designed to champion their rights and interests. In doing so, China has more and not less incentive to accelerate the consolidation of footholds in the South China Sea even as ASEAN states blithely demand stability and a reduction of tensions in the region.

If considered on its merits, ASEAN and its member states should be comfortable with the principles of the FOIP as it is a reassertion of a beneficial normative and strategic order which protects the sovereignty and rights of smaller states. The United States and its allies should present a binary choice to ASEAN member states: endorse the principles of the FOIP or those practiced by China. Using the current nomenclature, one either accepts the rules-based order and international law or rejects it. Those choosing to sit on the fence ought to feel the need to justify that decision. The objective is to put the onus on Southeast Asian states to choose between “free and repressive visions of world order [which] is taking place in the Indo-Pacific” as the NSS puts it. Given that Southeast Asian states are already reluctant to criticize Chinese policies, refusing to choose in this context only helps pave the way for Chinese regional hegemony.

Even so, the conversation can be more about carrots rather than sticks. The United States and its allies should seek to persuade Southeast Asian states that it is in their interest to engage formally and substantially with the United States, Japan and Australia with respect to the operationalization of the FOIP concept, even if much of this will be done so behind closed doors.

Doing so would signal approval of the basic framework and principles of the FOIP and allow regional states a greater role in shaping the policy agenda for the three FOIP countries. This might include the future direction of the Quad, coming to agreement on an appropriate diplomatic role for ASEAN vis-à-vis the FOIP concept, and common messages with respect to Chinese activities. It would lock in ASEAN as a critical diplomatic entity in a discussion of enduring importance.

INCLUDING DISCUSSION of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept on the ASEAN agenda, and the bilateral conversation when member states engage with the United States and its allies, would also give ASEAN and key states a new and important purpose: assist the three external states to develop more credible and constructive economic diplomacy approaches for the region. Such an economic element is still substantially lacking in the operationalization of the concept.

There is also the vexed issue of how China would respond if ASEAN were to collectively engage constructively with the United States, Japan and Australia on the concept. Beijing might well accuse ASEAN of “taking sides.” The plausible response would be that engaging with a concept which advocates for a rules-based order is not an inherently hostile act against China. It merely proscribes certain behaviors and policies which have been adopted by China. As the self-appointed guardian of regional norms and supporter of international law, ASEAN and other countries are simply using their collective weight to increase diplomatic pressure on countries that violate long-standing rules, practices and international law.


Moreover, it would not serve China’s interest to simply “walk away” from relations with ASEAN given that Beijing’s diplomatic strategy is to find ways to decrease the relevance of the United States in regional disputes. Even China downgrading relations with ASEAN in this context would offer enhanced diplomatic opportunities for the United States which would be anathema to China’s interests. Instead, Beijing should be forced to engage and justify its policies to as wide and public an audience as possible.

Finally, forcing a change in Southeast Asia’s diplomatic approach is highly complementary to a broader balancing and countering strategy already taking place in Washington, Tokyo and Canberra. The United States, Japan and Australia have established deepening security relations with Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. Undermining the effectiveness of greater security networking between the United States and its allies and partners is regional diplomacy which has refused to recognize the reality of Chinese actions. Beijing has exploited the lack of criticism against it to minimize costs for itself.


Every action, and inaction, has costs. It is time for Southeast Asian states and ASEAN to think, act and speak consistently and clearly for their own interests—or else court irrelevance and the ruin of their own strategic objectives.

John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney. From 2016–2018, he served as senior national security adviser to the Australian foreign minister.

Image: A Vietnamese soldier marches to take his post for the opening session of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam September 12, 2018. Bullit Marquez/Pool via REUTERS.