Revitalising ASEAN: Strategies for an Indo-Pacific Middle Power

The Indo-Pacific geostrategic landscape heralds a new order, reshaping the established Asia Pacific framework.  This transformation has sparked concerns, particularly among Southeast Asian nations. At the heart of this transition lies ASEAN, positioned strategically between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This geographical advantage places ASEAN in a complex position, amidst the competition of two major powers – the United States and China. Navigating this intricate landscape requires a nuanced approach, given the pivotal roles these superpowers play within the region. Meanwhile, the unresolved rivalry between the US and China has led to a scenario reminiscent of the Thucydides trap. 

Recognising this complex challenge, a compelling perspective posits that middle powers, given their non-threatening nature, could offer valuable mediation to aid the US and China in managing their rivalry. However, this role surpasses the capabilities of any single Southeast Asian nation due to resource limitations. This is where ASEAN’s unique potential comes into play. With its substantial economic influence, strategic geographical significance, and extensive global connections, ASEAN is ideally positioned to assert itself as a central middle power within the broader Indo-Pacific context.

Nonetheless, a lingering uncertainty continues to cast doubt over ASEAN’s capability for action, despite its track record in handling regional challenges such as the Cambodian conflict. This predicament arises from the lack of visionary leadership and a complacency within the organisation taking regional peace and stability for granted. Consequently, it becomes imperative for ASEAN to rejuvenate itself and demonstrate to the world its capability and determination to embrace the role of an Indo-Pacific middle power. This leads us to a pivotal question: How can ASEAN strategically embark on this journey of renewal?

To address this query, a forthcoming opinion piece from the Malaysian Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (IDFR) delves into the attributes of various regional organisations, including the European Union, African Union, Gulf Cooperation Council and ECOWAS – all of which have adeptly embraced their roles as effective middle powers. This examination highlights five pivotal attributes that contribute to the efficacy of a regional organisation in wielding middle power influence.

Foremost among these attributes is a distinct and unwavering sense of purpose, particularly concerning matters of security and survival. This shared sense of purpose serves to unify the region and offers legitimacy for collective action on behalf of member nations.

A robust regional identity stands as the second attribute. This identity is nurtured through various means, including the adoption of shared symbols such as standardised identity and travel documents, or the prominent display of a regional emblem on national currencies and public edifices. This shared identity further bolsters the region’s legitimacy in acting on behalf of its member states.

Furthermore, effective regional organisations possess well-defined and efficient decision-making processes as well as mechanisms to enforce decisions, including established protocols for monitoring compliance and resolving disputes.

The fourth attribute involves regional autonomy, which grants the region the capacity to act without undue external influence, thereby fostering agency and efficacy.

Finally, influential regional organisations often exhibit a higher degree of institutional decentralisation. This is achieved by distributing the responsibilities and functions of the Secretariat across subsidiary bodies located in various cities. This approach fosters a collective sense of ownership among member states. By involving member states actively in shaping the organisation’s agenda and policies, it strengthens the legitimacy of the region and solidifies its position as a unified and influential entity on the global stage.

Building upon these insights, ASEAN could rejuvenate itself as an Indo-Pacific middle power by strategically adopting the following measures:

Reaffirm Neutrality and Independence: It’s crucial to make sure that Southeast Asia doesn’t get pulled into conflicts between big powers.  ASEAN can take the lead by garnering support of both major powers for the establishment of the Southeast Asian Archipelago Neutrality Framework (SEAANF). What makes SEAANF special is that it would turn the whole of Southeast Asia, including the maritime seas into neutral zones.   

Strengthen ASEAN Identity and Unity: ASEAN must foster a greater sense of shared identity among member states.  This can be done through, among others, the adoption of regional symbols, such as a common format for passports, identity cards and other documents as well as the ASEAN logo on national currencies.  

Flexible Institutional Procedures:  Clearly, ASEAN needs to be agile to respond to complex developments. While preserving the ASEAN Way of consensus-based decision making, it should be limited to matters of high politics. ASEAN should adopt flexible decision-making mechanisms, including qualified majority voting, for other matters.  

Regional Autonomy:  ASEAN needs to show that it is capable to independently shape the course of regional affairs. One way to do this is to ensure that the agenda of the East Asia Summit (EAS) is solely focussed on questions of regional peace and stability.  Other matters can be discussed in different ASEAN-led forums.   Additionally, ASEAN could establish dedicated institutions that showcase its capability in certain functional areas.  For example, ASEAN could create an ASEAN Peacekeeping Force (APF) to participate in peacekeeping missions abroad.  ASEAN could also consider an ASEAN Disaster Relief Force (ADRF) to respond to regional disasters.  

Decentralisation: Right now, most of ASEAN’s administrative work is centred in Jakarta. To improve, ASEAN could think about creating smaller branches in different cities across member countries. These branches would handle specific tasks, creating solidarity among the member states. 

While implementing these strategies could herald a new era of promise for ASEAN’s potential, it’s essential to remember that past accomplishments were made possible by visionary leaders like Ghazali Shafie, Adam Malik, S. Rajaratnam, Narciso Ramos, and Thanat Khoman.  What ASEAN truly needs is insightful statesmen and leaders who possess the foresight to elevate ASEAN to its next level as an Indo-Pacific middle power.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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