Warwick ASEAN Conference

Davids & Goliath: ASEAN’s Diplomatic Clout


Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.


“In the end, everybody came to the conclusion that however ungainly, however inefficient, however elliptical ASEAN’s ways are, it’s still better than not having an ASEAN. That is the genius of ASEAN foreign policy. In the end, almost with a sneer, they accepted that ASEAN should be in the driving seat. Yes, ASEAN’s leadership is the most preferred because no other driver would be trusted by the others.” -- George Yeo

Early Days

The world was living in a state of tumult in the late 20th Century – the Communists and the West were wrestling for hegemony over the rest of the world, and in so doing, threw other nations into a landscape of geopolitical instability. Proxy wars such as the Vietnam War and the Korean War presented a harrowing reality to onlookers, as many countries became increasingly aware of the risk that superpower rivalry posed to their sovereignty. The inception of ASEAN is therefore viewed by many as a practical response to its circumstances – many ASEAN countries recognised that the bedrock of self-determination lay in their ability to navigate through the international arena, and that banding together would increase their diplomatic clout, thereby raising their chances of survival.

Indeed, banding together appeared to serve ASEAN member states well since its inception. The ASEAN Plus Three (APT) economic initiative is just one of many such examples. The APT encourages dialogue on economic affairs between ASEAN and China, South Korea and Japan. By being part of a larger bloc, ASEAN member states enjoy greater diplomatic leverage and a wider pool of opportunities with other economies, in turn accelerating economic growth among member states.

However, is this enough? The benefits that can be reaped from the diplomatic clout that ASEAN provides are not unlimited. This is particularly so when the objectives of member states contradict the strategic interests of major superpowers.

Modern Contestations

The South China Sea dispute has been a longstanding source of tension between China and a number of ASEAN member states, with involved parties laying competing claims to different parts of the South China Sea. ASEAN member states have attempted to punch above their own weight when managing the South China Sea dispute through negotiating via ASEAN. However, even a boost in diplomatic leverage can sometimes be insufficient when dealing with belligerent third parties.

Even with increased diplomatic clout, ASEAN member states do not have enough bargaining power against a large and powerful nation like China. As an up-and-coming economic powerhouse, the opportunity cost for any action that displeases the Beijing government is incredibly high. ASEAN member states are therefore wary against getting on China’s bad side, preventing them from adequately asserting their territorial claims and defending their sovereignty. The Philippines and Vietnam, in a bid to secure greater economic progress for their countries, have dramatically softened their stances on the dispute. These recent developments in the South China Sea evince the limited strength of diplomatic clout that ASEAN can provide for its member states, especially when it involves negotiations with powerful third parties.

Furthermore, the diplomatic clout provided by ASEAN is sometimes rendered obsolete by China, which has repeatedly insisted for the dispute to be settled through bilateral means instead of multilateralism. In bypassing ASEAN, China can easily revert to its “divide-and-conquer” tactic to force individual claimants into doing its bidding. These recent developments in the South China Sea evince the limited utility of diplomatic clout in providing ASEAN member states with greater diplomatic leverage, especially when it involves negotiations with powerful third parties.

Does China actually care?

Some may argue that China’s acquiescence to establish a Code of Conduct with ASEAN is proof of the relevance of multilateralism in the South China Sea conflict. A Code of Conduct refers to a set of rules which involved parties abide by. Establishing a Code of Conduct with ASEAN member states can be interpreted as China’s willingness to cooperate with ASEAN member states.

However, we should also note that China’s change in attitude fulfils its strategic interests, as it came after the international arbitration panel in The Hague rejected China’s claims to a part of the South China Sea. By engaging ASEAN through diplomatic talks, China would soften its image as a cooperative superpower. On top of that, it is also worthwhile to note that the Code of Conduct is vague in nature and does little to push for progress on the issue. It is, therefore, possible to view China’s cooperation with ASEAN as an act of tokenism, rather than as a genuine effort to further cooperation. This furthers the argument that ASEAN’s diplomatic clout is useful for its member states insofar as it does not contradict the interests of mightier nations.

While ASEAN's diplomatic clout has its limitations, it also acknowledges that this is an inevitable result of ASEAN's structure. ASEAN's inability to achieve its objectives under the aforementioned circumstances stems from its lack of enforcement capabilities yet suggesting that ASEAN evolve into a military organisation will probably incur exorbitant trade-offs for the region. By enhancing its coercive capabilities, ASEAN risks compromising on its fundamental principles of consultation and unanimity. Without these defining principles, countries might not be willing to come to the negotiating table as they have been doing for the past few years, and there may not even be an ASEAN to speak of.

Cover Illustration by Brian Edward Miller


Leave a Reply

Your e-mail will not be published. All required Fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.