The Test of ASEAN Centrality

28 October 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme


Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean academic and former Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently spoke at a roundtable co-ordinated by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. During that roundtable, which was titled “Dealing With a Volatile World”, Kausikan spoke on the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its survival in the context of a US-China rivalry in the region. Excerpts from his talk were published on Singaporean news site, Mothership.


Most striking from Kausikan’s talk was the prospect of ASEAN possibly cutting out Cambodia and Laos if they become too strongly influenced by external powers, namely, China. Specifically, Kausikan noted that:

To state things bluntly, I see Cambodia and Laos teetering precariously on the edge of making a parallel mistake as that which led to very tragic results for their countries in the late 1960s and 1970s. That mistake is to entrust what agency they have to an external power or trying to be passively neutral… They have some difficult choices to make. And if they should make wrong choices, they will confront ASEAN as a whole with difficult choices. We may have to cut loose the two to save the eight.

According to Kausikan, cutting out Cambodia and Laos would ensure that ASEAN can maintain its core concept of “centrality” and that the agency of the organisation is not undermined by external influence. The consequences of that influence were especially seen at the 2016 ASEAN summit, when both Cambodia and Laos refused to back a joint statement that was critical of Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.

Kausikan also alluded to the issues presented by Cambodia and Laos in 2017, when he warned that:

With the organisation’s expansion, reaching consensus has become more difficult. The “ASEAN way” has become more rigid. Not every new member has internalised the need for balance between national and regional interests as the original members did.

While it is difficult to predict the fate of Cambodia and Laos in ASEAN, the threat that external influence could undermine the group’s ability to represent a collective regional interest appears to be growing. Both China and the United States are responsible for that threat, although they have taken different approaches. China’s approach is consistent with its broader foreign policy objectives, targeting developing countries and coercing them through aid and loans. Cambodia has become a prime example of that foreign policy strategy, having been described as ‘the closest thing to a Chinese client state in South-East Asia’.

The US, on the other hand, has taken a more direct approach, targeting the more influential members of ASEAN and attempting to sway them against China. That approach was seen most recently in August 2020, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited a number of the larger ASEAN states. As noted in a Strategic Weekly Analysis, Pompeo’s visit was an attempt to establish a regional coalition, or at least a cohesive response, against China.

So far, it looks like China’s approach has yielded the most results, having successfully put roadblocks in the way at previous ASEAN meetings. At the same time, there has been a general lack of enthusiasm from towards any US-led initiative to counter China in the region. The success of China’s strategy, however, may only be short term, as recent ASEAN statements on the South China Sea issue have become stronger. Moreover, if ASEAN does cut out those members which China has targeted, it would represent a serious setback for Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

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