Challenging ASEAN: the American pivot in Southeast Asia

Author: Donald K. Emmerson, Stanford University

As much as China is front and centre for the United States and Asia, the American pivot is not all about the dragon. It is also very much about the 10 member states of ASEAN.

In its vaguest sense, the pivot is a turn toward Asia writ large. But it is particularly in Southeast Asia that the pivot’s three themes — security, economy and democracy — are most evident.

The accent on security was already clear in the concern for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea expressed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July 2010. In November 2011 President Barack Obama stopped in Darwin to announce that 2500 US marines would eventually be stationed there. And in June 2012 Singapore agreed to host in rotation as many as four US combat ships.

One might have thought that on a spectrum of ASEAN states from the most to the least deferential toward China, reactions would have run from jeers to cheers. They did not. No government was willing to denounce the pivot and jeopardise the chance of somehow benefiting from it. The shift in Washington’s attention from Afghanistan to ASEAN could easily be seen by Southeast Asian policy makers as a way to slow, if not reduce, their own increasing exposure to Beijing’s strength.

At the same time, the pivot’s association with security unbalanced the policy itself; assertions of American military power overshadowed the pivot’s economic rationale. This imbalance of security over economy tended to legitimate a division of labour that from an American viewpoint could only seem invidious. By enlarging its profile in the western Pacific, the US Navy would even more thoroughly underwrite the maritime security that ASEAN economies needed to continue profiting from Chinese trade and investment. The pivot appeared to reinforce a formula that, crudely put, ran thus: Americans would make the peace; Asians would make the money. Accordingly, if the actual purpose of Obama’s pivot could be summarised in a single word, that word is inclusion, in terms of both security and economy.

Any inclination to portray the pivot as a purely military ploy is unfair. Obama travelled to Darwin and Bali in November 2011 from Honolulu. In Hawaii he hosted the annual APEC forum, where he claimed progress in ongoing talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In July 2012 in Cambodia, Secretary Clinton co-hosted the first US–ASEAN Business Forum, and the US–ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement Initiative was launched in November 2012.

On the pivot’s economic dimension, ASEAN has developed an independent stance between the United States and China, albeit one that leans modestly in the latter’s direction. But ASEAN is divided. Of its member states, only Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam were among the 11 governments negotiating the US-backed TPP in Auckland in December 2012.

Meanwhile, at its summit in Phnom Penh a month before, ASEAN could have pleased China by supporting Beijing’s preferred vehicle for regional economic cooperation, ASEAN+3, which necessarily excludes the United States while limiting the non-ASEAN checks on Chinese influence to Japan and South Korea. ASEAN agreed instead to launch negotiations toward a new entity: a 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that would augment the ASEAN+3 grouping by adding three more potential restraints on China — Australia, India and New Zealand. The economic rationale for including these six non-ASEAN states was that they already have FTAs with ASEAN. But five of the six, all but China, are democracies oriented more or less toward the West. The potentially China-balancing value of that distribution was not lost on those who proposed RCEP as a superior alternative to ASEAN+3.

The result is a benign race between two vastly different models of economic integration: the non-American, loosely declarative RCEP that subsumes existing arrangements, versus the American-promoted, intrusively ‘gold-standard’ TPP that requires domestic reform.

Democracy distinguishes the pivot least. As a policy priority in Washington, spreading democracy in Asia has been upstaged by security and economic concerns, including China’s naval moves and America’s fiscal woes. Meanwhile in Southeast Asia, with few exceptions, turning a blind eye remains the ‘ASEAN Way’ of dealing with the domestic political failings of the association’s members.

The United States did quickly move to support the dramatic political opening of Myanmar. But even in that democratising narrative, security and economics loomed large. President Thein Sein’s own reasons to promote reform reflected less a conversion to liberal ideology than a nationalistic wish to reduce the country’s overdependence on China on the one hand, and a desire to catch up with the economies of the modern world on the other. While celebrating the democratic consequences, Washington treated these motivations as opportunities for strategic access.

Since its birth during the Cold War, ASEAN has occupied a political space that external events have successively renewed by undermining the plausibility of big-power control: the bloody chastening of American ambition in Vietnam, the turn toward pragmatism in post-Mao China, the Soviet Union’s self-shrinkage into Russia and irrelevance, and the strategic reticence and economic stagnation of Japan.

Viewed from Southeast Asia, the times have now changed in at least two ways. First, China’s spectacular material ascent and now military assertion appear to have emboldened its current leaders. Second, to the extent that the American pivot is a response to this challenge, it appears to open an ambiguous future. If Sino–American rivalry escalates, ASEAN’s members could split into China-deferring and China-defying camps, ruining the group’s ability to lead. In contrast, a peaceful balancing of power between Beijing and Washington could refurbish space for ASEAN to operate independently between the two.

But what ASEAN has until now been unprepared to face is the need to rebalance the ASEAN Way by making it somewhat less consensual and correspondingly more effective.

On security, ASEAN’s habit of catering to the lowest common denominator undercuts its ability to deal with Chinese intimidation. That encourages ASEAN members to rely on the American pivot as leverage against Beijing. But that reliance may overestimate the willingness of Washington to become involved, leaving ASEAN worse off. Or, if the United States does confront China, escalation could badly damage both Southeast Asian security and ASEAN’s reputation for maintaining it.

These challenges hardly augur the end of ASEAN. But the group’s centrality on matters of security and its creativity on economic questions are being tested in two very different ways: by Beijing’s strategy of assertion in the South China Sea, and by the pressure for inclusion represented by Washington’s pivot toward Southeast Asia. The results are not yet known. For now, however, the case for optimism is, and is likely to remain, distinctly weaker on regional security than it is for the region’s economy.

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. A longer version of this essay is being published in Global Asia.


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  • Andrew Elek

    Dear Don,

    Thanks for a good posting.
    I agree with the important implications for ASEAN.

    You describe the TPP as:
    “intrusively ‘gold-standard’ TPP that requires domestic reform”.

    It would be more appropriate to describe it an “intrusively USTR standard effort to force domestic reform in all potential partners except the US”.
    Please see the recent posting on the TPP by Sourabh Gupta.

    Best wishes

    • Don Emmerson

      Hi, Andrew, Thanks for your comment. Sourabh believes the USTR’s approach “will drive any negotiation–be it multilateral or regional–to the point of collapse,” and, by implication, possibly even across that point to ensure collapse itself. He is much more knowledgeable (and granular) on trade matters than I am. Ironically, if he is right, the USTR will not be able, quoting you now, “to force domestic reform in all potential partners.” If I link his argument to yours, then the USTR (and the TPP) will either fail or the USTR will change its approach. The negotiations may be too far along for the latter to occur. But Australians are fortunate to be engaged simultaneously on both of the tracks I mentioned in my piece: RCEP as well as the TPP. Perhaps the implication of your comment is that RCEP is a better deal and should win the race. As far as access to the US market goes, the fate of the TPP may matter less to Australians insofar as they already have an FTA with the US. Two other topics bear consideration, or so it seems to me: (a) whether trade agreements should or should not include provisions on labor, IPR, the environment, and so on; and (b) whether and how much some of those negotiating the TPP are doing so for reasons that are partly politial-strategic rather than wholly economic in nature. Thanks again for your comment, Andrew. Warmly, Don

  • syed ali

    Prof. Emmerson raises crucial questions regarding the credibility of the ambitious, and given recent developments, perhaps over-ambitious, slogan of “ASEAN centrality.” He demonstrates how the convergence of intra-ASEAN and external, i.e., US-Chinese strategic competitive, factors conspires to corrode any semblance of centrality for ASEAN in the fashioning of a regional security architecture in East Asia.

    Prof. Emmerson, however, merely hints at several key relevant issues without elaborating on these. ASEAN leaders will need to focus quite sharply on these if they wished to fulfil their formal commitment to the forging of a three-faceted “community” by the rapidly approaching deadline of 2015. Practical problems persist.

    Firstly, by bringing together the regional adherents of the US-led anti-Chinese Cold War-era South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) with the four mainland autocracies, i.e., Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, ASEAN extended its promise to bring peace and prosperity across Southeast Asia, but overextended itself into a much more amorphous, diverse and internally-divided agglomeration of political-economic actors than it had been. Vietnam and Myanmar have seen some reforms but are still way behind their senior peers in the organisation. Cambodia and Laos remain far behind on most counts of development. Such a diverse gathering can barely integrate its economic and security perspectives and preferences without causing significant disruptions. Under such circumstances, presenting itself as the central driver of an emergent regional architecture would appear to be bereft of manifest substance. This is a major challenge, but one which only ASEAN can address.

    Secondly, and following on from the first, ASEAN members range from those allied to the USA through those who are its strategic partners to a handful who incline towards Beijing. This has not mattered too much until recently, when transitional fluidity born of systemic uncertainty triggered by the parallel “national revitalisation” of China on the one hand, and America’s debt-and-deficit fuelled difficulties on the other, began impinging on the region. Maritime territorial disputes between several ASEAN-member-states on the one hand and China on the other have simmered fitfully at least since the early 1970s without posing structural threats to the sub-system until now. The conjunction of these disputes and deepening Sino-US strategic competition, manifest in maritime ASEAN’s increasing and increasingly vocal alignment to the US regional strategy, and China’s assertive demonstration of its determination to “defend” its “indisputable sovereignty” across the South China Sea, now threatens not just “ASEAN centrality”, but ASEAN itself.

    Thirdly, commercial data openly available in the public domain underscore the economic, commercial and financial linkages among ASEAN-members, China and the USA. Indeed, these linkages underpin the very dynamics, catalysed by the post-Cold War processes of globalisation and encouraged by state policies across the Asia-Pacific region, which have transformed East Asia into the key driver of the global economy. The parallel existence of a post-national economic landscape and a still very largely Westphalian national-security framework driving policy across the wider Asia-Pacific region is generating frictions of a kind that policy-making elites and opinion-shapers in most countries have not fully woken up to. Certainly, the trans-Pacific security discourse offers no indication that this new world is one we fully understand. Even those who appreciate the fundamental nature of the changes present few alternatives to the familiar, 19th-century, robustly-muscular, kinetic power-based instruments for the pursuit of the national interest. This is potentially dangerous.

    This, then, is no longer a question of maintaining ASEAN’s locus as the driver of regional developments, but one of the viability of the organisation itself. Taken to the next level of argument, we can perhaps begin to see the incongruity between the increasingly integrated economic landscape on the one hand, and the state-framed particularistic policies still being fashioned to manage its complexities on the other. This is as fundamental an issue in terms of regional security as it gets.

    I thank Professor Emmerson for triggering this response.

    kind regards

    • Don Emmerson

      Thanks for such thoughtful comments, which with I basically agree. Your point about the incongruity between a more integrated global economy and “state-framed particularistic policies” is especially well taken. When “globalization” was still a popular buzzword, it was common if not conventional to say that globalization could not be reversed. I am less sanguine in that regard today.

  • Leah Green

    Hi, do you have any insights as to whether China’s Jan 2012 proposal for greater global energy governance is related to China’s frustration with ASEAN? Premier Wen called for coordination and cooperation on energy security issues within the G20 framework, which noticeably excludes the Philippines, Vietnam, etc. Is this part of a longer-term effort to disseminate the risk posed to Chinese energy security at the regional level via ASEAN? (Am trying to think of a way to say this). I’m surprised by the fact that China is calling for better global energy governance isn’t getting more attention…