ASEAN’s Role and Future in U.S.-China Competition

Gregory B. Poling is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a leading expert on the South China Sea disputes and conducts research on U.S. alliances and partnerships, democratization and governance in Southeast Asia, and maritime security across the Indo-Pacific. He is the author of the recently published On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea, along with various works on U.S. relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia at large. His writings have been featured in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, and the Naval War College Review, among others. Mr. Poling received an MA in international affairs from American University and a BA in history and philosophy from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Bryan Jed Soh '25 interviewed Mr. Gregory B. Poling on on September 15, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Gregory B. Poling.

The formation and revitalization of AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue reflect U.S. determination to counter China's increasing military presence in the South China Sea. However, neither AUKUS nor the QUAD include ASEAN nations. What role can ASEAN nations play in countering China given their vulnerable position?

Countering China's bad behavior in the South China Sea – and Taiwan and East China Sea and the Indian border – are all part of why the Quad exists. Fears about China are what brought the Quad together. While it's certainly true that AUKUS is driven by some of the same anxieties, that is not all they are about. The Quad is really about getting the four partners in the Quad to find ways to deliver public goods, like their first big initiative on vaccines. Now they are focused on digital economy and energy, with all of these efforts aiming to provide alternatives. So the reason that Southeast Asian countries – or small developing states – are not involved is because the Quad is providing alternatives to over-reliance on Chinese investment or aid. So in that sense, Southeast Asian countries and South Pacific countries and South Asian countries are the beneficiaries of Quad initiatives. And on individual projects, it will make sense to see what have been called Quad-plus-one programs, for example Quad plus Vietnam, or Quad plus Korea, though those would be one-offs. More broadly, there is clearly a proliferation of mini-lateral initiatives across the Indo-Pacific. These are issue-specific groupings of like-minded states, and many of those will include Southeast Asian countries. For example, Singapore is involved in many, including digital economy. There are also seven Southeast Asian countries involved in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. We will see this proliferation of organizations on an issue-by-issue basis, some of which will include Southeast Asian countries. In general, the U.S. is trying to find as many ways as possible to compete with, not contain, China and ensure that partner countries, particularly smaller nations, do not feel that they have no options other than Chinese aid or investment. When these nations feel that they have no options, that's when China can leverage them.

China is the biggest trading partner of the ASEAN countries, while the United States is crucial for Southeast Asia's security in the face of a more assertive Chinese foreign policy? How can ASEAN countries balance their dependence on the US and China as relations between these two countries worsen?

There will be some diversification of trade relations, not necessarily because of conscious decisions made by Southeast Asian countries, but because of the shifting dynamics of international supply chains, and the rise of costs of production in China, which were already accelerating quickly. The additional stresses of the zero-COVID policy in China are forcing supply chains to move out of China. China is going to remain the top trading partner of most Southeast Asian countries, if not all, but I suspect that the imbalance will grow less severe in the coming years. The place where Southeast Asian countries can reestablish the most strategic leverage and autonomy is on investment. We had a bubble in the early BRI days, where lending and investment from China in the region really peaked around 2016, and began falling quickly after that, and has tanked during COVID. So, the more Southeast Asian countries can attract and then leverage investment, particularly investment that creates jobs and things like high-end manufacturing from the US, Japan, and Europe, the more they can accept Chinese aid investment without feeling that there are political strings.

Most of the region does view the United States as the prime security guarantor. Even non-U.S. allies view a forward U.S. presence in the region as a necessary balance to China. They are not worried about over-reliance on the US militarily. They just want U.S. military engagement to be paired with greater U.S. diplomatic and economic engagement. The US is doing pretty well on the diplomatic front under the Biden administration, but it is still doing poorly on the economic front. We just had the first ministerial meeting on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework in Los Angeles last week and it is an imperfect vehicle, nobody is very happy with it, but it is the only vehicle we have. Engagement from the seven Southeast Asian partners over the next year-and-a-half is going to be focused on trying to get the Americans to think a little more strategically through IPEF, and engage in ways that have concrete value-adding, particularly on the supply chain pillar and the decarbonisation pillars of IPEF. Those could really send more investment, particularly high-end manufacturing investment, into Southeast Asian countries and create positive feedback loops where more American, Japanese and European capital get involved, so that Southeast Asian countries are not so over-reliant on Beijing. On the security front, the only active effort to balance is not to move away from the U.S. so much as it is to pull in other US allies, like Japan who has become a major security partner in its own right by negotiating access agreements and exercises with the Southeast Asians. South Korea has also emerged as a huge commercial defense partner in the region and is now the largest commercial provider of defense equipment to the Philippines. 

Is there a way for ASEAN countries to increase their own role and agency in managing regional affairs? How does China's use of gray zone tactics in Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere in the region complicate the ability of ASEAN countries to advance their interests without resorting to a dangerous escalation?

Southeast Asian countries certainly have the ability to increase their strategic autonomy, but there are limits to that. They are still small countries in an international system now dominated by great power competition again, though there are ways to leverage that. Making themselves invaluable to the U.S. or Japan or Europe can increase their leverage, attracting investment, security cooperation, et cetera. On the security front, you will see this most clearly on the Philippine side. The U.S.-Philippine alliance is now undergoing a process that parallels the one that we saw in Japan and Korea in the 1990s, in which those countries evolved from being recipients of US security guarantees to real partners. These partners made themselves as necessary to the U.S. as the U.S. was to them. If the Philippines can successfully do the same, leveraging its position in the region for future Taiwan contingencies in exchange for greater US investment on modernization and gray zone coercion and South China Sea commitments, then that will be a necessary and highly successful evolution in the US-Philippine alliance. If you look at Indonesia, Singapore, and to a degree Vietnam, you are seeing more explicit demand signals of what these countries want from the United States, and where the limits of that engagement are, and the U.S. responding in kind. 

The problem with gray zone coercion – whether you're talking about China's Coast Guard or its militia and dredging vessels – is that it is intended to bully and coerce without escalating to the point of military intervention. This is most problematic for the Philippines. It keeps the conflict below the level at which the mutual defense treaty could be invoked. Therefore, the US cannot get directly involved. A great deal of thinking in both the U.S. and partner nations, like other Quad members, is around how to facilitate maritime domain awareness, maritime patrol, and the diplomatic cost imposition in the international arena that could help change China's behavior in the gray zone. Countering gray zone coercion has become probably the most important pillar of U.S. security engagement within the region, focused on building up partner capacity to monitor, interdict and publicize Chinese gray zone pressure. 

The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific or AOIP primarily focuses on infrastructure, education and economic cooperation. Three years after its formulation, what impact has the AOIP had, and what are its deficiencies?

If I were a cynic, I would say it has had no impact. There has not been much formalization of a work plan around AOIP. Nevertheless, it highlights two issues that are key to the future of ASEAN and its engagement with outside partners. As competition with China comes to dominate not just U.S. engagement with the region, but also Japanese, Australian, European and Indian engagement with the region, ASEAN is at risk of losing its place as the hub of Indo-Pacific regional architecture. One of the reasons it is slipping away is, as evidenced by AOIP, ASEAN's inability or unwillingness to deal with the most important issues of the day. The AOIP does not touch on the South China Sea, the Mekong River, security competition, digital competition, or hard economic trade issues – essentially none of the topics that dominate discussion at the Quad, the G7, or the G20. The other thing that the process of the AOIP highlights is that there can be a constructive tension between ASEAN's claim to centrality and the pressure from external organizations. The AOIP is explicitly an Indonesian, and then ultimately an ASEAN response, to the Japanese and American FOIP initiatives, which scared ASEAN because they were worried that the U.S. and Japan were turning away from ASEAN centrality. A lot of initiatives under the Quad are having a similar effect by forcing ASEAN to go places that ASEAN would not have gone on its own. It is unclear where this ends, but it is clear that without pressure from the outside, ASEAN will continue to fade into obscurity because of its own internal tension and unwillingness to deal with difficult issues.

The U.S. engagement with AOIP, and with ASEAN, has now become far more pragmatic. Under the Obama administration, there was an all-in investment in ASEAN as the core regional architecture. Under the Trump administration, there was negligence towards ASEAN in favor of bilateral partnerships. The Biden administration has settled somewhere in the middle and is willing to engage with ASEAN on issues where ASEAN seems willing to engage. However, when the U.S. releases joint statements – or even the Quad – they claim they support ASEAN centrality, while obviously challenging ASEAN centrality. They are sincere in that they support ASEAN centrality in the places ASEAN is willing to go, but they are not going to sit on their hands on other issues just because ASEAN is unwilling to engage. 

What is your take on the future of US-ASEAN economic cooperation? How can the U.S. help advance the broader goals of economic coordination and growth in Southeast Asia?

The U.S. does not think very much about ASEAN as the core of its economic engagement with the region anymore, outside of discrete programs on gender empowerment, education, environmental remediation, and energy transition. The U.S. still views ASEAN as an important long-term bet on regional integration, but the great hopes that both the U.S. and ASEAN had for the latter’s role in the region from 2006 until 2015 have been dashed. ASEAN at that time, particularly under Surin Pitsuwan's Secretary Generalship and during the run of extraordinary chairmanships for Vietnam and Indonesia, was ambitious; it had a vision for itself that was resonant with external parties. The organization needs a long-term effort to modernize before it is really able to take on the role that it claimed for itself back in the 1990s. The U.S. is willing to invest in that process, and whenever ASEAN is ready to do the things that it says it wants to do, the US will be there. However, it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to just sit and wait, saying we are not going to engage on any of the issues that ASEAN is too afraid to deal with.

The most important topic for ASEAN is clear work plans, and institutions to engage with. On the broader issue of U.S. economic strategy, the U.S. is focused on supply chain resiliency, trade facilitation, and the like. Meanwhile, ASEAN states want the U.S. to be focused on market access. It is not clear if ASEAN has a program catered to the U.S.’s interests, and this is reflective of the broader issue that ASEAN's larger program of work ran out of steam after 2015.

Bryan Jed Soh CMC '25Student Journalist

Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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