The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was initially forged as a mechanism for managing collective security and so it is fitting that after a half century of existence, the organization should be judged on how successful it has managed the region's security.
One of ASEAN's founding fathers, Thanat Khoman, who was Thai foreign minister in the 1960s, came of age during World War II and recognized that Southeast Asia was prone to being trampled underfoot by clashing major powers. As a result, he proposed that all the countries of the region should work together. "If they succeed not only will each and every one of them be spared from destruction, but the region as a whole will emerge as a strong and free community, capable of serving its own interests as well as those of the world at large," he stated.
As the group of now 10 member states marks its 50th anniversary, some critics ask whether ASEAN is even serving its own interests, let alone those of the broader community.
The world of the 1960s was fraught with dangers for Southeast Asia. There was war in Indochina. Indonesia invaded newly created Malaysia, acting like an aggressive regional hegemon. China was supporting communist movements across the region. Southeast Asia needed the protection of major powers, but the experience of the colonial era taught the newly independent nations that their interests were best served by clubbing together rather than being played off against one another.
Regional diplomacy in the early years of ASEAN's existence was marked by the binary order of the Cold War, with ASEAN's five original members closely allied with the capitalist West. But in an early sign of things to come, two of ASEAN's founding countries -- Malaysia and Thailand -- established formal relations with China in the 1970s. With communist Vietnam's entry into ASEAN in the 1990s, a more neutral stance was adopted.
By the 1980s, ASEAN had become more non-aligned. In 1994, ASEAN established a formal dialogue with China as it had with all the other major powers. Arising from this inclusive dialogue process, ASEAN created for itself a niche role as a convenor on regional security, hosting trilateral meetings of Northeast Asian powers and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which brought together everyone relevant to the Asia-Pacific region, including North Korea.
This framework worked very well for a time, especially after the idealistic globalizing impulses triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There were moments of significant contributions to regional security, such as the Cambodian peace process in 1988-90, and the framing of a Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea a decade or so later. ASEAN's security management credentials were reinforced by the proliferation of multilateral frameworks tethered to the association, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the ARF and the Asia-Europe Meeting. Outside powers lined up to sign the bedrock Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which formally governs ASEAN's interactions with its component members and the wider region. Thus, was born the notion of ASEAN centrality.
This happy confluence of forces began to unravel in 2010. It was around this time that the two largest powers in Asia, the U.S. and China, started sparring more openly. As a result, China's "peaceful rise" was more sharply felt in terms of direct investment, support for strategic infrastructure development and military cooperation. The U.S. responded with a move to pivot back toward Asia after a decade or more of operational focus on military deployments in the Middle East.
In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech in Hanoi that intentionally threw down a gauntlet of sorts at China's door. Based on a calculated view in Washington that the U.S. needed to assert its strategic presence in the region more forcefully, Clinton took aim at China's active claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, especially in waters claimed by Vietnam to the north, and by Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei to the south. This was intentionally a barb aimed directly at China's wider claim to the whole of the South China Sea as depicted in all official Chinese maps -- and even on Chinese passports -- as the famous nine-dashed line.
China's response was to aggressively ramp up its assertion of sovereignty, using physical force as well as rhetoric, and to create a new and destabilizing threat of conflict in the region. By mid-2016, China had built several military runways on small coral features amidst some of Asia's busiest sea-lanes. These islands have also seen the temporary deployment of high frequency radar and high-altitude missile batteries. U.S. ships or planes probing the air or sea around these islands have been aggressively warned off.
The escalation of tension between the U.S. and China in and around Southeast Asia has posed a significant challenge to ASEAN, one with which the existing architecture of collective security has been unable to cope. Neither the ARF nor the plethora of "Track Two" unofficial security forums such as the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue proved useful for dispute resolution. Instead, they have provided platforms for the major powers to grandstand and further escalate tensions.
ASEAN itself has become divided as a result. Some member states have adopted positions seen as supporting either the U.S. or China. The tradition of consensus has been violated, as seen at recent ministerial meetings where it has proven impossible to issue agreed statements on critical issues. ASEAN centrality has been somewhat eroded by the tendency of the major powers to convene high level meetings in either the U.S. or China rather than within the region.
The South China Sea with its lattice of competing territorial claims is the most divisive issue, but one could add to this mix the growing contest for power over the Mekong River basin as well. In both these contexts, China has increasingly strived to establish a commanding position. In the Mekong, for example, China's Lancang Mekong Cooperation Framework somewhat duplicates the existing Mekong River Commission, which is funded by Japan and some Western countries.
It is therefore important for ASEAN to urgently consider how to recover and rebuild the balancing role that was the initial rationale for its establishment 50 years ago. This will not be easy. Both China and the U.S. have exerted considerable pressure on the 10 member states to take sides. Beijing believes that Washington's goal is to prevent China from rising. Washington argues that China is undermining what it calls the "rules-based order".
ASEAN member states feel pulled in different directions that bring with them consequences. China delivered a series of symbolic and painful rebukes earlier this year after Singapore was deemed to draw too close to the U.S. Cambodia, meanwhile, halted all joint military exercises with the U.S. in 2017. In the Philippines, the government has shelved a legal ruling made by an international tribunal in The Hague last year that questioned the legality of China's claims in the South China Sea. After half a century, ASEAN seems to be acting less as a balancing mechanism and more as a cockpit of a geopolitical contest.
Looking to the future, it is vital that ASEAN reinforces and reinvigorates collective security discussions at the leadership and ministerial level. ASEAN leaders should insist that security discussions are managed and convened in the region, perhaps by strengthening a leadership summit on regional security under the East Asia Summit framework. Instead of downplaying the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which includes a high council mechanism for resolving disputes, it should be used more vigorously as a tool for managing regional security.
As ASEAN embarks on its second half-century, its leaders should mobilize established but underutilized platforms and mechanisms for dialogue and mediation, and worry less about the threat of internal interference these mechanisms seem to pose. Otherwise, as Thanat Khoman envisaged, Southeast Asia will neither be strong nor free.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."