MANILA -- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations finds its ability to set a safe course between the world's colliding powers -- an approach to diplomacy that served it well for much of its first 50 years -- threatened by the changing dynamics of American and Chinese influence in the region.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. is becoming increasingly inward-looking. At the same time, China, led by President Xi Jinping, continues to work toward expanding its sphere of influence. This development has weakened cohesion among the ASEAN members and raised concern about the bloc's future.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement formed a key part of former President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" policy. Trump's decision to withdraw from the pact soon after he took office sent a clear signal about where the new U.S. president's focus lies.
Trump indicated America's continued involvement in Asia in a speech in Vietnam on Friday, but his "America first" bias is unmistakable. Whereas Obama championed a multilateral framework for trade and investment, Trump is pressing Vietnam, which has the biggest trade surplus with the U.S. of any ASEAN member, for a bilateral trade deal.
ASEAN members hope the U.S. will continue to play the role of counterbalance against China's growing influence in the region, but they are unsure if America under Trump will have their back on such issues as territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.
While visiting Washington earlier this month, Mie Oba, a professor at Tokyo University of Science, heard talk that the Trump administration lacked a clear ASEAN strategy and was still studying the issues affecting the bloc.
China has made the most of this vacuum and eagerly pursued the goal of expanding its power sphere in the region, using its Belt and Road Initiative and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as tools.
ASEAN was launched in 1967 by five countries as an alliance against communism. The U.S., which was engaged in the Vietnam War at the time, provided economic and military assistance to the member states.
After the Cold War ended, ASEAN adopted the pursuit of economic development through free trade as its common goal and attracted investment from Japan and other developed economies. The "ASEAN way" of diplomacy, which played major powers seeking to tap the region's growth potential against each other for better deals, has helped the bloc quadruple the size of its economy over the past two decades.
From its beginning, ASEAN has aspired to create an independent region that can shut out the quarrels of the big powers. But the bloc faced the reality that it cannot exist in a geopolitical vacuum when China began building military footholds in the South China Sea.
For years, ASEAN decision-making has been based on a principle of unanimous consensus. Once Cambodia and other members that are close to China began siding with Beijing on some issues, the unity was shaken, and the bloc became paralyzed.
Even with all their military and economic strength combined, the ASEAN members cannot hold their own against China. Trump's ascent came at the worst time, since it spelled the end of the U.S. "pivot" to Asia under Obama.
While the U.S. continues to sail warships in "freedom of navigation" operations near Chinese installations in the South China Sea, this has not stopped Beijing from advancing its effective control over the waters. ASEAN has been unable to resolve the issue with its balanced diplomacy, since it would require the U.S. serving as a strong counterbalance.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday night that the South China Sea dispute "is better left untouched," despite the fact that his own country is on the receiving end of China's encroachment. As China continues to boost its influence by leveraging its economic power, ASEAN will be forced to reexamine the reason for its existence as it begins its second half-century.