By James Boutilier, December 15, 2022
When I was a young boy, I was told that – according to the laws of physics – a bumble bee should not be able to fly. In fact, I soon discovered that bees could not only fly but fly impressively well. Much the same could be said, geopolitically, for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a breathtakingly disparate array of 10 nations. These countries are disparate geographically, culturally, demographically and economically, ranging all the way from the tiny but wealthy and sophisticated entrepot of Singapore to the vast, archipelagic state of Indonesia; the latter, were it to be overlaid on Canada, would stretch roughly two-thirds of the way across the country.
The ASEAN states include a continental component (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar) and an insular component (Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and Indonesia). They stretch from the southern border of China in the north to the approaches of Australia in the south. Critically, ASEAN sits at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and encompasses the Strait of Malacca, which links the two oceans and constitutes one of the most important sea lines of communication in the world. An estimated 85,000 ships per year transit the Strait, bearing energy from the Middle East to states like China, Japan and South Korea and carrying away colossal amounts of manufactured goods.
ASEAN was established in 1967. At the time, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, a period of social unrest so profound that it threatened to bring China to its knees. Indonesia was also being wracked by anti-Chinese pogroms and the Americans were committed to a steady build-up of their troop strength in South Vietnam. Fear of communism was rampant and the domino theory – the idea that once one state in Southeast Asia succumbed to communism, the rest were in mortal peril – dominated the thinking of many western analysts.
Seeking security in unity, five states – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – met in Thailand to establish ASEAN. Subsequently, Brunei Darussalam joined the association in 1984 and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam joined in the 1990s.
Consensus is the central operating principle in ASEAN. At its best, this ensures a degree of harmony in decision-making. At its worst, the result is paralysis. ASEAN diplomats are past masters at circumlocution. This is not always a bad thing. Over the years they have been able to resolve tensions within the organization by way of seemingly endless discussion. On other occasions, they have failed miserably.
In 2002, for example, ASEAN members embraced a Declaration on Conduct with respect to rival claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese had begun what would be a wholesale acquisition of islets, sandbars, and cays already claimed by states surrounding the sea. Eventually, the Filipinos had the temerity, in Beijing’s eyes, to refer China’s claims to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Den Haag. In July 2016, after lengthy deliberation, the court ruled that China’s claims were entirely without merit.
That, however, was well into the future. At the time, claimant states like the Philippines and Vietnam were still content with the Declaration, article 5 of which enjoined the signatory states not to disturb the status quo in the South China Sea (something the Chinese promptly started to do). There was even the prospect of a more comprehensive Code of Conduct for the claimants. Yet evidence suggests that Beijing never had the slightest intention of concluding the code. Instead, the Chinese have played the Southeast Asian states like a skilled trout fisherman, reeling them in and letting them out. Now, 20 years later, the Code is still not complete; in the interval the Chinese have built up a series of artificial “islands” and, contrary to their promises, militarized them heavily.
What is more, the Chinese have embarked on a concerted campaign to draw weaker members of ASEAN, like Laos and Cambodia, into China’s orbit. They have invested heavily in both states, creating what may be the makings of a naval base on the Cambodian coast (despite repeated Cambodian assertions that it would never countenance a foreign military installation on its soil), and developing railway linkages between Laos and the People’s Republic.
As a result, Cambodia and Laos have become effectively Chinese client states – and that means consensus is never likely to be achieved on any ASEAN vote that could be considered antithetical to China’s interests. If this is the case, we are confronted by an unpalatable irony; namely, that at the very moment in ASEAN’s evolution as a regional organization, when it wished to be considered a “Community,” its capacity to function as a consensus-based body has been fatally compromised.
ASEAN exists in a contradictory world. All of the member states look to China as their number one trade partner. At the same time, almost all of them look to the United States for physical security. They strenuously resist any situation that would oblige them to choose publicly between the two hegemons; a chariness that is probably only to be expected under the circumstances. At the same time, they harbour deep and enduring anxieties about the vitality of Washington’s commitment to the region. In fact, no amount of reassurance seems sufficient to allay their fears.
Of course, each member state stands at a different point on the spectrum in terms of its relationship with the United States. Singapore, for example, despite being in many ways a “Chinese” city-state, is strongly supportive of an American military presence in the region. So too, ironically, is Vietnam which has succeeded in putting much of its painful past behind it and is eager to develop ties with the United States as a counter-balance to China; all this at a time when the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party still look with deference to the Chinese Communist Party. Myanmar, on the other hand, is something of a pariah because of the brutal character of its national government whose actions have repulsed the western world and the other members of ASEAN.
In 1984, the newly established Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada recommended that Canada should engage the Asia-Pacific region aggressively, in the best sense of the word. Now, 38 years later, the Canadian government – sobered by its experience with Madam Meng and the “two Michaels,” not to mention disturbing revelations about China’s United Front activities in Canada – has finally published an Indo-Pacific Strategy, which seeks to reduce dependence on the Chinese market and develop new commercial and diplomatic relations with key states in ASEAN, among other things.
In many ways, Ottawa is coming late to the game. ASEAN does recommend itself, in the sense that the array of member states – large and small, insular and continental, developed and developing – offer rich opportunities for trade diversification, free trade agreements, and leveraging of existing diaspora ties. On the other hand, ASEAN’s organizational integrity has been seriously undermined, which seems likely to continue as China penetrates further and further into Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, if Canada can stay the course (a critical “if” in view of Ottawa’s repeated failure over the years to follow through on rhetorical commitments), there are impressive opportunities in the region. Ottawa must create a brand. It must dedicate real resources. And it must show up – again and again. Then, and only then, will it be able to address its longstanding national deficit in the Indo-Pacific region.
James Boutilier is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former Special Advisor (Policy) at Canada’s Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters in Esquimalt, British Columbia.