The slogan of ASEAN 2017 under its Philippine chairmanship — “Partnership for Changes, Engaging the World” — is telling. After five decades of existence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues to do what it has always done best — soul searching.
But as the 10 leaders of ASEAN countries prepare for their 30th summit in Manila on April 29, the familiar regional and international environment in which they have operated is undergoing radical change. The grouping faces disruptive new challenges at a time when its members are themselves growing stronger economically and becoming more self-confident and assertive in their international dealings.
Such assertiveness can cause division among the member countries, as witnessed by the group’s response to the territorial and maritime conflict in the South China Sea over the past decade. The lack of a common ASEAN position over the July 12, 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s claims in the region has been portrayed as a sign of ASEAN fragility.
The Philippines, despite the favorable ruling, decided not to continue to press China. President Rodrigo Duterte instead adopted a softer tone toward Beijing than his predecessors, a move that reduced overall tensions. As the current ASEAN chair, Manila’s position will almost certainly be reflected in the association’s final statement.
Signs of growing political assertiveness among some ASEAN members, both within the group and in the wider international arena, have given the impression they are going their different ways. Their position on China is one example. While ties at the ASEAN-China level are cordial, individual members have different levels of intimacy and interaction with Beijing. Relations between Singapore and China, for instance, have become strained, although this has yet to affect China’s relationship with ASEAN as a whole.
Whether ASEAN’s collective relationship with China can remain immune to friction between Beijing and individual member states is a key question. The cooling of relations between Singapore and China must be closely monitored, especially as the city-state will take over as next year’s ASEAN chairman while continuing to serve as the group’s country coordinator for ASEAN-China ties until next year.
As the South China Sea dispute vividly highlights, the international strategic landscape has changed so dramatically that it is prompting ASEAN, in its 50th year, to take a hard look at the grouping’s strengths and weaknesses. The election of U.S. President Donald Trump has increased the level of uncertainty around the globe. In the past four months, the international community, ASEAN included, has been in suspense about U.S. intentions, struggling to respond to constantly changing signals from the world’s superpower. It is clearer now, however, that only Washington’s actions speak, and any prior U.S. comment or commitment on any particular issue is irrelevant.