ASEAN hedges in dynamic regional order

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Regional order in the Asia-Pacific is getting more complex and contested due to real politics and great power rivalries.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is under mounting pressures amidst rising tensions between China and the United States.

ASEAN can navigate through such uncertain times if it could adroitly maneuver institutional hedging strategy.

The region is full of competing multilateral initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, South Korea’s New Southern Policy, India’s Act East Policy, US-led and Japan-initiated “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Competition is becoming fervent when China’s Belt and Road Initiative can fill ASEAN’s need by pledging at least USD 1.024 trillion for infrastructure financing, in that same manner, Washington also announced its efforts to give USD 113 million ‘down payment’ for further US engagement under Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy.

The key question here is how ASEAN can grasp the opportunities stemming from the US-China competition and minimize geopolitical risks.

ASEAN, as an association of small and middle powers, should adopt institutional hedging strategy to curb the shifting power dynamics and mitigate possible risks associated with pure forms of bandwagoning and balancing.

Hedging is perceived as a strategic co-option of small states to neutralize their position from dangerous alignment amidst powers struggles. Through hedging strategy, ASEAN can avoid making a choice and taking sides within a structural dilemma by maneuvering soft balancing, strategic engagement, and institution-building.

So far, ASEAN has hedged by establishing partnerships with all major powers so that strategic equilibrium can be created.

This behavior of ‘soft-balancing’ could maintain regional stability and balance of power. In such a manner, ASEAN welcomes all regional initiatives that bring about inclusive, open, transparent, and mutually beneficial cooperation for the prosperity of region rather than zero-sum mentality.

ASEAN has sought to diversify and deepen its dialogue partnership with 10 partners with the aim to avoid the closed sphere of influence of any single hegemon.

The comprehensive diversification of ASEAN’s external relations are guided by the principles of the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC).

For strategic engagement, ASEAN has nurtured its cooperative norms and habits of multilateral dialogue to incorporate all key players into existing ASEAN-led institutions.

Engaging major powers in regional mechanisms can reduce tensions and bring about political convergence in two ways. First, all key players will develop a sense of partnership with ASEAN. Instead of being excluded from the interests the region has to offer, major powers will contribute to develop the stake in the institutional mechanisms that facilitate the sharing of common benefits.

Second, through engagement, all key players will be conformed to ASEAN Way of multilateral diplomacy, perceiving that consultations, dialogues, and consensus are the most viable means in pursuing agenda rather than confrontation. In this regard, ASEAN can further constrain major powers’ behavior by its norms and principles and rightfully claim a driver seat in a changing regional architecture. East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) are perfect instances of ASEAN strategic and inclusive engagement to promote its habits of dialogue and enmesh great powers into ASEAN-driven regionalism.

Through institution-building, ASEAN is able to be more proactive to forge a rules-based order using its own institutional norms and practices as well as strengthening ASEAN centrality, unity, and cohesiveness that shapes major powers’ interaction.

By establishing normative constraints through the diffusion of its own rules and principles, ASEAN is able to lead an inclusive regional institution based on cooperative efforts in building trust and confidence amongst its members.

ASEAN member states must stand firm together to limit their divergent strategic interest and pursue a common grouping strategy as hedging tools to survive from great powers’ entrapment.

The newly-endorsed ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) has proven leaders’ vision to maintain ASEAN unity and centrality.

ASEAN is an important hedging tool of small states’ diplomacy in Southeast Asia in neutralizing their stance to navigate through stormy powers shift.

From its inception until now, ASEAN remains a major cornerstone of small states’ foreign policy as a security provider.

ASEAN has proven its relevance in regional peace, stability, and prosperity. As an ASEAN member, Cambodia continues to receive net benefits from regional integration and security bulwark in the protection of sovereignty.

ASEAN is a strategic doorway that connects Cambodia with outside powers to stand on equal footings in global fora and explore economic interests from the region and beyond.

Regarding ASEAN as the cornerstone of its foreign policy, Cambodia has strongly supported ASEAN-led mechanisms and ASEAN’s central role in regionalism. In a letter to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated, “ASEAN is a reliable security shield for member states in protecting independence and sovereignty”.

He stressed that, “ASEAN success lies in an open, inclusive, outward-looking mechanism despite its consensus-based decision making, non-interference, respect of sovereignty”.

He added that, “In the context of rising geopolitical conflicts and regional uncertainty stemming from powers’ struggle, it is foremost that Cambodia stands strong with other members to deal with risks and challenges ahead. Cambodia will endeavor to further promote ASEAN Centrality in the evolving regional architecture”.

Samath Chan Somanith is an Undergraduate student at Department of International Studies, IFL, RUPP and an Intern at ASEAN General Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

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