Within the context of an Indo-Pacific multi-layered institutional framework, we can begin to see the green shoots of hope. Derivative security constructs are gradually filling the gap left by the structural limitations of ASEAN.
Diplomacy, contrary to its image as a highly rigid, choreographed, and protocol-conscious activity, is in reality actually very fluid by necessity, with room for “dynamic diplomacy” or human agency as the rule rather than the exception. This leaves questions as to why there is a perception gap between our view of diplomacy and the reality.
One of the reasons is what states themselves prefer diplomacy to be regarded publicly – the ultimate perfection of what polished “speech acts” can perform or do, rather than the messy sausage making process that diplomacy is. In fact, in the moment there is some semblance of genuine exchange that Robert Axelrod called the “the long shadow of iterative activities,” the game of geopolitics or geo-economics has begun. The rest evolves through a deeper process of osmosis that is premised on mutual gains. Therefore, Stephen Walt argued in the The Origin of Alliances that between balancing against an emergent threat or bandwagoning with it, many countries in a conflict zone would prefer to balance against the source of the incipient danger.
This is especially true of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). No amount of consensus building through the so-called ASEAN Way will result in a commitment to choosing between the United States and China. With a motley collection of regime types, why would ASEAN member-states want to complicate their foreign policy, with their already obfuscating internal politics, to engage with a multi-segmented society such as China, which is already a fully or partly digital totalitarian state? In this sense, Kenneth Waltz was both right and wrong to insist that the best theory of international politics must satisfy the criterion of “parsimony.”
China exists in the immediate neighbourhood of the ten member-states of ASEAN. The differences between ASEAN states and China are stark. Asymmetry exists at a plethora of levels including population, naval fleet sizes, missile capabilities, and the ease with which China can violate their territorial waters, including exclusive economic zones (EEZ). It is easy to understand why ASEAN would choose to placate China over the US, the UK and Australia.
Indeed, it is somewhat obsequious, to argue that ASEAN would engage in “strategic hedging,” as argued by Kuik Cheng Kuik, especially when the three Western powers have not formed a defence league themselves. Rather, Australia employs a bilateral strategy with Japan through its Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) and is party to the AUKUS agreement alongside the US and the UK.
Derivative security constructs within the Indo-Pacific context, such as the Quad and Quad-plus formulations, the RAA, AUKUS, and the Five Power Défense Agreement (FPDA), offer some hope. While ASEAN has provided a platform for integrating the region during the past, its consensus-based process and nonbinding decisions have left it vulnerable to fractures from outside powers and from within by intractable problems such as military coups, corruption, and democratic backsliding.
The word “centrality” in the ASEAN Charter in 2007 inflates its sense of self-importance and has resurfaced in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific without offering any concrete initiatives. If ASEAN is a serious about being a geopolitical player in the evolution of a multi-layered Indo-Pacific institutional framework, it befuddles the mind of many serious analysts, why would 96 percent of ASEAN Secretariat’s entire budget be coming from its twelve dialogue partners, one strategic partner, Germany, and one Development Partner, Turkey?
In that context, if AUKUS was a game changer in the titanic strategic competition with China, the RAA is no less serious in its strategic impact. Peter McDermott argues that “as early as 1960,” the prior enmity of Australia and Japan was already on the mend, setting for the stage of the recently signed RAA.
Similarly, should one go back to the withdrawal from Hanoi. As early as 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson was already thinking of a tactical withdrawal, only to have President Richard Nixon coming up with the Guam Doctrine in 1969, the prelude to what Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, called the “honorable exit.”
Semantically, whether it was phrased as a “withdrawal” or “honorable exit” the US was a resident power that was not going to leave the region wholesale. Rather, the US lost nothing but a bruised ego by retreating to five of their nine formal security treaty partners in the world. Those five were, as they still are, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Beside the Five Eye Initiative, these literally allow ASEAN to free ride on all the necessary human and electronic intelligence on China.
The RAA has a granular linearity that is making the growing Indo-Pacific multi-layered institutional framework ever weightier, drawing renowned Chinese security advisors such as Jia Qingguo, Wang Jisi, Wen Shizou, and even the previously hawkish Yan Xue Tong telling the “Wolf Warriors” to consider a more quiescent diplomacy instead.
Any attempt to interpret the messy withdrawal of the US from Kabul in August 2021 as a sign of American decline is but a “false analogy,” unless one makes the dogmatic argument that perception is the be all and end all of world politics. If anything, it would be far more plausible to affirm that all politics are local, as long-serving Speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once said.
Thus, if truth is the first casualty of war, the current state of an interconnected world allows one to resort to cyber information warfare to put a positive and powerful spin that America is back, when the truth is the US never left.
Dr Stephen Nagy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a senior fellow with the MacDonald Laurier Institute (MLI), a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI), and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). Twitter handle: @nagystephen1.
Dr Phar Kim Beng is founder and CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena. He is a regular featured writer for The Jakarta Post and was the former Director of Political and Security Community in ASEAN Secretariat, a former visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA, 1999), and an Associate Fellow of Edx. Org, an online learning platform pioneered jointly by Harvard University and MIT since 2016.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.