Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at a reception marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of dialogue relations between China and ASEAN in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 8, 2021. Photo: Xinhua
As stated in Article 1 (15) of the ASEAN Charter, it is important to “maintain the central position and proactive role of ASEAN as the main driving force in its relationships and collaborations with its external partners in an open, transparent and inclusive manner.” As the most integrated and representative group of nations in East Asia, ASEAN’s “centrality” in regional cooperation not only corresponds to the reality of regional development, but also corresponds to the global development trend.
A Chinese proverb says: “A drop of water does not make a sea and a single tree does not make a forest.” For over half a century since it was founded in 1967, ASEAN has tried to bring its member states together to speak with one voice. On this basis, it has advanced the development of the ASEAN community, established regional cooperation mechanisms led by ASEAN and promoted the formation of an ASEAN-centered East Asian regional cooperation structure. She has also endeavored to build a large family with inclusive and symbiotic relationships and a collaborative environment for mutual development by maintaining the ASEAN method of building consensus and adapting to each other’s levels of comfort.
ASEAN has long sought relative neutrality and avoided taking sides or interfering in an external tug-of-war by maintaining its centrality. This has helped her to maintain relationships with other parties. At the forefront of the regional framework for cooperation and with its leading role, ASEAN has created space for large countries to play their role in the ASEAN framework and has achieved overall stability and predictability in its relations with the most important countries, which is an effective addition to its strength . Over the past 30 years, ASEAN has gradually built a number of mechanisms including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), several 10 + 1 mechanisms, 10 + 3 (ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea) and the East Asia Summit acted in them as a strategic coordinator. As a result, large countries have developed around the ASEAN region, and countries large and small can work together to achieve great things. The group has seen its influence grow and is able to strike over its weight. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest regional free trade agreement, will enter into force shortly. ASEAN played a leading role in the negotiations on the agreement and thus made a significant contribution to regional economic integration.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and major changes not seen in a century, a number of factors have affected the centrality of ASEAN. Some of them come from within, including tension and disagreement between Member States. Most importantly, Myanmar was not even represented at the most recent ASEAN summit, which put ASEAN unity to an unprecedented test. Should such a “10-X” model be continued and established in the future, the basis of the unity of ASEAN would be seriously eroded and the centrality of ASEAN would be directly called into question. Imagine what it would look like if one of the 10 golden rice ears on the ASEAN logo were gone?
Furthermore, the greatest external threat to ASEAN is the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” that the US has pursued in recent years. This strategy is fixated on containing China in the military and security areas, with the Quad and AUKUS that were created under it directed towards China. This will undoubtedly create tension in Southeast Asia. The US and its allies are also trying to put together a larger anti-China encirclement through “Quad +” and other formats, and ASEAN countries are the greatest targets to be won. Obviously, this will have a direct impact on the unity of ASEAN and sow discord between the ASEAN countries. The group could be exposed to a centrifugal drag and even run the risk of falling apart. Some ASEAN leaders have warned that the AUKUS deal, which gives the green light to the delivery of nuclear submarines to Australia, could spark a nuclear arms race in the region. They have made it clear that they do not want an arms race to threaten the stability of the region.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the start of dialogue between China and ASEAN. In the past 30 years, China and ASEAN have actively taken up the trend of the times, worked together on development and progress and created the “wonder of East Asia”. They have maintained general regional stability and sustainable economic growth, found a way of good neighborliness and win-win cooperation, and made a historic leap in relations between China and ASEAN. Most noticeable is that China is a consistent supporter of ASEAN centrality in regional cooperation. China believes that ASEAN’s growth is an inevitable trend towards a multipolar world and a positive factor in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Indeed, China’s explicit support for ASEAN centrality has led other dialogue partners to adopt a similar position. On key issues of interest to ASEAN, as well as on the most important initiatives it has put forward, China has always shown a cooperative stance, including being the first country to join the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and to set up a free trade agreement with ASEAN. In this way, China has contributed to strengthening ASEAN centrality and promoting regional development and cooperation.
Ancient Chinese wisdom says that “if everyone adds wood, the fire will burn high”. And a Southeast Asian proverb goes: “When water rises, lotus is raised.” In the face of various internal and external risks and challenges, the ASEAN states need to build more consensus and unity and think and work in the same direction in order to maintain their central position in regional cooperation and to advance the building of the ASEAN community. We have reason to believe that a united, independent and strong ASEAN will play an even greater role in regional and international affairs in the future.
The author is an observer of international affairs. [email protected]