As the Asia-Pacific evolves to deal with changing dynamics, more multi- and mini-lateral groupings are created alongside them.

Southeast Asia is watching the development warily, fearing that Asean might lose its standing as one of the leading convening strategic organisations in the region.

There is alsothe fear that these new groupings are not tools of cooperation but means of competition and exclusion.

It was Asean’s shaky centrality that contributed to the prospect of its declining primacy and convening power among regional multilateral networks.

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa was spot on in his remarks on Nov 15 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy when he said that the challenges that Asean was unable, and unwilling, to manage would inevitably draw other multi- and mini-lateral responses.

It was a predictable outcome and should not come as a surprise, except to blinkered ideologues who believe that Asean can carry on like it is still the early 2000s.

While Asean might be incapable of mitigating major power relations, it can still navigate it with an eye on managed, realistic outcomes. It could pursue three things:

FIRST, Asean must recognise that its inclusive approach to external stakeholders, including major powers, is an asset that we must work hard to maintain and promote. A balanced inclusive approach, while often slow, is beneficial to the regional organisation.

As accepting as Asean is of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it should seek to leverage on the various iterations of the Indo-Pacific.

Where necessary, Asean should redouble its efforts to persuade proponents of the Indo-Pacific initiatives that their initiatives remain open and inclusive, and to continue engaging this region without forcing it to exclude other partners.

Developments from the last Quad leaders’ meeting, highlighting efforts on vaccines, healthcare, climate change, development and access to technology, are a positive outcome. We should also be watchful of those who utilise the notions of inclusivity to exclude others.

SECOND, the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), published in 2019, needs a dire update. While some might have intended for the document to remain a one-off response to the Indo-Pacific, it would be a self-defeating decision.

The Indo-Pacific is increasingly entrenched and diversified. This includes the formalisation of various Indo-Pacific strategies in Europe.

Asean needs to keep pace to frame the narratives surrounding the Indo-Pacific and how we want them to engage the region. There is value in this as the recent Asean-China Special Summit saw China reaffirming, albeit with plenty of caveats, the inclusive principles behind the AOIP.

THIRD, Asean needs to get its house in order and work to streamline common and clear baselines on regional interests and then hold them against the efforts by major powers to undermine it. For a 10-member organisation with diverse national interests making consensus-based decisions, this is never going to be easy.

Perhaps, it is time for member states to revisit the expectation for Asean to take the lead on contentious issues that it isn’t equipped to manage, like the South China Sea dispute and the impacts of water regulation in the upper Mekong to the lower Mekong that affect some members more than others. Affected countries should take the lead, with the regional organisation playing a supporting role instead.

Asean member states have only themselves to blame if they cannot coalesce on at least some regional interests, continue to be exploited by major powers, and then find that the convening appeal of its summitry being questioned and relegated.

Proactivity and productivity in engagements and agenda setting should be the priority. Not just with both China and the United States, but with other regional middle powers, and dialogue partners from further afield namely the European Union, and the newest dialogue partner, the United Kingdom.

The more players we draw in, the more options and leverage we have.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on 11 December 2021.

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