June 14, 2021

ASEAN Centrality after the Myanmar Coup

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Catharin Dalpino
Georgetown University
Chin-Hao Huang
Yale-NUS College
Robert G. Sutter
George Washington University
Ralph A. Cossa
Pacific Forum

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On June 14 the Pacific Forum hosted its first Comparative Connections Roundtable on the subject of ASEAN Centrality after the Myanmar Coup. The session was the first in a series of events in which authors from Comparative Connections: A Triannual Journal of Bilateral Relations in the Indo-Pacific, meet to discuss timely matters of importance to the region as a whole.

The author of Comparative Connections’ US-Southeast Asia chapter, Catharin Dalpino, was joined by the co-authors of the China-Southeast Asia chapter, Robert Sutter and Chin-Hao Huang. The session was moderated by Ralph Cossa, Pacific Forum’s President Emeritus, the WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies, as well as co-author of the Comparative Connections Regional Overview.

Key Findings from the session are as follows.

ASEAN’s soul searching

Following the recent coup in Myanmar, ASEAN representatives called an emergency meeting in April 2021. With the Myanmar junta attending, a five-point consensus agreeing on the cessation of hostilities and a recognition that the violence is unacceptable was produced. However, ASEAN is still conceptualizing its role within the Myanmar paradigm.

Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have become increasingly vocal in their concerns over coup-linked violence. Indonesia has also amplified calls for a special envoy to be allowed into Myanmar. Yet in spite of their vexation over the impediments to sending such an envoy, ASEAN condemned a move by the UN General Assembly to sanction Myanmar’s junta.

Such decisions can be contextualized by the evolution of ASEAN and the normative principles that guide a shared understanding that the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-use of force, and dialogue are the fundamental means of mediation.

There is reason to be optimistic over ASEAN’s future. The collective remains grounded in its norms of non-violence and an understanding that a strong, interventionist approach will not unite their often-divided objectives. Through the Myanmar crisis, ASEAN has proven itself committed to its principles and rather than shutting the door on the junta, invited it to join in the process of resolution and peace-building.

ASEAN and great powers

Obama’s irresolution in the South China Sea created a vacuum of which Beijing availed itself. In spite of former President Trump taking a harder line with China, ASEAN nations were irresolute in their desire to follow.

While the Biden administration has expressed a desire for greater regional engagement, stakeholders remain reticent. Recursively, the languor generated as a byproduct of Washington’s prior neglect within the region left nations unmotivated to cooperate, leading to a loss of momentum for the Biden administration’s search for partners. Although Biden has applied a systematic and stable approach to the region, ASEAN members remain concerned over Chinese repercussions should they align themselves with an America that would vacate the region should another Trump come into power.

Washington’s options for regional partners are limited. Vietnam’s willingness to work with the US in spite of its strong position against China remains an open question while nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore pursue a doctrine of neutrality.

If the Biden administration is serious about human rights, this may present an opportunity for Washington to take a leadership role on the issue. As of now, however, the administration’s response to the coup has been anemic.

Beijing has capitalized on American absenteeism in the region. With its ability to silence criticism and steer the narrative within ASEAN through its co-option of Cambodia, China continues to increasingly assert itself as regional hegemon. Seen as a viable option for authoritarian governments in the region (such as Myanmar’s junta, as well as Cambodia’s Hun Sen), China’s support has led to the strengthening of corrupt regimes, which Western countries had previously refused to collaborate with.

Ultimately neither China nor the US have much leverage over Myanmar. Sanctions are a loathsome outcome for an ASEAN that questions the sustainability of such efforts. At the same time, Beijing was caught off guard by the coup and is still calibrating a response. Regardless, the citizens of Myanmar remain wary of outside interference, regardless of source or intent.

Measuring ASEAN centrality

ASEAN Centrality is not a static feature but rather a regional tool which sometimes works but isn’t always applicable. Centrality played an important part in a nascent ASEAN’s role in the resolution of the Cambodian civil war in the 1970s, creating pathways for the intervention by the international community. Less dramatically, ASEAN served as the training ground for the ASEAN+3 process which encouraged interaction between Southeast Asian nations.

The ASEAN of 2021 is confronted with significantly more challenges than in the past. Along with normalization, a broader ASEAN with greater political and socioeconomic divisions has developed as membership continued to grow. How the ASEAN doctrine of centrality responds to the Myanmar crisis remains to be seen.

With the influence of players like China, India, and Russia extending far beyond the region, it is unrealistic for ASEAN to deny strategic competition and confine its role to the region. ASEAN has, like it or not, become the de facto regional leader.

While ASEAN continues to negotiate its philosophy of centrality, there is little hope for an expeditious resolution to the Myanmar crises. The junta will likely postpone any genuine dialogue until it has consolidated its power. Yet the crisis is a predicament for ASEAN as a whole. With regional economic integration intensifying, having a member state with a failed economy is undesirable and as such the organization is motivated to find a solution.

It’s important to temper expectations of ASEAN with reality; it is not a security regime and juxtaposing it with NATO or the EU is unreasonable. ASEAN views punitive action as a nonstarter and is thus focused on carrots, rather than sticks, to solve the Myanmar crisis. Nevertheless, it is recognized that for any resolution to be achieved the junta must be included in the dialogue process.