Since the 1940s, the international system has been built on a Atlantic-based centre. Accordingly, the economic, political and military conflicts in the world have been interpreted through this centre. By the 2000s, the power of Atlantic system has decreased relatively and a power transition has happened from Europe to Asia. Countries that have ability to industrialization and development with production capacity and young populations have made a significant contribution to the rise of Asia. China, which is among these countries, has undoubtedly been at the forefront of Asia’s rise.
China’s integration into the global system and the rhetoric of “peaceful rise” have kept China-West relations at a positive level for many years, causing many Western companies to shift their production lines to China. However, after Xi Jinping came to power in China after 2013, the direction of China-Western relations changed and conflicts of interest began. Especially with the success of the Belt-Road Project launched in 2013, Beijing has achieved effective momentum both in the diplomatic sphere and has started a rapid modernization of the military field with its economic capacity.
China’s policies have been frequently respectively criticized by Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. These criticisms have produced a systematic policy of containment in terms of security, diplomatic and economic under the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
This conflict of interest between the United States and China has increased markedly in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years and is increasing in the current situation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which is located centre of Southeast Asia and strongest union, have made more mentions in the strategic competition between the United States and China in recent years than any other geography.
The union, which was joined by 10 countries in the region, has been seen as a significant player in the construction of the Indo-Pacific region since the end of the Cold War. “In particular, its location at the centre of the crossing points of the Indian and Pacific Oceans is seen as remarkable geopolitical force that allows it to maintain control of trade and energy transfer. When the potential powers of member states are evaluated individually, it is seen that they do not have the capacity to balance or be effective in decision-making mechanisms in the international system, but the coming together of 10 member states under the umbrella of ASEAN constitutes a strategic centre of gravity.”
On the one hand, ASEAN, which oscillates between avoiding the securitized and militarized structure of the region, on the one hand, seeking to benefit from the economic projects and bilateral trade of China and the USA, has sought new policies to avoid the grey zone in the region.
“ASEAN Centrality”, a concept that stands out and is often emphasized in these efforts; it aims to establish a system centred on ASEAN rather than a Chinese or US-based perspective in the region.
ASEAN centrality, instead of seeing the region as a geography of geopolitical competition and a zero-sum game; It adopts an approach with ASEAN at its centre, where has cooperation rather than competition and development and prosperity are seen as unifying elements. For this reason, initiatives such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Plus Three (ASEAN+3) and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) have been implemented for multifaceted and inclusive dialogue efforts within ASEAN.
These initiatives, seen within ASEAN centrality, offer ASEAN countries as a whole room for manoeuvre to avoid a choice between the United States and China and to avoid the risk of conflict. ASEAN countries, on the one hand, want to attract China’s investments and infrastructure projects to their countries. Southeast Asia, which is vital for communication, trade and energy transportation, is a region where one of the 6 main routes of the Belt-Road Project passes. For this reason, it is a popular destination for foreign investments and supports from China. On the other hand, the United States tends to increase its relations with countries in the region within the scope of Indo-Pacific policies. Especially in the context of diversification of Chinese supply chains, ASEAN countries have great potential for the United States. As a matter of fact, the share of U.S. container trade imports originating from ASEAN exceeded 20% for the first time in 2020 and the share of ASEAN countries reached 23.3% as of January 2021.
Indonesia was the country that made the biggest effort in the creation of the strategy centered on ASEAN in the region. Indonesia, the strongest country among ASEAN members both demographically and economically, is at the forefront of centrality policies to constitute a leading role within the organization. In the Indo-Pacific Strategy officially announced by ASEAN in 2019, it is known that the efforts of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are decisive. The “Indo-Pacific Friendship and Cooperation Treaty”, announced by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in 2013, forms the basis of ASEAN’s existing Indo-Pacific policies and emphasizes centrality policies. Speaking at the East Asia Summit in November 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made statements highlighting openness, inclusion, transparency, respect for international law and ASEAN centrality.”
Indonesia, which has taken an approach based on ASEAN and covering all countries including Beijing in the context of the U.S. policy of containment of China, has demonstrated its leadership capacity and willingness to do so. Another step taken by Indonesia within the principle of impartiality was about the idea for cooperation in maritime security proposed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Jakarta in 2017. This proposal, specifically covers the Natuna region, which is an issue between China and Indonesia, has not been accepted by the Jakarta Administration. In this way, Jakarta, maintaining the principle of impartiality, has both prevented possible criticism from Beijing and once again confirmed that it is looking at the region from an economic and cooperative perspective, rather than looking at it from a security perspective.
ASEAN’s centrality strategy, however, is also likely to face serious problems in future. The different geopolitical objectives and national interests of each member state have a compelling effect on ASEAN’s ability to act as an impartial regional actor. Member states’ view of China and the United States and their strategies are not same. Cambodia and Laos, which are economically dependent on China, support a China-centric perspective; countries with good relations with the United States, such as Singapore and Vietnam, seem more inclined to cooperate with Washington.
As a result, ASEAN geography in a changing global system has been increasing its geopolitical and geo-economic influence day by day. Although this presents significant opportunities for itself, it also creates new risks due to U.S.-China competition. In this context, the ASEAN centrality policy opens up space for the organization and offers the opportunity to follow its own agenda. Obviously, the guarantee that it is not part of the great power struggle lies in this strategy. ASEAN countries can remain strong as long as they come together around the same goal. Otherwise, the two main actors of the international system, China and the United States, will increase their influence over individual countries as de facto in the region and create a political and security polarization in the region. As a result of this polarization, it would not be wrong to predict that ASEAN’s influence will decrease and may even split up in the future.
“ASEAN Share of US-Bound Container Shipping Reaches 20%”, Hellenic Shipping News, https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/asean-share-of-us-bound-container-shipping-reaches-20/, (Date of Accession: 16.1.2021).
 “Indo-Pacific Concept Important for ASEAN: President Jokowi”, Cabinet Secretariat Of The Republic Of Indonesia, https://setkab.go.id/en/indo-pacific-concept-important-for-asean-president-jokowi/, (Date of Accession: 17.1.2021).