Doomed by Dialogue? Will ASEAN Survive Great Power Rivalry in Asia

Pundits and policymakers increasingly see the changing great power politics in Asia (or the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific, terms I use interchangeably) as an existential challenge to ASEAN. Of particular concern here is the growing military assertiveness of China in ASEAN’s backyard, the South China Sea, and the US “rebalancing” or “pivot” strategy. Added to this picture are Japan’s moves to amend its constitution to allow more room for forward military operations, and India’s growing military presence in the Indian Ocean extending to East Asian waters and its assertive diplomacy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Critics argue that ASEAN is both toothless and clueless in responding to these changes. Its main reaction has been to persist with regional institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asian Summit (EAS), disparagingly seen as “talk shops.” While such an approach might have served a useful purpose when great power relations were less volatile in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, it has now outlived its usefulness. Critics not only write off the idea of “ASEAN centrality” in Asia’s regional architecture, but also the very survival of ASEAN as a regional community.

I argue below that while ASEAN faces significant challenges, these have less to do with its external environment, such as great power policies and interactions. Much more important are strains in ASEAN’s internal cohesion and capacity, especially owing to its expanded membership and agenda. ASEAN is not without precedent and advantages in dealing with great power politics. Its external environment is actually more helpful to its security role than is commonly portrayed by the pessimists. If ASEAN’s unity holds and it makes necessary changes to its ambitions and agenda, it should not only survive great power competition, but continue to play a meaningful role in managing that competition, at least in Southeast Asia.

What Kind of Rivalry?

In his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer argues that rising powers must expand to survive, which often leads them to seek at least a regional hegemony. He predicts that if the growth of Chinese power continues, it will seek regional hegemony, which in turn will provoke conflict possibly leading to war with the United States. He cites the examples of Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and the United States before the twentieth century to illustrate his thesis.1

A second perspective on great power politics, derived almost entirely from Europe before World War II, holds that international stability is a function of the number of great powers and the distribution of capabilities among them. A multipolar system, where the main actors are the great powers (the “poles”), is usually more prone to instability and conflict than a bipolar system, such as the Cold War. Another distribution of power is unipolarity, and while not all realists agree that unipolarity is unstable, most concur that it is rare and that multipolarity is the least stable of power configurations. A multipolar system has more dyads, hence more opportunities for competition, which, in turn, renders interactions among the great powers less predictable.

Both scenarios point to a bleak future for ASEAN. Chinese regional hegemony, whether of the coercive Monroe Doctrine type or even a relatively benign one,2 which provides Chinese aid, investment, and market access in return for loyalty to China in a manner akin to the old tributary system, is bad news for ASEAN. If it materializes, it will certainly cover at least parts of Southeast Asia, including the states involved in the South China Sea conflict. A multipolar system dominated by the great powers gives little space to smaller and weaker states, which would be made victims of great power politics. As Aaron Friedberg hypothesizes,3 the end of the Cold War ushered in a multipolar system in Asia, similar to Europe before World War II. China, like Germany then, is a revisionist rising power, and wants to challenge the status quo of an American dominated liberal international order. Hence, Asia is “ripe for rivalry,” and can expect intensified great power competition leading to catastrophic breakdowns as happened in Europe in the early twentieth century. Both these perspectives have been reinforced by Chinese moves in the South China Sea and East China Sea area, which along with Russian moves in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, many analysts see as signs as Chinese and Russian expansionism and a “return of geopolitics” in the world and the arrival of nineteenth century European geopolitics in Asia.

There are of course more optimistic and positive views about great power politics. Hedley Bull stressed the special responsibility of the great powers in the management of international order. Karl Deutsch and David Singer rejected the idea that multipolarity invariably leads to great power competition and conflict. It may make war less likely by making a potential aggressor less sure about its alignments and enlarging the size and power of the potentially countervailing coalition. Multipolarity increases interaction opportunities among the major players, creating cross-cutting pressures on their strategic designs. On occasion, multipolar interactions may also promote pluralistic common interests. This may sometimes lead to significant cooperation, as happened with the early nineteenth century European Concert system.

Even these relatively optimistic perspectives still assume great power primacy in maintaining stability. The concert of powers or its bilateral variant, a two-power condominium, (such as a G-2 between the United States and China), leaves ASEAN marginalized. None of the above perspectives recognizes the possibility of smaller and weaker players influencing great power politics. They are seen as objects. Yet, if the traditional perspectives are correct, ASEAN would have been doomed from its birth in 1967, as many Western and some Asian analysts had indeed predicted then and keep predicting. ASEAN is an anomaly in the universe of great power politics. Not only has it survived, but it has contributed significantly to conflict reduction and management in Southeast Asia and served as the main anchor of regional cooperation now involving all the major powers of Asia and indeed the world. As a result, Asia is the only region in known history where the strong live in the world of the weak, and the weak lead the strong. ASEAN’s record has been a mixed one, but ASEAN turns traditional realism on its head.

Great power politics may be a constant through world history, but it does not reappear in the same way and for the same reasons. It is unfortunate that pundits keep using nineteenth century (mainly European) lenses to describe twenty-first century realities in Asia and the world. The term great power rivalry and competition is a bit misleading because of the significant and far reaching cooperation that exists among the same great powers both at regional and global levels. And this cooperation is underpinned by a type of interdependence that simply did not exist a century ago.

The term multipolarity, a Eurocentric notion, is quite out of date now. It described a world of great powers and referred mainly to the number of actors and the distribution of power among them. It said much less about the substance and quality of their interactions. If one takes the latter into account, the dominant feature of today’s world and Asia is not multipolarity, but multiplexity. Multiplexity, or the idea of a Multiplex World, differs from a multipolar system in significant ways.4 Whereas the traditional conception of multipolarity assumed the primacy of the great powers, actors (or agents) in a Multiplex World are not just great powers or only states (Western and non-Western), but also international institutions, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, and transnational networks (good & bad). A multiplex order is marked by complex global and regional linkages including not just trade but also finance and transnational production networks, which were scarce in pre-World War European economic interdependence. Moreover, interdependence today is not only economic in nature but also covers many other issue areas, such as the environment, disease, human rights and social media. A multiplex order has multiple layers of governance, including global, inter-regional, regional, domestic, and sub-state. Regionalism is a key part of this, but regionalism today is open and overlapping, a far cry from nineteenth century imperial blocs that fueled great power competition and war, and which are unlikely to reappear. It is a decentered world. While power hierarchies remain; the overall architecture of a Multiplex World is non-hegemonic. The world is unlikely to see global hegemons like Britain and the United States. China is not going to be one, as I argue below. At the same time, a Multiplex World is not a “G-Zero” world,5 but one that encourages pluralistic and shared leadership at both global and regional levels. ASEAN’s prospects should be judged not in terms of old-fashioned, outdated notions of multipolarity, but of these unfolding changes towards a Multiplex World, which also affect the Asia-Pacific region.

A Chinese Monroe Doctrine?

The key feature of the Asian strategic landscape is, of course, the rise of China, both as an economic and military power. Rising powers do not necessarily worry their neighbors simply by their rise. What matters more is change to the balance of threat rather than the balance of power. ASEAN has serious reasons to worry about recent Chinese behavior, especially in the South China Sea. While China’s claims are not new, some of its tactics are, such as land reclamation work to create new “islands.” These claims are backed by increasing Chinese military capability and financial clout (used to buy support from Myanmar and Cambodia). But the Chinese threat is only to the disputed offshore territories and waters of ASEAN members rather than to their metropolitan territory. China is not alone in the reclamation effort, and the talks to conclude a South China Sea code of conduct are proceeding, despite the delays and obstacles.

Robert Kaplan and John Mearsheimer believe that the South China Sea and Southeast Asia are a natural theater for a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine, which can coerce, if not directly threaten, ASEAN, but this is based on both flawed logic and a false ghost from history. They focus on ASEAN’s weaknesses in dealing with China, while ignoring China’s difficulties and dilemmas in the South China Sea issue. The Monroe Doctrine was possible when the United States had no countervailing power in its neighborhood. Spain had withered away as a great power. Britain and France, the European powers that could have challenged in the US backyard were too busy fighting each other in Europe and elsewhere and later a unified Germany together.

China faces a very different situation today. Any temptation it might harbor for creating a zone of exclusion in the South China Sea or a sphere of influence over Southeast Asia would be met with stiff resistance by the presence of not only the United States, but also of India and Japan, with America’s allies Singapore and Australia. Some ASEAN members are at least capable of raising the costs of Chinese military aggression. Moreover, in committing aggression or denial in the South China Sea, China has to consider the consequences for its own shipping through chokepoints where ASEAN navies have powers of reconnaissance, detection, and even interdiction and the Indian Ocean, where the US and Indian navies are more active and superior. Unlike the Caribbean’s role for the United States, geography is not on China’s side in its maritime environment.

Moreover, emerging powers cannot become truly legitimate global powers if they keep picking quarrels with all (or almost all) their neighbors. For China, global legitimacy may not be possible without regional legitimacy. One might point, as John Mearsheimer does, to the United States as an exception, and say that as a rising power, it could coerce and threaten its immediate neighbors and pursue expansionism in the form of the Monroe Doctrine, but it did not become a legitimate global power until after it abandoned the Monroe Doctrine in the late 1920s.

ASEAN and the Balance of Power

The conventional wisdom about Asian security today is that the rise of China is creating an imbalance of power in Asia. This is misleading. There was never really a balance of power in Asia in the conventional sense. Asia has always been a region of US primacy, if not outright hegemony, although the latter term might apply if hegemony is understood in terms of military power projection. Even today, the United States outspends China by four and half times in defense. China may be aspiring to anti-access/area denial, but it is nowhere close to upstaging US military superiority in Asia. The idea of an Asian balance of power—an equilibrium of power—is a myth without much regard for what the term of balance of power actually means.

On the contrary, the relative rise of China may actually be creating something of a military equilibrium for the first time in Asian history. If realists are right that a balance of power contributes to stability, this cannot be a bad thing for the region as well as its smaller states like ASEAN. After all, some proponents of balance of power claim as one of its virtues the protection of small states by denying hegemony to any single power. This is not to say that there is no balancing happening between China and the United States and its allies, but it is defensive, rather than offensive in nature, and it is accompanied by other forces favoring regional stability.

The US rebalancing policy unquestionably responds to China’s rise, but there are three important things about it that are often forgotten by analysts. First, it is an outgrowth of “hedging policy” and retains many elements of an open and flexible policy that does not write off peaceful Chinese behavior. Second, the rebalancing does not represent a dramatic shift in US military deployment in the region, mainly reversing the 60-40 percent ratio of deployment between Europe/Middle East and Asia. Finally, it is not a policy of preemptive containment, even though many Chinese analysts claim it is to score propaganda points. US-China economic ties, not just trade but a virtual mutual assured destruction situation in financial links, demonstrate how different it is from the US containment of the Soviet Union. The US rebalancing policy is not a preemptive strategy of containment but a countervailing posture that gives China ample room for rising peacefully, exactly what it claims to want to do, while preventing it from acquiring a Monroe Doctrine like regional hegemony. Chinese analysts and officials should do well to accept this. At the same time, China is not pursuing, and is hardly capable of pursuing, a policy of expansionism of the kind a rising Germany did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or as Japan did before World War II. This is something for both Western and Asian hyper-realists to acknowledge.

ASEAN and “Europe’s Past

Another reason why ASEAN’s external situation is not as stark as portrayed by the pessimists is the gross misreading of the “Europe’s Past, Asia’ Future” argument, which is taken seriously by pundits and the media, such as the Economist through an abuse of historical parallels. There is little reason to accept the view that the rise of China is taking place in an environment that is similar to what existed in Europe after the unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century. Any comparison between Asia now and Europe before World War I shows more differences than similarities. It is far from clear that China is a revisionist power, a category that assumes that the existing international system denies it opportunities and privileges that it needs to become a global power. In reality, China is on its way to becoming a global player within the existing international system. This does not mean China will not seek changes to that system, but it seems China is challenging those aspects of the system—especially the leadership and direction of global institutions—that are almost universally accepted as unfairly advantageous to the West and increasingly anachronistic. And China is far from being alone in challenging them; others, including democratic India, Brazil, and South Africa, seek the same changes; China has more reasons to keep the status quo as a sitting permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Moreover, the European multipolarity before world wars was not accompanied by deep and wide-ranging economic interdependence. Interdependence—including the much-vaunted interdependence between Germany and UK—was relatively thin, based primarily on trade.
The most crucial element of economic interdependence in Asia is not trade, but transnational production networks, which did not exist in pre-war Europe. ASEAN is an integral part of those production networks,6 initially triggered by Japan in the 1980s, now sustained by China. Add finance and investment to the picture, and it becomes clear that economic interdependence in Asia and Asia-Pacific (involving the United States) increases the costs of war to a much greater degree than in Europe’s “past.” (Economic interdependence discourages war by increasing its costs; it does not preclude war.) If anything, Asia increasingly resembles Europe’s present. Its financial and production networks are no less significant, and about 55 percent of total trade is intra-Asian, compared to about 65 percent for EU’s internal trade, even though Asia does not have anything close to the extensive bureaucratic apparatus of the EU. This is a form of regionalization that deserves to be recognized on its own terms, rather than on the basis of the increasingly questionable EU-centric criteria.

Although ASEAN is often faulted for its low levels of intra-ASEAN trade, a situation that might not change much despite the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community this year, this is offset by the fact that ASEAN is an integral part of East Asian trade, production, and financial interdependence, which has grown more extensive with the gradual entry of India into it. That interdependence is not only non-ideological, it is the most inclusive regional interdependence in the world today, in contrast to European interdependence, which does not really cover Russia.

European multipolarity was also a period of outright colonialism—not only causing conflict among the powers, contributing to Germany’s rejection of the status quo as a latecomer to the colonial game, but also undercutting the benefits of economic interdependence. Asian powers today are not colonial powers. Competition for energy and other resources do not amount to colonial competition. Not only are such resources available on the market, but the costs of going to war to obtain them surely outweigh the benefits in today’s increasingly destructive warfare. Although the Chinese economy has diverted some investment from ASEAN and Chinese manufactured goods pose a threat to ASEAN’s industries in some sectors, this is a far cry from a neocolonial situation. ASEAN’s openness to the economies of all outside players and to market- and multinational driven industrialization offsets any such prospect of Chinese colonization or competition among the great powers such as China, Japan, the United States, EU and India for ASEAN resources and markets leading to political dominance by any of them.

Not only economic interdependence, but regional economic and security institutions in Asia are also more inclusive than Europe’s. There is no NATO in Asia, a real blessing in geopolitical terms. China is a member of all East Asian and Asia-Pacific regional bodies, in contrast to Russia’s exclusion from NATO and the EU. Asian regional institutions are often disparaged as “talk shops,” and some of that criticism is well-deserved. There is no question that ASEAN needs to shift gear from dialogue to action and adopt a more problem-solving approach. It needs to overcome the persisting “non-intervention” mindset of its members by emulating not the EU (the wrong role model) but the African Union (AU), especially when it comes to collective peacekeeping. ASEAN has more resources but less willpower to do regional peacekeeping than the AU, so it should achieve more success than the AU if it garners the requisite political will.
But Asia’s regional institutions are not “talk shops.” They have produced results.

One singular misconception about Asian regional institutions is that they are “led” by ASEAN. ASEAN has to blame itself for this unhelpful myth. Its role is better described as the hub and the agenda-setter, a convening power with a normative and social leadership. Lacking structural power (the ability to compel or coerce) and material resources, ASEAN has used socialization and persuasion to engage not only other Southeast Asian and East Asian countries, but all the great powers of the current international order. What might be Asia’s security order today had there been no ASEAN? At the very least, there would be a lot less opportunity for dialogue and diplomatic interactions among the major powers with an interest in Asia, and the prospects for a preemptive US containment of China would have been greater. It was some ASEAN leaders, the late Lee Kuan Yew in particular, who strongly discouraged the United States from taking such a course, and no other foreign leader had more influence on US policy towards China than Lee.
Other contributions of ASEAN include keeping intra-Southeast Asian conflicts at a relatively low level7, and providing Cambodia, Vietnam and later Myanmar a readymade forum to help them return to the international system after decades of self-destructive isolation. Anyone who says these developments were possible because of sanctions by the Western countries has a poor understanding of Southeast Asian history and politics.

In short, the Asian strategic environment is not just about a power shift, but also a paradigm shift.8 In the aftermath of World War II, Asia’s security environment was marked by economic nationalism and autarchy (import-substitution), security bilateralism (America’s “hub-and-spoke alliances), and political authoritarianism. Asia today is marked by an unmistakable economic liberalism and interdependence, much greater degree of security multilateralism, and democratic politics (the last one constraining China’s capacity for regional hegemony through ideology). What is more, the emergence of these trends predates Chinese assertiveness. Instead of being shaped by China and great power politics, as Mearsheimer and other traditionalists argue, Asia’s changing regional environment is more likely to shape Chinese and great power behavior.

ASEAN’s Predicament and Options

ASEAN’s own internal situation is a cause for concern, a far cry from ASEAN during the Cold War. First, it is a much bigger entity. Membership expanded in the 1990s to bring in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, with East Timor likely to be the 11th member. Its functions have also expanded significantly. In its early days, ASEAN’s role was mainly political and security (although not in the military sense), expressed in the form of initiatives like the proposal for a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) n Southeast Asia. While economic development was a shared goal, trade liberalization, the staple of regional organizations everywhere, did not enter its agenda until the late 1970s, and even then in a rather limited sense.
ASEAN today deals with a whole range of issues. Economic cooperation has expanded from the idea of an ASEAN FTA to a much more comprehensive ASEAN Economic Community, which technically enters into force this year. While it continues to reject turning itself into a military alliance, ASEAN militaries cooperate, bilaterally and multilaterally, on intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism, and maritime security. Through initiatives such as the ASEAN Political-Security Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, ASEAN also deals with a range of transnational issues, such as environmental degradation, air pollution, pandemics, energy security, food security, migration and people-smuggling, drug-trafficking, human rights, and disaster management.

ASEAN no longer confines itself to addressing and managing security issues in Southeast Asia. By helping to create and anchor wider Asia Pacific institutions such as ARF and the EAS and involving itself centrally in APEC, ASEAN today is a much larger regional and even a global actor, with varied consequences. But these extensions impose burdens with which even a more resource-rich regional body can barely cope. ASEAN’s institutional machinery is hopelessly out of capacity in dealing with the wider responsibilities. An expanded membership means greater disagreements and quarrels, especially involving latecomers to the ASEAN Way. The most serious breakdowns of consensus and unity have involved its new members. Cambodia, as ASEAN’s chair disastrously refused to issue a joint ASEAN Communique in 2012 to please China, rejecting the position of fellow members, Philippines and Vietnam, on the South China Sea dispute. Another instance is Myanmar, whose entry in 1995 brought ASEAN a great deal of international embarrassment and whose handling of the Rohingya issue now is having a similar effect. The entry of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar brings ASEAN closer to China physically. Vietnamese membership means that ASEAN is embroiled deeper into the South China Sea conflict with China.

A more recent, challenge to ASEAN is the uncertain leadership of Indonesia. There are signs that the Jokowi government has downgraded Indonesia’s leadership role in ASEAN, at least in comparison to its predecessor, the Yudhoyono government. ASEAN has been moved from being the cornerstone of Indonesian foreign policy to being a cornerstone. But ASEAN can ill-afford to lose a proactive Indonesian role. Not only is Indonesia the most populous nation and largest economy, but it is ASEAN’s only G-20 member and has a record of mediation and good offices in both intra-ASEAN and extra-ASEAN conflicts (the latter including the South China Sea). Indonesia is also a thought leader; the idea of an ASEAN Security Community, which morphed into the ASEAN Political-Security Community today, came from Jakarta. Its ability to combine democracy, development, stability, and peaceful Islam is a singular achievement in the world today, and thus a key element of ASEAN’s normative pull before the international community. It remains to be seen if Jokowi’s posture will last; Indonesia had also downgraded its engagement with ASEAN after the fall of Suharto, but that could be understood in terms of its domestic turmoil that left little space for foreign policy attention. If a democratic, economically dynamic and stable Indonesia does not take ASEAN seriously, neither would the world at large.

Domestic politics is looking less rosy in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai situation is worse due to a combination of succession uncertainties hanging over its monarchy and the military government’s rewriting of the constitution that may impose significant long-term constraints on political freedom and thus create a potential for long-term domestic strife. Its engagement with ASEAN has already suffered. In Malaysia, divisions within the ruling party UMNO, and challenges to its political dominance create uncertainties that may distract and diminish its capacity for engaging in ASEAN.

These domestic and intra-ASEAN challenges could weaken ASEAN to a greater degree than great power politics. In dealing with the latter, ASEAN’s big advantage is that there is currently no alternative to ASEAN’s convening power in the region. The great powers of the Asia Pacific, China, Japan, India and the United States, are not capable of leading Asian regional institutions because of mutual mistrust and a lack of legitimacy, even for countries such as Japan and India. Renewed great power competition does not undermine but supports “ASEAN centrality.”

Recent Chinese economic and security initiatives such as the AIIB and the Silk Road Fund are not likely to alter this situation. The AIIB represents one of the first serious initiatives coming from China to promote Asian cooperation. China had little to do with the establishment of APEC in 1989, the ARF in 1994, ASEAN+3 in 1997, and the EAS in 2005. The AIIB challenges the principle of ASEAN centrality; yet, Chinese initiatives are undermined by China’s problems in regional political and security issues. China has proposed the idea of a Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), calling for “Asian solutions to Asian problems.” But this initiative has found little traction and has even evoked suspicion. Its prospects are diminished by China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors and the mistrust and apprehensions about Chinese geopolitical intentions and power in the region.

ASEAN cannot take full advantage of this situation if it becomes a house divided against itself, if the domestic politics in key member states detract from their engagement in ASEAN, and if it suffers from a lack of leadership. To revitalize itself, ASEAN should perhaps do what a large corporation facing declining competitiveness and profitability does: downsize. Not in terms of its membership, or its staff, which are small anyway, but in terms of issue areas. This does not mean removing itself from South China Sea issue, as suggested by Cambodia, which forgets that there might not be an independent Cambodia today had ASEAN not engaged in conflicts outside of its membership (Neither Cambodia nor Vietnam were ASEAN members when the former occupied the latter). But ASEAN should focus more on issues within Southeast Asia and its immediate environment, and forget about the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Strait and India-Pakistan conflicts. These are now discussed through the ARF and EAS, but as the convener and agenda-setter, ASEAN should give more focused attention to the South China Sea, no matter what China says. On transnational and global challenges, ASEAN should share more responsibilities with middle powers, such as South Korea, Australia, and Canada.

ASEAN should take advantage of its global membership structure to pursue global and transnational issues and share or delegate leadership to others, auditing its commitments, dropping the less urgent ones and focusing selectively on the more important and urgent items. It should make greater use of global and interregional institutions (such as the Asia-Europe Meeting, the various UN bodies, and the G-20 through Indonesia) to build cooperation in areas that cover but go beyond Southeast Asia, rather than taking them on directly. This would include climate change, health issues, terrorism, and disaster management. Moreover, ASEAN should seek rationalization of the purposes and functions of regional bodies in which it participates. There is overlap in the ARF, APEC, ASEAN+3, EAS, and ASEAN’s Post-Ministerial Meetings (ASEAN-PMC). Creating a division of labor and building better synergy among them would reduce the burden on ASEAN. It should cut the number of meetings attended by its secretariat staff by a third from over 1000 per year now, and better train and deploy expanded core staff, selectively and more purposefully. It should use a professional international agency to handle the recruitment of its core secretariat staff, eliminating political manipulation and enhancing professionalization.

ASEAN’s marginalization—even death—from changing great power behavior has been predicted a few times before, and each time proven to be exaggerated. This was the case when the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, allowing China and the Soviet Union to expand their influence. The conflict between China and Soviet ally Vietnam over Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1979 caused fears of a “new cold war” in Southeast Asia. The end of the Cold War led analysts to predict a scramble among China, Japan, and India to fill the resulting “power vacuum,” especially in view of the end to the Russian naval presence in Vietnam and the removal of the US military bases from the Philippines. On each occasion ASEAN emerged stronger, not only because these prophecies proved to be exaggerated, but also because ASEAN stepped up its act to cope with the new strategic developments. The Bali Summit in 1976, the decade of persistent diplomacy to end the Cambodia conflict through the 1980s, and the launching of multilateral dialogues in the early 1990s, are examples of responses to changing great power politics. If ASEAN fails to adjust course now, it might not be so lucky this time.

1. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 41, 402; John J. Mearsheimer, “China’s Unpeaceful Rise,” Current History (April 2006): 160-162.

2. David C. Kang, “Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks,” International Security 27, no. 4 (Spring 2003): 57-85. For a contrarian view, see Amitav Acharya, “Will Asia’s Past Be Its Future?” International Security 28, no. 3 (Winter 2003/2004): 149-164.

3. Aaron L. Friedberg, “Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia,” International Security 18, no. 3 (Winter, 1993-1994): 5-33; Aaron Friedberg, “Will Europe’s Past be Asia’s Future?” Survival 42, no. 3 (2000): 147-160.

4. Amitav Acharya, The End of American World Order (Cambridge: Polity, 2014); Amitav Acharya, “From the Unipolar Moment to a Multiplex World,” YaleGlobal, July 3, 2014,

5. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini, “A G-Zero World; The New Economic Club Will Produce Conflict, Not Cooperation,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 2 (March/April 2011).

6. Amitav Acharya, “Transnational Production and Security: Southeast Asia’s Growth Triangles,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 17, no.2 (1995): 173-185.

7. Amitav Acharya, “A Regional Security Community in Southeast Asia?” Journal of Strategic Studies 18, no. 3 (1995): 175-200; Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2014).

8. Amitav Acharya, “Power Shift or Paradigm Shift: China’s Rise and Asia’s Security Order,” International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2014): 158-173.

9. Amitav Acharya, “Can Asia Lead? Power Ambitions and Global Governance in the Twenty‐first Century,” International Affairs 87, no. 4 (2011): 851-869.