Connectivity, competition and contention: is ASEAN up to the challenge?

With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull preparing to host the upcoming Australia–ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Special Summit on 17–18 March in Sydney, the Parliamentary Library has published a new research paper by one of Australia’s foremost experts on ASEAN, Dr Frank Frost. Dr Frost’s paper provides a comprehensive overview of Australia–ASEAN engagement, with a focus on developments since the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of relations in 2014.

Ahead of the Summit, Prime Minister Turnbull has praised ASEAN’s role over the last half-century as a ‘bulwark of stability and constancy’. While ASEAN’s record will continue to be debated, it will be ASEAN’s ability to adapt to new challenges that will determine its future relevance. Many of these challenges are interrelated and are associated with expanding intra-ASEAN connectivity, escalating great power competition in the region, and intensified contestation in the domestic politics of key ASEAN states.


Increased economic connectivity, centred upon enhanced trade integration and improved transport infrastructure, has been a key feature of the ‘ASEAN Economic Community’ (AEC) Blueprint. Intra-ASEAN trade is predicted to reach US$375 billion by 2025 and, through frameworks such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, ASEAN is seeking to consolidate trade links with key regional economic partners such as China, Japan, India and Australia.

However, alongside the freer movement of capital, goods, services, people and ideas has been the growth of transnational ‘externalities’—more sophisticated regional terrorist and criminal networks, migrant trafficking and exploitation, drug-resistant endemic diseases, and maritime piracy. Addressing these complex challenges will demand greater transparency between ASEAN members and a further willingness to pursue collective approaches in policy areas traditionally regarded as sovereign domains. In this context, growing ASEAN cooperation on counter-terrorism and recent progress on the protection of rights of migrant workers—both areas of cooperation that have been supported by Australia—could serve as a model for cooperation on other transnational security and development challenges.


ASEAN was formed in 1967 against the background of intense Cold War competition in Southeast Asia. While the conflict associated with that competition is not apparent today, Dr Frost observes that the region is now confronting an environment in which ‘there is little basis for strategic trust in some key major power relationships, including between the United States and China’—‘if this state of tension continues or worsens, it could increase pressures on ASEAN and reduce its capacity to continue to be a viable diplomatic actor in East Asia’. This competition is most apparent in the South China Sea disputes which are, in the face of China’s maritime power projection and uncertainty regarding the United States’ regional role, challenging both ASEAN unity and centrality.    

Faced with the prospect of an increasingly divided ASEAN—and informed by a more expansive map of an ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategic geography—the region’s external powers appear to be assessing the viability of a range of alternative, but not necessarily competing, ‘mini-lateral’ groupings in response to China’s growing ambitions and influence. Of particular note, the so-called ‘quadrilateral’ grouping involving the US, Japan, India and Australia has taken on a renewed and more concrete form over the last year via an emerging focus on maritime security cooperation and infrastructure financing.

Dr Frost notes that some have suggested that although it is still at an early stage, ‘a revival of the concept of quadrilateral cooperation could be unsettling for ASEAN members, who might have some concerns that their regional dialogues may receive less attention’. In order to address these concerns, others have suggested that ‘it may be important now to insist that highlighting the “Indo-Pacific” does not mean that Australia plans to bypass ASEAN-based institutions’.


Contention, sometimes violent, has been a feature of Southeast Asian politics since ASEAN’s creation. Indeed, part of the rationale for the grouping was to provide its member states with external security and legitimation as they sought to strengthen their internal authority in the face of revolutionary and separatist alternatives.

New patterns of contentious politics and authoritarian responses highlight the ongoing fragilities both in the internal resilience of some ASEAN states and the viability of the so-called ‘ASEAN-way’—built on the principles of consensus and non-interference—as a mechanism for strengthening resilience. As regional analyst Michael Vatikiotis has recently argued, ‘representative democracy has shallow roots in Southeast Asia; the demi-democracy that prevails instead builds neither effective institutions to protect rights and freedoms, nor does it create certainty or stability’. Much of the contemporary contention has been driven by growing economic inequality as these countries move up the income ladder, compounded by weak institutions and the exploitation of ethnic, communal and sectarian divisions by political elites.

The security, human rights and humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State in Myanmar is perhaps the starkest contemporary example of a conflict that has repeatedly shown that issues of political inclusion cannot always be cordoned off from questions of regional stability via the ‘non-interference’ principle. Left unaddressed, such conflicts have the potential to easily overwhelm ASEAN’s limited crisis-response and conflict resolution architecture.

Dr Kelly Gerard has pointed to an alternative future for ASEAN which involves greater involvement by civil society in decision-making and noted that the grouping’s ‘commitments on the rule of law and human rights indeed create important leverage points for advocating for a different ASEAN’. However, the prospects for such a future remain slight—‘the region’s dominant social groups are again deploying the tools available through both institutional processes and the use of force to shore up their power and silence opponents’.

None of this is to suggest that ASEAN does not have an important role to play in a period of considerable regional uncertainty. As Dr Frost observes, ‘ASEAN has made a significant contribution to regional security already and since ASEAN’s inception, no major conflict has occurred among its members’. Not of all of these issues raised here can, or should, be solved via ASEAN processes. As Dr Malcolm Cook has recently pointed out, ‘ASEAN is not Southeast Asia’.

Nor is it implied that Australia should not seek to engage with ASEAN in a fulsome, practical and constructive manner. To the contrary, ‘Australia has a major stake in ASEAN’s capacities to achieve its declared goals’. However, ASEAN’s future success will very much depend on its ability to adapt to changing external circumstances and internal demands—including the demands of the 630 million people that reside within its ten member countries—if it is to contribute to inclusive growth, development and security.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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