What role does ASEAN play in the US pivot to Asia?

Asia House

Asia House & Future Foreign Policy present: Focus on ASEAN Blog Series

By Matthew Harrison from Asia House. This article is also published here.


Photo credit: Voice of America.

The historian and scholar, Odd Arne Westad, has described Southeast Asia as “the decisive territory, on the future of which hangs the outcome of a great contest for influence in Asia”. Such a contest between the United States of America and China could have colossal implications upon the international order of the 21st century. ASEAN has a positive role to play in the pivot; acting as a brake that aims to prevent a tug of war between the US and China from occurring. On the one hand ASEAN endeavours to entangle China and limit its regional hegemony, yet at the same time, it wishes to see US focus in Asia remain predominantly economic rather than security-focused.

ASEAN has many methods at its disposal to ensure that the association profits from the US pivot to Asia. Primary amongst these is its size. The US pivot to Asia is fundamentally designed to forge closer ties with ASEAN, labelled by Hillary Clinton as “the fulcrum” of Asia’s emerging regional architecture. ASEAN boasts a population of over 600 million citizens, many of whom are part of a rising Asian middle-class consumer society. For this reason, it constitutes the largest market for US trade in Asia.

In addition, ASEAN already possesses a strong and stable framework for inter-state governance. It has served as one of the core proponents of regional peace following the Cold War era, and despite the presence of several emerging economies, ASEAN has functioned as a buffer of tensions. As a forum for dialogue, ASEAN attempts to prevent security dilemmas from occurring. The association can therefore use these strengths to secure its future aims.

The role ASEAN plays in the US pivot to Asia is largely dependent upon its motives. These motives are related to the two main actors in the pivot: the US and China. ASEAN is seeking to improve its security structures, at a time when tensions are rising over resources in the South China Sea. Wider, long-term aims include increasing and balancing its regional trade with the US, and rebranding itself as a supranational actor. The US has been impeccably successful with regard to its soft powerimplementation strategies, and ASEAN will look to use the pivot to its own advantage. Finally, ASEAN will have a leading role to play with regard to ensuring the US finds what Stephen Walt has humorously called “the Goldilocks Zone” with regard to China. ASEAN must guarantee that the US is not too offensive or too defensive in its relations with China, but rather finds a balance that is “just right”.

ASEAN’s role in the US pivot to Asia must be viewed within a context that incorporates Chinese relations. ASEAN is respectful of China due to its growth-rate success, and its quick response to theAsian Financial Crisis. However, the organisation is also worried about growing Chinese regional hegemony and thus pursues the creation of a new pan-Asian identity that aims to tie China’s growth into the continent as a whole. ASEAN, however, has often rejected suggestions that it is using the US pivot to balance against China or bandwagon with the US. Its role is one of impartiality and diverse diplomacy.


All views and perspectives are the author’s own.
This blog was produced in partnership with Asia HouseRead more blogs in this series here.
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