Signed on 15 November 2020, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) brings together the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as five ASEAN dialogue partners under the world’s largest free trade agreement to date. For Southeast Asia, RCEP is particularly significant as a manifestation of ASEAN Centrality.
While many observers characterized RCEP as a China-backed alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from half a decade ago, the agency of ASEAN should not be underestimated. Notwithstanding India's withdrawal due to concerns over trade deficits, the RCEP negotiations have been a largely successful one in a diplomatic sense. RCEP brought together countries with uneasy historical relationships, such as China, Japan, and South Korea. This is a remarkable accomplishment for Southeast Asia as a collective of small states, reflecting the success of ASEAN Centrality.
This article inspects the idea of ASEAN Centrality, tracing its history to explain how a relatively weak entity like ASEAN is able to bring such many dialogue partners into the same trade agreement. Particularly, this article looks at the transformation of Southeast Asia’s geopolitical order and argues that ASEAN Centrality will be increasingly relevant in the future.
Recognition of ASEAN Centrality
ASEAN Centrality is a broad term referring to the central stage the institution takes when it comes to regional and even cross-regional affairs. It can also refer to the relevance of ASEAN regionalism in the decision-making process of its member states. While various scholars may differ in the specifics when interpreting “ASEAN Centrality”, intuitively speaking, it is the idea that ASEAN should be the centerpiece in crafting multilateral cooperation. Within Southeast Asia, ASEAN Centrality demands that countries consider not only their own national agenda but also the realities of fellow member states; Externally, ASEAN Centrality implores dialogue partners like China or the United States to formulate multilateral policies under the ASEAN framework instead of developing a separate one of their own.
ASEAN Centrality is enshrined in Article 2 of The ASEAN Charter.
Bilhari Kausikan, prominent Singaporean diplomat who used to serve as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented that ASEAN Centrality is a political construct: “if you don’t recognize it, it does not exist.” Thus, the effectiveness of this doctrine hinges upon the extent to which countries adhere to it. ASEAN’s successes with platforms like ASEAN Plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), and now RCEP have proven that ASEAN Centrality is indeed widely recognized by external partners.
Discussions surrounding ASEAN Plus Three began in December 1997 with an informal summit attended by the leaders of ASEAN member states as well as China, Japan, and Korea. In a joint statement issued ten years later, the relevant parties reaffirmed that “the APT process would remain as a main vehicle towards the long-term goal of building an East Asian community, with ASEAN as the driving force.”
The first East Asia Summit was subsequently convened in 2005, and it can be seen as a platform for the convergence of East Asia and major external players. On top of the APT countries, EAS includes key players such as the United States, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Boasting 27 members from the European Union to Mongolia, ASEAN Regional Forum is the epitome of ASEAN’s efforts to mediate between various countries on political-security issues beyond Southeast Asia. Most remarkably, the ARF managed to bring together antagonistic countries like North Korea and the United States - an impressive feat that few other international organizations could claim.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is a notable exception, being a multilateral platform in the Asia-Pacific that is not hosted by ASEAN. Even then, ASEAN is well-integrated into this system as the ASEAN Secretariat is an official observer of APEC. Amusingly, due to the initials “APEC” many lay persons have mistaken it as an ASEAN institution - proving the prevalence of the image of ASEAN Centrality today.
The evolution of ASEAN Centrality reaches a new milestone with RCEP. From its inception RCEP has been negotiated under the ASEAN framework, and it was finally signed at the ASEAN Summit chaired by Vietnam. This trade agreement could be seen as an aggregation of ASEAN’s bilateral FTAs - each of the 5 dialogue partners had established trade agreements with Southeast Asia before: China in 2002, Japan in 2003, South Korea in 2006, Australia and New Zealand in 2009. ASEAN is at the centre of the world’s largest regional trade agreement.
There are several reasons for the success of ASEAN Centrality. Indonesian economist Hadi Soesastro remarked that ASEAN is ‘least objectionable’ to various parties. Indeed, Southeast Asia is non-threatening as a collective of small states; ASEAN is committed to neutrality by not taking sides in great power competition; the rules-based order ASEAN champions provides the most common ground for rival states.
Agency of Southeast Asia
It is equally important to recognize Southeast Asia’s initiative in formulating ASEAN Centrality. ASEAN seized the opportunity early, before any other party has come up with alternative frameworks. Alice Ba from the University of Delaware described ASEAN Centrality as a product of Southeast Asia’s insecurity in the face of much more powerful neighbours - they are afraid of domination by external parties, yet they fear marginalization even more. By proactively brokering international conversations under its own frameworks, ASEAN is able to write its own rules instead of having them imposed by more powerful countries.
In her article Regionalism's multiple negotiations: ASEAN in East Asia, Ba described a “difficult and still evolving relationship” between Southeast Asia and the wider East Asian region. For the past few decades most of the economic growth has been concentrated in the Northeast Asian trio Japan, Korea, and China. While Southeast Asia is widely recognized as the emerging market today, the region’s growth was severely impacted by the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. ASEAN economies lacked “scale, size and complexity”. This meant that ASEAN Centrality emerged against a backdrop of huge disparity in economic development between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.
The dilemma is that ASEAN needs East Asia for its own economic growth and as a platform to engage the rest of the world, yet ASEAN also fears that the greater Northeast Asian economies might overwhelm its member states - due to the sheer economic power of Northeast Asia, it may very well result in a “3+ASEAN“ instead of “ASEAN+3”. A solution to this would be for ASEAN to take up the pioneering role in coordinating East Asia, leading this regional bloc to initiate the various platforms discussed above. Thus, ASEAN Centrality was an active effort to assert Southeast Asia’s agency given the East Asian and global forces present. This agency is well respected by external partners like China and Japan, which lacked the legitimacy, in each other’s eyes, to organize an East Asian multilateral platform.
Increasing Relevance of ASEAN Centrality
The notion of ASEAN Centrality is an aberration from much of Southeast Asia’s history. For centuries Southeast Asia has been at the mercy of stronger foreign powers, seeking to divide the region and profit from it. It began in the colonial period when European seafarers carved up territories for themselves and extracted resources from Southeast Asia. The region became highly polarized during the Cold War, during which several hot wars broke out in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. It was under this context that ASEAN began as an anti-communist organization seeking to ensure the survival and sovereignty of its member states. For the first time in ages, Southeast Asia’s agency is being recognized by the external powers.
In an increasingly bipolar world, great power contestation will likely seek to tear Southeast Asian apart once again, forcing countries into different camps. On the issue of the South China Sea territorial dispute, for example, China has clearly expressed its preference for resolving disputes in a bilateral manner. A very valid reason for this would be that Southeast Asian countries themselves have not resolved their internal territorial disputes; Yet another motivation could be that it is easier to divide and conquer Southeast Asia this way. Similarly, the United States may call on its traditional allies like Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, forcing them to choose sides.
For Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN Centrality is particularly important as a means of protecting the integrity of the regional bloc as well as allowing more space for individual countries to maneuver. Maintaining Southeast Asia’s agency would become more important than ever, such that ASEAN member states are not turned into pawns of the greater powers outside the region.
ASEAN Centrality and ASEAN Identity
ASEAN Centrality can be further reinforced by engaging the peoples of ASEAN. As mentioned previously, this notion is a construct that depends on the extent to which people believe in it. Ensuring the continuation of ASEAN’s agency in international affairs would require that Southeast Asians continue to believe in ASEAN Centrality.
The governments of Southeast Asia are now working together to construct a common regional identity that is shared not only by the public officials but also the citizens of Southeast Asia. 2020 was designated the Year of ASEAN Identity as ASEAN leaders seek to advance this constructivist agenda.
ASEAN Centrality is defined as a part of ASEAN Identity - in The Narrative of ASEAN Identity adopted at the 37th ASEAN Summit on 12 November 2020, it is said that “The constructed values of ASEAN Identity are reflected in Article 2 of the ASEAN Charter,”including “ASEAN Centrality in conducting external relations.” The norm of ASEAN Centrality will become cemented as a fundamental component of what it means to be a part of ASEAN. Protecting ASEAN’s institutional integrity and agency would become a formal expectation for the next generation of Southeast Asian leaders.
ASEAN Centrality has come a long way to arrive where it is today, and RCEP is the perfect manifestation of this. It is worth noting, however, that RCEP is not without its limitations: Compared to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), RCEP is seen as less progressive in terms of cutting tariffs as well as addressing labour and environment issues. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the RCEP “a really low ambition trade deal”. As such, the trade and economic dimensions of RCEP’s implications might not be as transformative as some would expect. That being said, RCEP is still a significant first step on a long journey towards trade integration in the Asia-Pacific.
At this point it may still be too early to tell how well RCEP would be implemented; One thing for certain is that the very conception of RCEP could not have materialized if not under the auspices of ASEAN. RCEP marks the symbolic triumph of ASEAN Centrality and shows to the world that a collective of small states, too, can make a huge difference in the international arena.