Can Asean ever speak with one voice?


Our writer J. T. Gatbonton described President Xi’s vision of a future East Asian order with China restored at its center. This he said suggests that Beijing’s long-term goal is to ease out the US and incorporate the Asean nations into China’s economic and security orbit.

Experts share Gatbonton’s view that “It’s reasonable to assume China will become stronger proportionate to the US during this next decade or so. The Americans themselves expect China to reach superpower status by 2025. Are the Asean states then fated eventually to be drawn into China’s orbit?”

What happened at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Laos gives an answer–at least for now. “Until Beijing started bearing down on the South China Sea, most of the region’s states had avoided committing themselves to either side in the rivalry.”

The Asean countries were hedging their bets.

Gatbonton explains that “ ‘Hedging’ is a common resort of small powers seeking to manage the risks in dealing with any great power.”

“But in recent months, Australia and Indonesia have joined Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia in offering hospitality to US aircraft and warships operating in the China Sea.

“Last month, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila also agreed to carry out trilateral patrols of the adjoining Sulu Sea.”

This, apparently, had the aim of showing that Asean, or at least some of its member states, can concretely work with a common will against mutual enemies. It also presented a force that would drive off Chinese fishing vessels poaching in Asean fishing grounds and protect Asean fishermen from being intimidated by Chinese Coast Guard ships.

But Asean nations have no single voice. “Asean,” writes Gatbonton, remains unable to speak with one voice on the issue of its maritime heartland. Cambodia and Laos look to Beijing for support against what they see as Vietnam’s own hegemonic ambitions in Indochina.” And to show Beijing their loyalty and readiness to serve their benefactor, they would work against the other Asean members whenever the latter are about to produce a “united Asean” statement berating China for its bullying of Asean fishermen in the South China Sea, or for taking over islets and reefs clearly within the sovereign territory of an Asean country and for building garrisons and runways for military aircraft on them.

Asean must strive harder to have one voice.

One way to achieve this is for the founders of the regional grouping to form an “Original Asean” body.


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  1. Agree. eject Cambodia and Laos from current ASEAN or dissolve it and create a new organization whose members are willing to adopt majority interest.