The Multilateral Architecture in the Indo-Pacific has undergone important shifts in the past decade. These include the expanded East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2011 which has inspired optimism, the first-ever failure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue a joint communiqué after a foreign ministerial meeting in 2012, and recent concerns over the future of multilateralism prompted by escalating geopolitical rivalry.
To be sure, the network of regional forums popularly described as an ‘alphabet soup’ has continued to grow—both in number and agenda—for the most part of the post-Cold War era. This largely aligned with expectations about the persistence of institutions, and has led to an increasingly crowded institutional landscape in the Indo-Pacific. New arrangements emerge to address gaps in regional multilateralism and, to varying extents, either complement, or compete with existing platforms. Against this backdrop, this article examines the past, present, and future of the regional multilateral architecture in the region, with a focus on ASEAN’s role.
The Past: ASEAN in the Regional Multilateral Architecture
Many of the existing multilateral forums in the Indo-Pacific were established relatively recently. While ASEAN was launched in 1967 with the founding five members (and Brunei joining as the sixth member in 1984), it was only in the late 1990s that the organisation took shape into today’s familiar form of the ASEAN-10. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) platform and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) were established in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a response to the new post-Cold War environment. The ASEAN Plus Three (APT) and the EAS, for their part, emerged from the need to bolster regionalism in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Subsequently, in the late 2000s, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus were introduced to meet the demand for defence diplomacy activities. In more recent years, countries in the region have signed on to mega-free trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Alongside these larger multilateral arrangements, more targeted minilateral initiatives such as the Malacca Straits Patrol and the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement have also taken shape.
Not all of these initiatives have been centred on or led by ASEAN. There is no doubt, however, that the association has been at the hub of the multilateral architecture in the broader Indo-Pacific (or Asia-Pacific) region. This is a role that ASEAN has sought for itself following the end of the Cold War, and one that non-ASEAN partners have been broadly supportive of. The concept of ‘ASEAN centrality’—first officially mentioned in the joint media statement of the 38th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting in 2006—calls for the association to lead regional cooperation and for non-ASEAN countries seeking to engage with the region to be mindful of ASEAN norms and processes. More importantly, having ASEAN serve as the hub of regional multilateralism has also meant the broad embrace of the ASEAN model of inclusive, big-tent engagement. The membership compositions of the ARF, EAS and ADMM-Plus reflect this approach. Indeed, the ASEAN-10 itself is a demonstration of how cooperation and dialogue could be facilitated among countries with diverse political and economic systems.
This ASEAN model of dialogue and cooperation with like-minded and non-like-minded partners alike, worked well for a period of time. From the early 1990s to late 2000s, circumstances proved conducive for the ASEAN approach. There was a general willingness on the part of the major and regional powers to engage with one another, and with a multilateral architecture that appeared to give precedence to the smaller Southeast Asian countries. To be sure, ASEAN did face challenges during this time; one needs only to look at the debates over the EAS membership, or ASEAN-US relations in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and 9/11 attacks, to see that many of ASEAN’s geopolitical challenges in that period were fundamentally similar to what it has to deal with at present. ASEAN was nevertheless able to work through these challenges and stake a large claim on the development of regional multilateralism. Despite the disputes among China, Japan and South Korea, for instance, the three Northeast Asian countries agreed to participate in the APT framework that was launched in 1997. Even the typically reclusive North Korea gained membership to the ARF in 2000, amid improving inter-Korean relations. To a considerable extent, the ASEAN model of multilateral cooperation flourished.
These favourable circumstances for ASEAN subsequently evolved, with observers pointing to the late 2000s as a turning point. The 2008 global financial crisis raised questions about the sustainability of US leadership in the extant liberal international order—circumstances regarded as vital to peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia. It was also around the late 2000s that tensions in the South China Sea rose, China-Japan relations worsened over a collision in the East China Sea, and North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. Alongside Beijing’s apparent assertiveness in its foreign policy and Washington’s rebalance to Asia under the Barack Obama administration, China-US relations entered a more competitive phase.
The impact of these developments highlighted the limits to the ASEAN model of multilateralism. Subsequently, forums such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Australia-United Kingdom-US (AUKUS) arrangement, as well as networks like the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative, emerged as an additional layer of relations in the regional architecture. In the context of China-US rivalry, the militarisation of the South China Sea amid the slow progress of the code of conduct negotiations, and the Donald Trump administration’s disinterest in ASEAN-led platforms—the emergence of new minilateral or multilateral arrangements have unsurprisingly spurred concerns about ASEAN’s role and the continuing relevance of its approach towards regional affairs.
Even as individual ASEAN member states may differ in their respective assessments of these developments, looking through an institutional lens, the main source of anxiety would be the potential erosion of ASEAN cohesion and centrality. This would shape the form and function of the multilateral architecture, and the preferences of regional countries when it comes to multilateral cooperation. Keeping in mind these dynamics, the next section considers three current trends that are likely to influence the regional multilateral architecture in the near to medium-term future.
The Present: Three Trends to Watch
First, the concept of ‘like-mindedness’ has grown in salience as a driver of multilateral cooperation. To be fair, some form of like-mindedness has historically been a necessary condition for multilateralism. However, past regional initiatives—especially the ASEAN-led ones—have reflected like-mindedness more in the context of shared interests, while recent arrangements have appeared to also focus on like-mindedness in terms of political values and systems. This trend is expected to continue, especially in light of the Russia-Ukraine war, China-US competition, and the political crisis in Myanmar. The White House’s latest National Security Strategy, published in October 2022, starkly explains the challenge posed to the US and democracy by “powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy,” such as Russia and China. The US’s Summit for Democracy in 2021—which excluded majority of the ASEAN member states—further underscored the divide between democracies and non-democracies.
Similar sentiments about the fight for democracy have been expressed in the context of newer regional arrangements such as the Quad and the Chip 4 initiative. The former (comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US) had its origins in Japan’s late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aspirations of fashioning “Asia’s democratic security diamond,” while the latter (currently with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US) has been described by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen as an attempt to strengthen supply chains for “democracy chips.”
While the ASEAN Charter calls for adhering to principles of democracy and promoting human rights, ASEAN—mindful of the different domestic political systems among its member states—has generally avoided wading into the debate over ‘democracy versus autocracy/authoritarianism’. ASEAN-led cooperation has thus been motivated by mutual interests, particularly in economic prosperity and non-traditional security threats, rather than by shared political values. The sustainability of this approach for ASEAN, however, may start to be challenged by the political upheaval in Myanmar, where the military junta seized power from a democratically elected government in February 2021.
The coup’s impact on ASEAN diplomacy has been twofold. At one level, ASEAN has arguably exercised collective will in barring high-level representation from the junta at ASEAN summits and ministerial meetings. At another level, however, ASEAN has not been able to prevent the withdrawal of some dialogue partners from an ADMM-Plus working-level meeting co-hosted by Myanmar and Russia. Assuming this becomes a longer-term trend for ASEAN activities and coupled with the growth of ‘like-minded’ networks elsewhere in the region, multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific as a whole may become driven more by similarity in political values.
Second, middle or medium-sized powers are likely to assume more conspicuous roles in the regional multilateral architecture. For countries such as Australia and Japan, certainly, it would not be unfamiliar territory. Being among ASEAN’s oldest dialogue partners, Canberra and Tokyo have supported ASEAN’s community-building efforts and are founding members of many of the ASEAN-led forums. Both countries have also been active initiators of and participants in non-ASEAN groupings such as APEC and the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. As See Seng Tan notes in his 2016 book, these non-ASEAN stakeholders have had “just as much influence as ASEAN, if not more, in defining the shape and substance of Asia’s multilateral architecture.” This appears likely to continue, alongside the increase in minilateral groupings involving these stakeholders.
One example is the Quad, which has evolved into a regular feature of regional diplomacy. In addition to engagement spanning working groups, ministerial meetings and leaders’ summits, the Quad agenda covers a range of issues such as climate change, critical and emerging technologies, and infrastructure. AUKUS would be another grouping to watch, especially given expectations that it may eventually expand to include Japan. As the Quad and AUKUS develop institutionally, the roles of their member states in the regional architecture would be progressively elevated.
Countries that have been traditionally distant from regional strategic affairs are also carving out a greater profile for themselves in the Indo-Pacific. The very concept of the Indo-Pacific, for example, sought to accord a bigger role to India in the broader region. While India’s interest beyond the Indian Ocean region remains a topic of debate, its participation in the Quad and its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) suggest the potential for the South Asian country to be more engaged in the broader region. South Korea has also released its Indo-Pacific strategy after several years of ambivalence. The strategy calls for strengthening the rules-based international order, and seeks to incorporate a security and strategic dimension to Seoul’s regional approach that has conventionally leaned more towards economics and functional domains.
Additionally, the United Kingdom has stepped up its efforts to boost relations with the region. It is not only part of the AUKUS arrangement, but also ASEAN’s newest dialogue partner. Other actors, including Canada, France and Germany have similarly laid out their engagement strategies for the Indo-Pacific. From 2023, Canada, France and the United Kingdom will become observers in the activities of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups. These developments indicate the potential for middle-power countries to expand and deepen their roles in Indo-Pacific multilateralism, both through ASEAN and non-ASEAN channels.
Third, ASEAN’s central role in the regional multilateral architecture would undoubtedly undergo some changes. The extent of those changes, however, remains unclear. Amid the recent establishment of non-ASEAN forums, it is perhaps a heartening sign that ASEAN continues to be a crucial partner for countries seeking to engage with the region. The interest of the United Kingdom, Canada and France to forge closer relations with ASEAN have been earlier mentioned. The litany of recent comprehensive strategic partnerships signed between ASEAN and Australia, China, India and the US, bears further testament to this. At the very least, these signal that dialogue partners and extra-regional countries are still keen to enhance relations with the organisation.
Compared to the non-ASEAN groupings, ASEAN and its suite of forums arguably remain the most acceptable channels to all the competing powers in the Indo-Pacific for multilateral dialogue and cooperation. Yet, one could not discount the possibility that ASEAN’s partners—and even, perhaps, its own member states—would simply pay lip service to the idea of ASEAN centrality. After all, none of ASEAN’s member states nor its external partners are compelled to continue engaging substantively with the organisation if they no longer regard it as being in their interests. Earlier worries over Indonesia’s potential turn away from ASEAN as well as the downgrading of the US delegation to ASEAN-led meetings in 2019 offer examples of such scenarios.
Realistically speaking, the value that regional countries place on the ASEAN model of inclusive dialogue and cooperation would depend largely on broader geopolitical dynamics—much of which are beyond ASEAN’s control. More importantly, in a period of downturn in relations, it is difficult to predict if the respective countries might still want to engage with one another via ASEAN-led multilateralism. In this context, it could be the case that the ASEAN model of cooperation will evolve more towards ASEAN+1 arrangements. This is because—as the aforementioned recent events demonstrate—both ASEAN and the respective external partners continue to find value in engaging with each other. Such arrangements may also be more insulated from the fluctuations of global-power relations and regional power politics, as ASEAN only needs to deal with one partner at a time. In contrast, multilateral forums with a wider membership that incorporates competing powers, such as the ARF, ADMM-Plus and EAS, would be more susceptible to being affected by developments among the non-ASEAN countries. The abovementioned withdrawal of some dialogue partners from an ADMM-Plus working-level meeting is a case in point. The continuation of such a development is likely to lead to a drop in the utility of these larger ASEAN-led forums to its participants.
The Future: Evolving Multilateral Architecture in the Indo-Pacific
All three trends indicate that the regional multilateral architecture is expected to have more overlaps as it adjusts to pressures of both fragmentation and alignment. As medium-sized powers step up their involvement in the Indo-Pacific and cooperation becomes increasingly driven by shared political values, more multilateral and minilateral groupings are expected to emerge. This suggests a growing number of key stakeholders in the region, all with their own visions of an ideal Indo-Pacific architecture.
Given that ASEAN’s value proposition has traditionally been premised on its convening power and an inclusive model of cooperation based on mutual interests more than shared political values, these trends would have a bearing on ASEAN’s role in the region. Indeed, the three trends discussed in this article point to a narrowing space for ASEAN centrality. Over time, ASEAN’s ‘hub’ status in the multilateral architecture could gradually decline. While the ASEAN+1 arrangements and bilateral ties may remain important, ASEAN may find itself struggling to retain interest in and make progress on the bigger multilateral forums that it convenes. This does not mean that the ASEAN-led forums would dissolve; they would in all likelihood continue to exist, but stagnate and eventually slide into irrelevance in regional decision-making. Should this happen, questions about the value of ASEAN itself may also arise as member states reassess whether and how the organisation serves their respective interests.
This is not intended to be alarmist—at present, with the exception of the Myanmar junta, none of the ASEAN member states have signalled in any concrete terms that ASEAN is becoming irrelevant to their interests. It is also important to recognise that ASEAN is not the be-all and end-all for the foreign policies of its member states. Rather, ASEAN exists alongside a range of other diplomatic avenues—bilateral, minilateral, multilateral—that its member states would rely on to secure their interests. The key is to ensure that ASEAN continues to offer value in ways that the other avenues are unlikely to do.
Viewed in this way, ASEAN would need to strengthen itself institutionally. This means finding ways to ensure that its internal problems and disagreements do not affect broader ASEAN-led cooperation, forging more equal partnerships with the dialogue partners, as well as taking the lead to facilitate region-wide responses towards shifting geopolitical dynamics. This would require, at the outset, ASEAN member states to be clear-eyed on the strategic challenges facing Southeast Asia and the importance of ASEAN to their foreign policies. It would also require ASEAN to adopt some form of measured decisiveness when it comes to dealing with matters such as the Myanmar crisis. These aims are certainly demanding, but necessary for the preservation of ASEAN’s role and relevance amid the evolution of the multilateral architecture in the Indo-Pacific.