The Russian Navy’s anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Panteleyev made a grand arrival and anchored itself at the Port of Belawan, North Sumatra on 1 December 2021. The warship would participate in the first-ever “ASEAN-Russia Naval Exercise” (ARNEX), where naval forces of Russia and ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conduct a multilateral joint military exercise taking place in the Strait of Malacca over the course of three consecutive days.
This exercise was initially suggested by Russia and approved by ASEAN members during the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in December 2020. According to Russian Navy officials, it was aimed to enhance interoperability and mutual understanding between the participating states’ navies in the midst of rising geopolitical tensions in the wider Asia-Pacific region. The ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea and the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China—of which Southeast Asia has become one of the main frontlines of conflict—are among few of the highlighted flashpoints.
However, ARNEX 2021 was not the first occasion that ASEAN member-states participated in an exercise with other states as a unified collective, especially alongside some of the great powers that have traditionally held much influence and showed a high degree of interest in the Asia-Pacific region. In October 2018, under the chairmanship of Singapore, the “ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise” (ACME) was held in Guangdong Province, China as a first step in a series of efforts to build a solid mutual understanding between ASEAN and the rising East Asian superpower. The next year in September 2019, it was the United States’ turn to push forward a similar initiative, holding the “ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise” (AUMX) that took place in the Gulf of Thailand. Therefore, ARNEX 2021 on its own was in no way a one-of-a-kind endeavour.
Nonetheless, if we take a look at the bigger picture, there’s a noticeable uniqueness that sets ASEAN apart from other regional groupings across the globe. Over the past few years, it had successfully held three successive military exercises with three different rivalling powers, in addition to maintaining relatively stable relationships with all of them. This is an impressive feat that very few other regional groupings in the world could ever emulate without sparking more tensions between the parties involved.
ASEAN is in a unique position to conduct such a feat due to the existence of “ASEAN centrality”, a principle that the organisation and its members have been consistently attempting to firmly establish and propagate. Simply put, this principle could be defined as the necessity for ASEAN to play a central role in the process of building regional cooperation frameworks in the Asia-Pacific region. It also means that other states who wish to engage with the region are required to respect ASEAN’s presence and relevance. In other words, if great powers such as the United States or China plan to enhance their relations with regional states, they should not establish frameworks on their own. Rather, they would have to play by ASEAN’s rules, by utilising existing mechanisms already set in place by ASEAN beforehand or establishing new ones with ASEAN involvement, taking into consideration the ASEAN-centric approach to regional security and economic processes.
Historically, ASEAN was not the first attempt at establishing a regional organisation encompassing Southeast Asian nations, and certainly not the first platform for those nations to deliberate upon security and defence issues. During the early years of the Cold War in 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was founded as a collective defence pact to protect the region from the lingering threat of communism by closely coordinating each member’s military forces in the presence of perceived danger. Despite its name, the organisation’s membership mostly included states located outside of Southeast Asia but with a certain degree of interest in the region’s affairs. In fact, Thailand and the Philippines were the only two regional states that became SEATO members. Therefore, it was not a surprise that this grouping failed to meet its purpose and expectations and eventually was dissolved in 1977; SEATO was not at all born out of the organic interests of Southeast Asian nations to advance cooperation and maintain peace between them. Rather, it symbolised the continued interests of its patron superpower, the United States, to curtail the influence of communism in the region.
In an attempt to provide a regional institution that truly caters to the interests of Southeast Asia, five founding states of ASEAN signed the Bangkok Declaration in 1967. Initially, ASEAN refrained from cooperating in the political-security realm, which was seen as a divisive issue back then, instead focusing on economic prosperity and socio-cultural advancement of its member-states. However, as time went on and the world order underwent massive changes after the Cold War had ended, ASEAN needed an upgrade to better respond to new issues that may arise. Reflecting upon the failures of SEATO a few decades prior, ASEAN could choose to 1) stand still and become a mere object of contention, a battlefront for great powers vying for regional influence, or it could 2) become a respected norm-builder and rule-setter for others to play in its own backyard, capable of defending its own interests and independence.
Fortunately, ASEAN had chosen the latter and recognised the important role it had to fill in the context of Asia-Pacific regional architecture. It was to become the “centre of gravity” for all efforts in constructing mutually beneficial partnerships and cooperation in the region. Guided by this principle, ASEAN has established several forums to facilitate dialogue between itself and other powers with keen interest in the region. The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and ADMM-Plus held under the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) since 2015 is one such example, gathering the region’s top defence officials as well as those of its eight “dialogue partners” in a platform to strengthen security and defence cooperation for the pursuit of regional peace, stability, and development. It is through this mechanism that ASEAN could effectively balance the security interests of major powers such as the United States, China, and Russia—all of which are among its dialogue partners. Every multilateral joint military exercise held by ASEAN, from ACME in 2018 to AUMX in 2019 and most recently ARNEX in 2021, had been planned, agreed upon, and implemented through ADMM-Plus under APSC’s framework. Thus, by “forcing” major powers to comply with its established mechanisms, ASEAN attempts to further cement its centrality in Asia-Pacific’s regional architecture.
In this sense, ASEAN centrality could be considered as an international norm that the organisation wishes to internalise within its own member-states and others who wish to engage with it. Hence, like any other socially constructed norm, this principle has gone through several phases within its lifetime. Referring to the “norm life cycle” theory proposed by Finnemore and Sikkink (1998), norms typically go through three phases: emergence, where an issue considered of high importance would be pushed forward as a norm by relevant actors; cascade, where states and international organisations would attempt to spread understanding and respect of the norm; and internalisation, where relevant actors would adopt and implement the norm whenever and wherever necessary.
This linear cycle could be observed in the process of cementing ASEAN centrality as an internationally recognised and respected norm through multilateral joint military exercises held between ASEAN and other states. Firstly, amid rising geopolitical tensions in the region, ASEAN centrality was constructed by its member-states to ensure ASEAN’s continued relevance and guarantee its members’ interests above those of any external power. Furthermore, this principle was later cascaded by ASEAN itself and its members to any other state with an interest in regional security affairs that wishes to engage in further cooperation in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. Lastly, ASEAN centrality was internalised by relevant actors by ensuring member-states’ and external powers’ compliance with mechanisms established by ASEAN in enhancing defence cooperation. This could be seen in the process of planning and executing joint exercises with China, the US, and Russia through the ADMM-Plus under ASEAN’s Political-Security Community framework.
We are yet to see which major power ASEAN will hold a joint exercise with in 2022, but whoever it may be must certainly play by ASEAN’s rules. As an international norm, ASEAN centrality will have to consistently be enforced for it to be recognised and obeyed by relevant actors to have any effect. Retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan accurately described the principle, “[ASEAN centrality] is a political construct. If you do not recognise it, it does not exist.”
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Kenzie Ryvantya is a Political Science student at Universitas Indonesia. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter with the username @kenzie_sr