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Myth of ‘ASEAN Centrality’ lies exposed as Indonesian prominence on rise

Indonesia, not ASEAN, central to Southeast Asian geopolitics

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo sitting front and center when ASEAN leaders met in Jakarta to discuss the situation in Myanmar.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo sitting front and center when ASEAN leaders met in Jakarta to discuss the situation in Myanmar. (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — In every official document issued by the ASEAN Secretariat, based in Jakarta since 2014, the concept of "ASEAN Centrality" has become increasingly ubiquitous.

Dr. Mely Caballero of Nanyang University in Singapore, an expert on ASEAN, notes the ten member states that broadly represent Southeast Asia have been very comfortable using the term, while even extra-regional powers, including China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and others, have all publicly endorsed the concept.

"ASEAN Centrality" was originally connected to the two Master Plans on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC), the first of which was released in 2010, while the second is scheduled for 2025.

Focusing on sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence, and people mobility, MPAC Connectivity 2025 no doubt seeks to buttress and further the creation of one ASEAN Community by 2025, as agreed by all member states. Yet it is hampered in this mission by misguided thinking on the supposed centrality of the organization in the region.

The problem with “ASEAN Centrality” is that leaders within the region, either the heads of ASEAN countries or the organization's 10 dialogue partners, are guilty of three sins in invoking it: ignorance, ahistoricism, and cynicism.

Ignorance not bliss

Firstly, they are ignorant of the political rhetoric surrounding ASEAN’s connectivity plans. Since ASEAN is a "flexible" organization and intentionally designed to be such, mouthing the platitudes of “ASEAN Centrality” has carried no reputational cost.

ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners have been particularly garrulous, and irresponsible, regardless of whether they are in ASEAN as the actual member states or merely as the ten Dialogue Partners.

Rewriting history

Secondly, they lack historical awareness of the origins of “ASEAN Centrality.”

Some ASEAN member states, who have prided themselves on decades of non-intervention and non-interference, have now taken the simplistic scholarship of track II diplomacy academics such Amitav Acharya, or perhaps his students, as gospel.

Their legions of books and papers have venerated the "ASEAN Way," "the Asian Way," "The Asian Pacific Way," even Bilahari Kausian's concept of the "Pacific Impulse.”

Leaders in the region are particularly susceptible to these half-baked theories seeing as they have prided themselves on decades of non-intervention and hope to find a label for their hard-to-pin-down diplomatic style. Little wonder concrete definitions of the ASEAN Way continue to elude even “experts” on the topic as flexibility has always been the heart of diplomacy since antiquity.

When even weaker thinkers are added to the mix, or secretary generals of the ASEAN Secretariat, the motley crew transform themselves into an echo chamber, simply reprising each other's platitudes.

The charade seems to go on since they don't take “ASEAN Centrality” seriously, let alone make any U-turns in policy to correct their ahistorical understanding.

Cynical endorsement

Prior to leaving office on January 20, 2021, Trump intentionally de-classified the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the U.S., even before President Biden weighed in on it.

In the last section of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, it was clearly stated that the United States would respect “ASEAN Centrality."

Why?

The quick and steady answer is that the “ASEAN Concept” is too wooly and hazy. Yet due to a total disrespect for strategic clarity, arguably the most ambiguous concept in the region’s political rhetoric has even seeped into the lexicon of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy of former President Trump, though he de-classified it some 30 years ahead of time.

Some experts argue that "ASEAN Centrality" is sheer nonsense, let alone a notion that is deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of roughly 700 million people in the region. One cannot even be certain what percentage of the peoples of ASEAN really know what ASEAN is, let alone "ASEAN Centrality."

To be sure, eminent yet critical thinkers such as Nicholas Khoo, Michael Smith and David Martin Jones have been shunned by all track II circuit dialogues for the simple crime of affirming ASEAN Studies to be akin to “Aseantology” — an unsubstantiated form of academic voodoo.

Dissenting voices are silent because ASEAN member states do not want to look any less important than they are, when in fact each of them is weak. Unless all ten member states collectively agree to defend each other militarily, most shall remain small players on the world stage.

Indonesian centrality

If there is a case where the political and economic weight of ASEAN can be galvanized, that would be the job of Indonesia and not the other states.

Nevertheless, just as others have taken Indonesia for granted, it has dawned on Jakarta's elites that the country can be a major geopolitical middle power in the increasingly hot competition between the U.S. and China.

Thus, Indonesia does not mind other countries using the phrase "ASEAN Centrality,” when true regional centrality is premised on Indonesia as a powerful democracy and civil society. With this caveat, if “ASEAN Centrality” does exist, it is simply in reference to Indonesia.

If all members of ASEAN are using "ASEAN Centrality" in a promiscuous manner — it does not matter if they have the faith in one, let alone two or three ASEAN officials and diplomats.

When probed, diplomats will confess they are more interested in Indonesia, rather than ASEAN, to be their major ally.