restricted access ASEAN and the Great Powers
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ASEAN and the Great Powers

For half a century the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has helped shape regional interactions with the Great Powers including the United States, the Soviet Union and a rising China. ASEAN has furnished spaces for diplomacy, spoken with a collective voice for its constituent members and generated regional norms and practices that incentivize and constrain Great Power behaviour. ASEAN's role in mediating Great Power relations has evolved considerably from its birth to middle age, as the dynamics among major external actors have changed and the degree of unity among its members has waxed and waned. In the Association's early years, Great Power politics spurred ASEAN towards stronger cohesion and effectiveness as members adapted to Anglo-American withdrawals and closed ranks to ward off the common threat of communism. Over time, a larger and more diverse membership and the centrifugal pull arising from Sino–American competition have made the task of building and maintaining unity within ASEAN increasingly difficult. After fifty years of efforts to stitch together a robust regional organization, ASEAN appears to be tearing at the seams.

ASEAN's creation in the wake of Konfrontasi, Singapore's break with Malaysia and Indonesia's abortive coup reflected its founders' understanding that division and discord left member states ripe for internal subversion and domination by outside powers. Singaporean [End Page 252] foreign minister S. Rajaratnam captured this logic succinctly at ASEAN's inaugural meeting in 1967, when he quoted American founding father Benjamin Franklin: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately."1 In that era, Great Power dynamics helped align the interests of ASEAN's founding members. Conservative governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand all faced threats of Chinese-backed communist subversion and concerns about falling dominoes should the United States withdraw from Vietnam. They differed on the extent to which they should facilitate US primacy in the region, but all had clear Cold War inclinations towards the West. They shared strong interests in managing their differences and fending off communist insurgents, which the Association helped them do by allowing them to refocus energies on domestic threats rather than those posed by their immediate neighbours.

ASEAN members also shared an interest in developing a regional layer of protection to insure against future US and UK disengagements from the region. They quickly had to put that insurance policy into effect, as the 1968 announcement of the planned British withdrawal "East of Suez" and the 1969 enunciation of the Nixon Doctrine signalled the coming Anglo–American retrenchment. That external shock prompted ASEAN members to draw closer together and issue a collective doctrinal response. In the 1971 declaration of a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), they pledged to pursue external recognition and respect for Southeast Asia as a zone "free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers" and to enhance cooperation to build regional strength and solidarity.2 From the start, this idealized vision of ZOPFAN was observed largely in the breach. ASEAN members supported, to varying degrees, the US war effort in Vietnam and accepted extensive American influence in the region. Still, the ZOPFAN principle expressed the essence of ASEAN's approach to relations with the Great Powers—attempting to hold them at bay while striving to strengthen the internal cohesion that underlies the Association's external clout and defences.

ASEAN's next major institutional step, the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, was largely a response to the US withdrawal from Vietnam and communist victories in Indochina. Alongside pledges of intramural cooperation, the Treaty asserted basic rules of the game for international relations in Southeast Asia, including: respect for national independence, sovereignty and territorial independence; freedom from external interference, subversion or coercion; and [End Page 253] commitments to the peaceful resolution of disputes and the non-use of force.3 Ever since, ASEAN's engagement with the Great Powers has involved efforts to draw them into this normative framework.

Although the US withdrawal from Vietnam contributed to ASEAN's development, it also complicated the Association's relations with external powers. Until 1975, all ASEAN members looked westward...


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