The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit concluded in Cambodia two weeks ago with tensions among members over maritime disputes with China in the East and South China Seas taking center stage. ASEAN is entering a critical stage in its development as an influential player in charting the future geopolitical trajectory of Asia. In 2015, the bloc aspires to establish the ASEAN Economic Community, which would integrate all member economies into a single market.
Despite this, ASEAN continues to struggle when it comes to matching its potential with concrete achievements, as demonstrated by the Cambodia summit. A large part of the problem is that ASEAN members are divided over how politically and economically integrated they want to be with China. Vietnam and the Philippines continue to insist that territorial claims in the South China Sea should be discussed multilaterally through ASEAN, an idea dismissed by Beijing. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the South China Sea but have been less vocal about them. Indonesia and Singapore, while not claimants, appear to sympathize with their ASEAN partners and have called on China to resolve the issue multilaterally. The rest of the members, led by Cambodia, want to take the issue off the table at ASEAN and transform the dispute into a bilateral issue between each respective country and China.
These divisions are also visible in the commonly accepted narrative of Washington’s “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific, which stresses that the shift is at least partially directed at reassuring U.S. allies in ASEAN that China will not be able to browbeat them into submission.