ASEAN is having an identity crisis

The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) kicked off its annual summit of leaders in Jakarta, Indonesia yesterday (Tuesday).

The three-day agenda is jam-packed, including talks on:

  • 🇲🇲 The ongoing violence in Myanmar (an ASEAN member)
  • 🌊 China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, and
  • ⚔️ Regional tensions between the US and China.

But the bloc has long struggled to find solutions on any of these issues.

Yesterday, members agreed to strip Myanmar and its ruling junta of the bloc’s rotating leadership role in 2026, and instead designated the Philippines as leader that year.

But ASEAN’s other punitive measures against the junta in the past – like barring its leaders from summits – have had little impact so far.

And if Myanmar seems complicated, US-China competition is a doozy.

Last week, Manila suggested President Marcos would lead an effort to reprimand China for its newly-published map that seems to expand Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. But the draft ASEAN statement doing the rounds in Jakarta simply calls for “stability in the maritime sphere”.

Intrigue’s take: If ASEAN can’t agree to push back on a direct outside challenge to members’ own borders, what exactly can it agree on?

For years, the bloc’s members have looked to China on the economy, and looked to the US on security. And Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday urged powers not to “turn our ship into an arena for rivalry”. 

But Mr. President, that ship has already sailed.

Also worth noting:

  • Several ASEAN members have called on the bloc to rethink its ‘non-interference’ policy to address the crisis in Myanmar.
  • Various ASEAN partners attend each year, including Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the US. Both US President Biden and Chinese President Xi have opted to skip this year’s summit.