Will Singapore’s chairmanship arrest ASEAN’s strategic relegation?

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute 

Since 2010, the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have voiced their collective concern over the growing tension in the South China Sea. In 2017, however, the regional bloc changed its tune as it began praising China for its constructive role in the management of the South China Sea dispute. That year, the chairman of the ASEAN was Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who was bent on appeasing Chinese expansion in the area. Obviously, he has been lured by the Chinese promise of trade concessions, grants, loans, and investment.

Consequently, the Philippines has subscribed to Beijing’s official mantra, “that after several years of disruption caused mainly by ‘non-regional’ countries (Japan and the US), the South China Sea has calmed with China and Southeast Asian countries agreeing to peacefully resolve [their] disputes.” He put this mantra into practice during the Philippine chairmanship of the ASEAN that same year.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built airfields on three artificial islands and has installed anti-aircraft guns and other weapon systems on all of the seven islands it controls to defend them against cruise missiles. China has rapidly expanded its strategic footprint across disputed land features in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, deploying its military, coast guard, and paramilitary patrols across contested waters. People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) Commander Admiral Wu Shengli declared that China will not recede over territorial sovereignty or fear any military provocation and would complete constructions to a level directed by the threat to China.

Alarmed by these developments, the US Navy began conducting its Freedom of Navigation (FON) patrols near Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea. During the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a veiled warning to China as he announced the US opposition to militarizing artificial islands and unilateral, coercive changes to the status quo in the South and East China Seas.

In the same month, the Department of Defense (DOD) released its annual report on China’s increasing expansion concluded that China will be able to use its expanded land features in the disputed waters “as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its long-term presence in the South China Sea significantly.”

Another development that will adversely affect ASEAN’s role in regional security is the revival of a loose security association called “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” or the QUAD. Australia, India, Japan, and the US created the QUAD on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Summit in Manila in 2007. Its goal was to provide a platform for these four Indo-Pacific powers to exchange views on regional security issues with a special focus on the rise of China and its implication for Asia.

The QUAD was revived in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit in mid-November 2017. The revival emphasizes the importance of rules-based order, connectivity ventures that are not fueled by predatory financing, and the principle that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.

All of these developments point to the growing great power competition in the Indo-Pacific region, one which is effectively marginalizing ASEAN as the central actor in security architecture.


As ASEAN’s chairman in 2018, Singapore’s role is to arrest the association’s declining role in regional security affairs triggered by the growing competition among the US and its allies and partners in the QUAD versus China. Singapore’s chairmanship theme is based on two goals: “Resilience” and “Innovation.” Resilience refers to the goal of member states to enhance the capacity of ASEAN to deal with both internal and external challenges. Pursuing this goal requires two important tasks for Singapore.

First, it must help manage intra-ASEAN dynamics to ensure that the association remains united and cohesive to secure its role in maintaining regional peace and security. Second, it must be able to navigate ASEAN in the dangerous waters of great power rivalry, particularly in steering it to avoid takings sides among the competing powers that can wide the cleavage within the member states.

Singapore must harness its determination, experience, wealth, and network to transform the ASEAN Secretariat into a more powerful institution. It should be able to leverage its long experience in dealing with the core-member states such as Malaysia and Indonesia to collectively push for the reform of the Secretariat in terms of budget and supranational functions.

Led by Singapore, ASEAN must be able to manage the conflicting interests of the great powers in the Indo-Pacific region. It must be able to convince the great powers to abide by the ASEAN proven method of consultations to manage their differences.

Singapore, along with Indonesia, should be able to transform the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to an “Indo-Pacific” wide treaty of friendship and cooperation. This will send a clear message to the competing great powers on the existence of a strong leadership in ASEAN that can withstand any undue external pressure on the bloc.

Furthermore, it is in the interest of these powers to ensure that ASEAN remains in the driver’s seat in terms of managing regional security affairs. Under the leadership of Singapore, ASEAN must explore the possibilities of creating an open, transparent, and inclusive regional architecture based on its norms of periodic consultation and on international law.

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