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“The United Nations,” the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke once said, “is only as strong as its member-states wish it to be.” To an even greater extent, the same is true for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A loose grouping of diverse countries, ASEAN operates primarily through the principles of consensus and consultation which, in practice, means that every member-state has a veto power.

Arguably, these guiding principles have served ASEAN well in decades past. However, recent events suggest that, underpinned by these principles, ASEAN appears to show some signs of strain in addressing regional security issues, foremost of which is the South China Sea (SCS). ASEAN plays a leading role in shaping the multilateral architecture of the region. As Amitav Acharya pointed out, “[t]here is currently no alternative to ASEAN’s convening power in Asia” since the “great powers are not capable of leading Asian regional institutions because of mutual mistrust and a lack of legitimacy.” In this context, the SCS dispute, as one scholar emphasized, will be a “hard case test” of both ASEAN’s capacity to resolve/manage the issue among affected member-states and promoting the overall regional peace and stability.

Elsewhere, I have argued that ASEAN must navigate between two extremes. On the one hand, ASEAN’s leading role in addressing traditional security concerns will ensure its relevance in the evolving regional security architecture. But on the other hand, the same issues, like the SCS, may further risk the exposure of the internal divisions in ASEAN and could affect its centrality in multilateral diplomacy. Indeed, much has been said on the apparent shifts in the language of ASEAN pronouncements on the SCS, which are indicative of the group’s internal diplomatic wrangling.

ASEAN finds itself in an environment not devoid of immense foreign policy challenges, foremost of which is rivalry among major powers, with the SCS as a potential flashpoint. Taking into account these strategic constraints, it is noteworthy to point out that ASEAN, under the chairmanship of the Philippines, has nevertheless made some gains on regional security cooperation, including the SCS, through defense diplomacy. Specifically, Manila’s ASEAN stewardship made progress in three areas.

First, the Manila-led 11th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) made some progress in developing crisis management mechanisms. The defense ministers adopted guidelines for maritime interaction, which aims to, among others, “establish comprehensive and feasible maritime conflict management measures on the basis of confidence-building, preventive diplomacy, and peaceful management of tensions that could arise at sea.” In addition, ASEAN created a working group to develop guidelines on air encounters between military aircrafts. Albeit in the initial stages, these agreements can nevertheless complement existing crisis management mechanisms which aim to prevent and/or deescalate.

Second, the ADMM also moved to strengthen dialogue and cooperation platforms, in particular the ADMM-Plus. The ASEAN defense ministers adopted the proposal of Singapore and Viet Nam to annualize its meeting with the Plus countries. Moreover, ASEAN Region Forum (ARF)-led meetings among defense officials, also hosted by Manila, discussed initiatives on how to enhance defense cooperation. Mindful of ASEAN’s centrality in the multilateral architecture of the region, these platforms are additional channels of communication among the major powers, including the US and China.

Third, in its work programme for 2017-2019, it is interesting to note that ADMM sought to enhance capacity building and interoperability among the defense establishments in Southeast Asia through the exploration and promotion of “agreements on status of visiting forces between ASEAN Member States [AMS].” In an apparent attempt to flesh out this work item, the ADMM agreed on principles for education and training among ADMM members. The objective of this initiative, according to the defense ministers, is to “outline the status of forces present in one [AMS] for the purpose of such training.”

Indeed, while there have been challenges in articulating ASEAN’s position on traditional security issues, particularly the SCS, the organization has nevertheless made some modest progress in initiating measures, through defense diplomacy, that may contribute in diffusing tensions in Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland. ASEAN must ensure that such measures are sustained.

Beyond these initiatives, however, the crucial test for ASEAN diplomacy remains to be the negotiations for a binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS. Under the Philippine chairmanship, ASEAN and China adopted the “framework” COC and announced that they “will officially commence substantive negotiations on the text of the COC.” Such negotiations, however, will take place against the backdrop of China’s continued military build-up in SCS, as Beijing bolsters the infrastructure in its reclaimed islands. It must be pointed out that ASEAN and China have already agreed to negotiate a binding COC fifteen years earlier under the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the SCS. As such, it has been observed that Beijing appears to use the COC negotiations as a “delaying tactic and a public relations coup” as it consolidates its territorial and maritime claims in the SCS.

Hence, as the security environment continues to evolve, it is apparent that ASEAN’s diplomatic initiatives will be constrained by the realpolitik of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. What ASEAN can and cannot do in the realm of traditional security will be significantly influenced by the dynamics of its individual member-states’ relations with the major powers.

Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.

This article is based on the author’s piece earlier published by The Diplomat.