President Rodrigo Duterte poses for a “family photo” with the leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member-countries and the premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Li Keqiang, during the 22nd Asean-China Summit at the Impact Exhibition and Convention Center in Nonthaburi, Thailand on Nov. 3, 2019. SIMEON CELI JR./PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

In the last 20 years, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has played a central role in the region’s political, security, economic and social development, drawing the cooperation of much larger, wealthier and powerful neighbors to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous world.

As a regional bloc, it has underscored the importance of “Asean centrality,” unity and leadership in this part of the world. In short, it always wanted to be in “driver’s seat” to set the direction on all issues affecting the region’s political, security, economic and social developments.

Over the last halfa-century, the smaller countries have projected their concerns and interests as well as collectively experienced an active quasi-middle power role alongside dominant actors, like the United States, China, Japan, Australia, India, and to some extent, European powers, including Russia.

But, as big power competition between the United States and China heats up, the bloc appears to have abandoned the driver’s seat and has, apparently, allowed Beijing to take the steering wheel as it navigates the perilous waters in the disputed South China Sea.

At the recent 35th Asean Summit and related meetings in Bangkok, the collective voice of the bloc as articulated in the chairman’s statement at the end of the October 31-November 4 gathering of Southeast Asian leaders was a mere repeat of a muted stand on the South China Sea dispute, expressing concern on land reclamation  and activities that have eroded trust and confidence and increased tensions in the disputed waterway.

Since 2013, how many times have Asean voiced the same concerns but has not done anything to force China to agree to a legally binding, rules-based Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea?

From 2002, when the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed in Phnom Penh, Asean it has also failed to commit China to a full and effective implementation of the informal COC, particularly on Paragraph 5 of the document.

It seems China has been more successful in exerting its influence on a number of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, to tone down official statements on the South China Sea dispute while promising to cooperate and conclude a regional code of conduct to ease tensions in the strategic waterway by 2021.

China has been avoiding any multilateral dialogue on the dispute, favoring bilateral discussions to settle territorial differences. President Rodrigo Duterte has fully embraced this, abandoning the approach taken by the previous administration.

As it stands, only Vietnam has remained defiant as Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have softened their positions on the issue in exchange for billions of yuan in trade, investments and official development assistance.

Economically, China has another edge over the United States as Beijing is a part of what is emerging as the largest trading bloc in the world, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which Asean and its East Asian partners have committed to sign in February 2020. Only China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India will be part of the trading bloc.

Washington was conscious of these political, security and economic developments as it unveiled its own regional infrastructure, the Indo-Pacific strategy, to counter China. It has enlisted its regional allies and partners to help push back Beijing.

Asean however has appeared to be lukewarm to America’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy, which envisioned to maintain and strengthen a rules-based maritime order and at the same time increase Washington’s economic engagement with the fastest-growing region in the world.

Southeast Asian countries see only themselves as the vital link the Pacific countries and the Indian Ocean security and economic powerhouses, jealously protecting their centrality. But, the reluctance of some states to embrace the Indo-Pacific strategy to avoid the impression they were taking sides could only further boost China’s grip and influence in the region.

Asean was formed in the late 1960s at the height of the Cold War, to build trust among the five largely anti-communist states in the region – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Relations among these countries, at that time, were characterized by deep distrust and suspicion due to territorial claims, including the Sabah issue between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia later joined the bloc and over the last two decades, the 10-member bloc has reduced intra-regional tensions, avoiding conflicts, although there were still minor border skirmishes between Cambodia and Thailand.

As intra-regional tensions simmered down, they paid more attention to consolidating domestic political authority, economic development and diplomatic cooperation to advance their own national interests. They kept peace and harmony in the region by adopting mutual non-intervention, consensus on issues that required collective action, and mutual restraint from the use of force as the basis for coordination and cooperation.

This enabled Asean to create not just stability but economic growth, which extra-regional powers did not want to disturb given conflicts and chaos in other parts of the world, accepting with open arms the bloc’s centrality and its position “in the driver’s seat” when it came to intra-regional cooperation. Examples are the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the only security dialogue in the region, Post-Ministerial meetings, the East Asian Summit and the multilateral Chiang Mai initiative after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

The rise of China in the early 21st century has changed everything. It has put serious doubts on whether the old Asean formula of non-intervention, consensus-building, and centrality still matters as deep divisions re-emerged among Southeast Asian states over territorial disputes and other non-security issues, like human rights, the deadly haze, and even trade liberalization.

China has been testing the unity and cohesion of Asean on the South China Sea dispute. And now, the United States wants to complicate matters by introducing a political and economic strategy to keep its dominant role in a region it has neglected for a long time.

The question is: In the face of sharpening rivalries between the United States and China, how long can Asean stand its ground and hold on its “neutral” position and pretend to be still sitting on the driver’s seat, steering the direction not only for the bloc but for all countries with intersecting interests and concerns in the region?