ASEAN Neutrality and Non-Alignment Amidst Rising US-China Tensions

As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) becomes more economically prosperous and prominent on the world stage, questions surrounding its superpower alignment have started to surface more frequently in an increasingly tense and bipolar international order. However, neutrality and non-alignment form the core values of the union since its founding in 1967, and are unlikely to be sacrificed as the region continues to grow.

A recent survey by the Australian Think Tank Lowy Institute reported that the United States topped China in its power influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The 2023 Asia Power Index also indicated, for the first time since 2018, that China’s influence on the region has fallen, likely due to long-term effects of its strict zero COVID-19 policy. However, it is unlikely that these power dynamics will be reflected in ASEAN alignment. 

ASEAN is uniquely positioned as a region of rapid growth in the Asia Pacific region — a region instrumental to both the United States and China — which thus allows them to benefit from both major superpowers. China is ASEAN’s biggest economic trading partner, with over $500 billion USD worth of trade being exchanged between the two entities as of 2019. Meanwhile, the United States is the region’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) at $24.5 billion USD as of 2019, and has military presence in Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand. The economic support from both sides is difficult to ignore.

Though ASEAN was born out of security concerns in 1967, with its founding members — Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines — coming together to form a bulwark against the the rise of communism in Vietnam, the focus of the union has since shifted to more economic concerns, with the addition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Brunei since then. Nevertheless, very little of its original ethos has changed. ASEAN maintains principles of non-interference, non-aggression and most significantly, neutrality. 

The signing of the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, Declaration of Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality in 1971, Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976, and Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in 1995 reflect continued ASEAN commitment to operating free of superpower influence and continuing to uphold long standing values of non-interference and non-aggression. Respect for each country’s sovereignty is of utmost importance for the union, as many of its member states have a negative experience with colonial rule, and are therefore adverse to foreign intervention in the region.

The ‘ASEAN Way’ of non-alignment, non-interference and non-aggression has guided much of its member states’ foreign policy. Although born out of the legacy from colonial rule, it has so far worked to maintain peace and security in the region, allowing them to focus on economic cooperation. Member states have largely avoided speaking out on the domestic affairs of other member states, even when it came to Myanmar’s human rights abuses against the Rohingya muslims and the treatment of former democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. They are, however, quick to censure inter-state aggression, such as Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea in 1979, which was stopped in spite of the fact that many states had private moral concerns with Pol Pot’s authoritarian regime in Cambodia. In reaction to Vietnam’s violation of ASEAN’s long-held values, the union presented a united front in backing the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in order to not undermine its commitment to territorial integrity and non-aggression.

The ASEAN Way is also evident in the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea. Claimants to territory in the South China Sea in ASEAN are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, in addition to China. While different ASEAN states have different geopolitical concerns and superpower alignments, they were able to unite. 

ASEAN’s staunch commitment to values of neutrality and non-interference allows member states to maintain their sovereignty and look out for their own national and economic interests above that of the union, with many states’ membership to the association contingent on this freedom and flexibility. As ASEAN continues its trajectory of rapid growth and gains economic clout on the world stage, it cannot afford to align itself with any superpower, and will not stand to benefit from it either, and therefore it is unlikely that they will change that policy anytime soon.