1 Introduction

An increase in strategic competition between China and the U.S. in recent years has affected international affairs at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. The U.S. government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has evolved as a way to contain China in the region. “The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific,” reads the U.S.’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy. “Our objective is not to change the PRC, but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates… The United States is committed to an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.” The strategy document also states that ASEAN is “central to the regional architecture” and that the U.S. welcomes “a strong and independent ASEAN that leads in Southeast Asia” (The White House 2022a).

In China’s diplomacy, which is characterized by principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness, the neighboring countries have long been prioritized, with Southeast Asia as the top priority. Promoting a policy of forging friendships and partnerships, China strives to enhance friendly ties, mutual trust, and converging interests with its neighboring countries (Xi 2022). Regarding China–ASEAN relations, President Xi Jinping stated: “China was, is, and will always be ASEAN’s good neighbor, good friend and good partner. I wish to reaffirm that China will unswervingly take ASEAN as a high priority in its neighborhood diplomacy, unswervingly support ASEAN unity and ASEAN Community building, unswervingly support ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture, and unswervingly support ASEAN in playing a bigger role in regional and international affairs” (MFA of PRC 2021). It is evident that both China and the U.S. attach great importance and strategic value to ASEAN.

Other major forces in the world have also shifted their strategic focus to the Asia–Pacific. Japan, Australia, India, the UK, and EU have launched various “Indo-Pacific” plans to clarify their own interests and strategic plans in the region. These plans all express their support for the centrality of ASEAN, considering ASEAN-led regional mechanisms as most convenient and effective way to facilitate their involvement in Asia–Pacific affairs.

In the face of growing “attention”, ASEAN has, internally, been undergoing a cognitive change, from cautious optimism to anxiety and passiveness, as it strives to reconstruct strategic confidence and independence. As a result, ASEAN has maintained unity and centrality and convinced major powers to adjust their own regional strategies in response to ASEAN’s security and development concerns, highlighting ASEAN’s resilience and strategic initiative.

ASEAN’s success is largely owed to its persistence in maintaining diversified unity, centrality, and inclusive development, and to its timely strategic assessments and policy adjustments. Its three primary characteristics, attributes internalized by ASEAN in the practice of regional governance, are key to maintaining long-term stability and development in the region. Being confronted by a new round of great power competition, the region-wide consensus, and institutional arrangements and mechanism construction have endowed ASEAN with strong resilience, strategic autonomy, and strategic initiative, thereby ensuring ASEAN unity and enhancing the strategic value of ASEAN.

Therefore, delving into ASEAN’s three primary characteristics can help guide a deeper understanding of the internal logic of ASEAN’s cognitive transformation and strategic adjustment and serve as a lens through which to envision the future policy direction of ASEAN. In a broader sense, as the most important regional organization in the Asia–Pacific, ASEAN acts as a leader to other countries in the region, who look to ASEAN’s understanding of and strategic response to major power competition as a model to follow. The collective actions of these countries will become an important force affecting the order of the Asia–Pacific region, and as such warrant close attention.

2 The three characteristics: core interest and governance principles of ASEAN

Former Indonesian President Sukarno often used “unity in diversity” to describe the country, and this is also applicable to Southeast Asia as a region. Southeast Asia is at the “crossroad” of the great human migration and is a melting pot of different races, nationalities, languages, religions, and cultures. After World War II, emerging nation-states in Southeast Asia chose different paths for development, strengthening the diversity of the region. Meanwhile, in the long-term, anti-colonial independence movement, Southeast Asian countries gradually formed a regional identity and a desire for collective cooperation, which was strengthened by the worldwide rise of regionalism and the Non-Aligned Movement. ASEAN was formally established in 1967. Promoting integration over the last five decades, the institutionalization of ASEAN has steadily improved, and consensus on regional economic, political, and social and cultural cooperation has also grown. At the same time, the “ASEAN way” has evolved to accommodate the diversity of the region—that is, to respect diversity, to take into account distinctiveness and unbalanced development in the region, to reach ASEAN consensus through consultation, and to speak out in regional and international affairs with “one voice”—thus enabling ASEAN to become an important political force in the Asia–Pacific region (Zhang 2017).

Diversified unity characterizes ASEAN’s internal relations, while “centrality” serves as ASEAN’s underlying principle in dealings with the outside world. Centrality means that ASEAN, as a unified regional organization, builds a series of mechanisms for dialogue, consultation and cooperation with other countries, thereby forming a “ASEAN-centered” regional network and enhancing ASEAN’s status and influence in regional affairs (Zhang 2017). This effort started after the end of the Cold War. In 1995, the second ASEAN Regional Forum adopted a concept document, which clearly pointed out that ASEAN played a central role in the forum and made corresponding institutional arrangements to ensure ASEAN’s leadership over the development direction, process and agenda of the forum (ARF 1995).Footnote 1 Since then, the design of the “10 + 3” and “East Asia Summit” has basically followed this course and flourished.Footnote 2 By 2007, officials at the 12th ASEAN Summit officially proposed “ASEAN Centrality”.

Over the years, ASEAN has established various types of bilateral dialogues with more than 10 countries. It holds multi-level dialogues every year to discuss cooperation agendas in various fields and regularly formulates long-term development plans at the bilateral level, both of which become important institutional templates for ASEAN to build its centrality. Since the beginning of twenty-first century, with the China–ASEAN Free Trade Zone as the forerunner, ASEAN has successively initiated negotiations of the like with South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, and other countries, thus forming an economic free trade network with ASEAN at the core.

Inclusive development largely accounts for ASEAN’s economic achievements. Political and security affairs were ASEAN’s focus in its early days. Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN turned more attention to regional economic cooperation, making development a long-term top priority. In promoting open markets among member states, ASEAN constructed the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), then established the ASEAN Economic Community to promote economic integration. In the aftermath of Asian financial crisis in 1997, ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea jointly launched East-Asia-wide cooperation and further promoted the construction of more bilateral free trade areas.

ASEAN’s member states were economically underdeveloped, lacking resources to support regional cooperation and development in the region. Given this situation, ASEAN advocated open and inclusive regional cooperation on the basis of regional stability and security, promoted internal market access and improved the regional development environment, attracting the inflow of external resources, and strengthening cooperation with countries outside the region, thus turning Southeast Asia from a backward region into a model of regional cooperation (Zhang 2017). The increased strength of member states has, in turn, cemented ASEAN’s central position and its strategic value in the game of the great powers. The growth in strategic value and inflow of new resources have further enhanced the internal cohesion of ASEAN, consolidating its unity in diversity. Therefore, by understanding the three characteristics, we can grasp the core interests of ASEAN and its strategic preferences, shedding light on how ASEAN has recognized and strategically adjusted to the game between China and the U.S.

3 The impact of China–U.S. strategic competition on ASEAN

The three characteristics have contributed to the success of ASEAN, making it a political force that cannot be ignored in an era of major power competition. In order to gain support from ASEAN, both China and the U.S. have repeatedly reiterated their support for the centrality of ASEAN in recent years. They each have established a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN, and continuously increase their strategic investment in ASEAN. However, due to the strategic competition, China and the U.S. are obviously competitive in their investment, which leads to more challenges than opportunities for ASEAN, putting significant strain on the major characteristics of ASEAN.

Firstly, the China–U.S. strategic competition has made ASEAN more divided than unified. Regarding some regional and international affairs, ASEAN countries were compelled to make “either-or” choices. Compounded by their concern of national interests, ASEAN states are increasingly divided on certain issues, making it more difficult for ASEAN to form a unified voice.

The US–UK–Australia trilateral security partnership (AUKUS), the most recent military coalition coordinated by the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region, has been controversial since its inception. Due to geographical proximity and complex historical memory, ASEAN states have different perceptions about whether AUKUS will escalate a regional arm race or contribute to the balance of military power in the region. Far from reaching a consensus, ASEAN failed to present a unified position on AUKUS in its 2021 summit Chairman Statement, which some scholars in ASEAN countries deemed a grave challenge to ASEAN unity and ASEAN’s long-term effort to form a cohesive position on regional security (Phua 2021).

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD for short) is considered the primary mechanism of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, the upgrade and expansion of which has been eroding the unity of ASEAN. On one hand, ASEAN countries hold different positions on the nature of QUAD and its role in regional security, giving different feedback to the “olive branch” extended by QUAD (Choi 2020). On the other hand, the QUAD has always been intent on expanding the mechanism to include some ASEAN countries. For example, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, several “QUAD plus” dialogues temporarily included Vietnam. This has intensified ASEAN’s doubt about the intention of QUAD, motivating the US to adjust its strategy and emphasize the collaboration between the QUAD and ASEAN as a whole.

Secondly, major power competition has reduced the centrality of ASEAN, which greatly depends on the willingness of major powers to cooperate in the region, the recognition of ASEAN’s status by major powers, and ASEAN’s ability to maintain a balance among major powers. The intensified competition between China and the U.S. has profoundly shaken ASEAN’s central position in regional agenda-setting and institutional architecture.

Setting the goals of regional cooperation and the corresponding diplomacy agenda are important ways for ASEAN to play a central role. However, with the competition between major powers being intensified, regional dialogue platforms have become more like a megaphone for geopolitical competition. ASEAN’s economic and security concerns have been ignored as its dominance has weakened. In the 2022 Shangri-La Security Dialogue, the Defense ministers of the U.S., Japan, Australia, Canada, and the EU gave speeches in which they voiced a similar narrative. Accusing Russia of launching the war in Ukraine, they emphasized the harm of international rules being violated, targeting China thereafter, making reference to the Taiwan question, the South China Sea issue, and the like. The Chinese Defense Minister refuted these claims one by one. Witnessing the agenda of the Shangri-La Dialogue being hijacked by the China–U.S. faceoff, the Malaysian Defense Minister pointed out that issues like food security and economic slowdown are overshadowed by these security concerns. Fiji’s defense minister bluntly said that South Pacific countries are being threatened by climate change, not geopolitical competition. South Pacific countries need sustainable assistance from major powers, not added complexity stemming from geopolitical competition (IISS 2022).

The US alliance system is a de facto competitor of the regional mechanism led by ASEAN. The essence of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is to comprehensively contain China by building alliances and partnerships, including the “hub-spoke” bilateral system with the U.S. at the center, the QUAD, AUKUS and the Five Eyes alliance, which form a multi-layered regional architecture. In particular, the strategy involves upgrading and preparing the QUAD to eventually replace ASEAN, which has aroused widespread doubts and strategic anxiety within ASEAN (Murphy 2021).

In response to ASEAN’s concerns, the Biden administration has made a strategic adjustment, placing more emphasis on consultation and complementarity between the U.S. alliance system and ASEAN. However, with containing China as the target, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is destined to be exclusive, which manifests in the construction of a “security network of alliance and partnership” and the attempt to create an Indo-Pacific NATO after the Russia–Ukraine conflict. This emerging exclusiveness fundamentally runs contrary to the regional order advocated by ASEAN, which is an open and inclusive regional one. The centrality of ASEAN would not survive being pulled into the U.S.-built camp to contain China.

Thirdly, great power competition interferes with ASEAN’s inclusive development. Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has quickly turned its focus to economic growth and development, and has been committed to strengthening regional cooperation, which basically accounts for ASEAN’s economic success. The intensified China–U.S. competition tends to place traditional security concerns over economic ones, and leads to confrontation over economic issues, which threatens to impede regional cooperation.

The Trump administration emphasized “America First” and retreated from international cooperation, contributing to a wave of anti-globalization and the failure of global governance, while posing severe challenges to regional cooperation. Meanwhile, in the U.S. and other western countries, rhetoric about the “China threat”, “debt trap” and “economic coercion” was rampant. ASEAN’s anxiety about China has deepened with some Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Malaysia, Myanmar, and other affected countries. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. committed to providing “transparent and alternative” initiatives for infrastructure building in ASEAN countries, targeting the Belt and Road Initiative. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the US has securitized economic, industrial, and sci-tech issues, pushing forward “decoupling” by removing China from the supply chain. In May 2022, the U.S. further initiated the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework”, claiming to “expand the regional economic leadership of the U.S.”, to strengthen the ties between the U.S. and its allies and partners, and to shape a free, open, interconnected, resilient and safe region (The White House 2022b). Although the U.S. claims that it has built an open platform, only seven ASEAN countries were selected as founding members while China was excluded. These moves runs counter to the concept of inclusive development upheld by ASEAN, adding new complexity to the development of Asia–Pacific cooperation.

4 ASEAN’s changing perception and strategic response

With the expansion and intensification of China–U.S. strategic competition and confrontation, ASEAN has moved from its optimistic, cautious, wait-and-see posture to a more passive stance, as a result of increasing anxiety. It subsequently turned its focus to improving its strategic autonomy and initiative. ASEAN has consistently aimed to protect and strengthen its three primary characteristics. First, it has strived to build internal consensus and to speak out collectively on regional and international issues in a timely manner, maintaining internal unity. Secondly, ASEAN has focused on efforts to improve the quality of multiple dialogues, hosting three major diplomatic events and balancing between China and the U.S. to rebuild its centrality. Besides, to strengthen ASEAN Economic Community, engaging China and the U.S. in its development of priorities, and promoting open and inclusive regional cooperation. These policies are the result of ASEAN’s long-held policy of balance between major countries and the principle of not “taking sides”, fully demonstrating ASEAN’s strategic flexibility and initiative.

4.1 From cautious optimism to strategic anxiety: launching the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific

The US Indo-Pacific Strategy officially introduced China–U.S. competition in the region. ASEAN initially was cautiously optimistic, anticipating that the U.S. returning to the region would bring more external investment and serve as a counterweight to China. ASEAN’s perception of China has become self-contradictory as China’s economy grew and its foreign policy shifted from “keeping a low profile” to “striving to do something”. ASEAN is deeply concerned that the “strengthening of China’s maritime power and ‘militarization’ of islands and reefs in the South China Sea will rewrite regional security rules, and the rise of China will increase the uncertainty of regional peace” (Bayuni 2018; Pandjaitan 2018). However, it cannot stay away from China, not only because of geographical proximity, but also because of its member states’ economic dependence on China.

Much to the disappointment of ASEAN, the Trump administration pushed forward the “America First” policy and “withdrawal” actions, which made ASEAN unsure about whether the U.S. would only pay lip service to balancing China, and whether the Indo-Pacific strategy could be sustained (Pitlo III 2018). ASEAN quickly realized that the intensification of the great power competition was a blow to its centrality. As a result, ASEAN’s cautious optimism has been increasingly replaced by strategic anxiety. In 2019 and 2020, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed that how China and the U.S. handle competition would determine the entire international environment. ASEAN countries, meanwhile, became concerned that they were becoming the focal point of the major power competition and wondered how to avoid being caught between China and the U.S. Singapore has suggested that China and the U.S should work toward “strategic inclusiveness” and develop an “overall constructive relationship” to seek common interests and avoid a “head-on collision” (Lee 2019, 2020).

As a strategic response, The ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (Outlook) was adopted on the 34th ASEAN Summit in 2019. This document is regarded as the ASEAN version of a new regional order based on ASEAN centrality, openness, transparency, inclusiveness, and respect for international law (ASEAN Secretariat 2019). The core objective of the Outlook is to maintain regional stability and peace, as well as ASEAN’s unity and centrality. It sets forth four priorities, namely: maritime cooperation; connectivity; the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030; and economic and other possible areas of cooperation. The Outlook puts special emphasis on inclusiveness, stating that ASEAN will “act as an intermediary in an environment of competing interests” to coordinate the regional strategies of China, the U.S. and other countries.

However, implementation of the Outlook has been delayed due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the outbreak of Myanmar’s domestic political crisis posed a challenge to the unity of ASEAN. Myanmar’s absence from regional meetings, including the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit, has raised questions about whether ASEAN could maintain its centrality in the face of internal and external difficulties.

4.2 Enhancing strategic autonomy and rebuilding ASEAN’s unity and centrality

Starting in 2021, as the China–U.S. strategic competition began to intensify in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN re-shifted its regional agenda to deal with the great power competition, in an attempt to reinstate its unity and centrality by fortifying its internal cohesion and focusing on post-pandemic economic recovery and other initiatives.

4.2.1 ASEAN has strengthened its sense of unity in multiple ways

Maintaining its diversified unity is a prerequisite for ASEAN, if it wants to focus on economic development and maintain its centrality. To this end, ASEAN has made efforts in both internal and external affairs to present an image of unity to the international community.

Firstly, with the goal of building a community, ASEAN is working toward implementing the priorities in the Outlook. In February 2022, ASEAN Foreign Ministers, in an informal meeting, emphasized the importance of advancing ASEAN integration, including by accelerating the implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and prioritizing the tasks of the Working Group that is formulating the Post-2025 ASEAN Vision. At the same time, the foreign ministers underscored the importance of enhancing resilience in response to traditional and non-traditional security challenges. They also reached consensus on strengthening the unity within ASEAN, expanding and deepening ASEAN’s external relations, and enhancing the effectiveness of ASEAN-led multilateral mechanisms. In November of the same year, the ASEAN Summit was held and a joint statement issued, which reaffirmed the basic policies surrounding the implementation of the Outlook, outlined the development of four priorities, and discussed the need to embed those priorities in dialogues with partners (ASEAN Secretariat 2022a).

Secondly, to strengthen the internal culture of ASEAN, the issues of Myanmar, East Timor, and others were put on the agenda to discuss. After the sudden political change in Myanmar in 2020, ASEAN reached a “five-point consensus” (ASEAN Secretariat 2021) in 2021, drafting a roadmap for dealing with the Myanmar issue and demonstrating ASEAN’s leadership. As of the end of 2022, ASEAN had not yet achieved substantial progress on its “five-point consensus”, but the international community generally acknowledged ASEAN’s efforts and considered ASEAN the best “platform” for dealing with the Myanmar issue.

In November 2022, at the ASEAN Summit, ASEAN announced that it “agrees in principle” to admit East Timor as its 11th member, granting East Timor observer status and allowing it to attend all ASEAN meetings. ASEAN would enable East Timor to develop a roadmap to full membership and submit a report to be approved at the 42nd ASEAN Summit (ASEAN Secretariat 2022b). It is widely believed that ASEAN’s expansion would inspire its members internally and demonstrate ASEAN’s unity and vitality externally.

Thirdly, ASEAN strives to speak with “one voice” on major regional and international issues in a timely manner. In 2022, after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, ASEAN responded immediately by issuing three joint statements in succession, appealing to both Russia and Ukraine to exercise maximum restraint, to cease fire as soon as possible, and to achieve sustainable peace in Ukraine through political dialogue. ASEAN’s statements avoided making direct comments about either side or using words like “aggression”, sticking to a neutral position to avoid “taking sides” in the Russia–Ukraine conflict and the ensuing U.S. wrangling with Russia and China (ASEAN Secretariat 2022c, d, e).

In the same year, the tension across the Taiwan Strait heated up, and the intensifying confrontation between China and the U.S. increased the sense of urgency within ASEAN countries. Some even began to draw up plans to evacuate their citizens from Taiwan. ASEAN countries are concerned that China–U.S. rivalry might turn into direct conflicts (Suryadinata 2022). Therefore, as soon as Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House Speaker, visited Taiwan, ASEAN issued a statement, reaffirming its support for the “One China” principle, calling on stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint, avoid taking provocative actions, and make peaceful coexistence a responsibility of the great powers. ASEAN also expressed its willingness to play a constructive role in promoting peaceful dialogue among all parties (ASEAN Secretariat 2022f).

4.2.2 Taking multiple measures to maintain the centrality of ASEAN

In the face of increasingly fierce competition between China and the U.S., ASEAN has continued to expand and strengthen its relationships with dialogue partners. It successfully hosted three major diplomatic events in 2022, enhancing its influence in region and internationally. ASEAN extended its “circle of friends” through multi-level regional dialogues, always remaining at the core of diplomatic activities. As the pandemic subsided, ASEAN began to upgrade and expand various dialogue relations to consolidate its central position and to enhance its strategic value, thus hedging against the strategic pressure brought about by China–U.S. competition.

In 2021, ASEAN sought to improve its relations with Australia and China and to commit to comprehensive strategic partnerships. ASEAN engaged the U.S. and India in partnerships in 2022. Meanwhile, ASEAN rapidly expanded its “circle of friends”, building a dialogue partnership with the UK in 2021, which is the ASEAN’s another new partnership after 25 years. In August 2022, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates in succession signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia, followed by Ukraine in November 2022, bringing the total number of TAC members to 50. For ASEAN, the expansion of the Treaty indicates that ASEAN’s concept of multilateral cooperation and peaceful coexistence is spreading, which will provide institutional guarantee for all parties to deepen cooperation with ASEAN as a whole and its member states (Xinhuanet 2022).

ASEAN has used host diplomacy to increase international recognition of ASEAN’s diplomatic role. In 2022, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, respectively, assumed the rotating chairs of ASEAN, G20, and APEC. For ASEAN, hosting three major diplomatic events brought both opportunities and challenges, including not only overcoming long-term unrest on both the regional and global levels, but also coping with the significant pressure exerted by western countries to isolate Russia for its conflict with Ukraine. To this end, the foreign ministers of the three countries issued a joint statement in May 2022, stating that as the hosts of the three summits, they will work with all partners and stakeholders to ensure a spirit of cooperation and to maintain regional and global peace and stability, strengthening ASEAN’s centrality and credibility (MFA of KH 2022). This statement also implied a decision by the three countries to invite all member states, including Russia, to attend the meetings. To follow through, the three ASEAN countries achieved great success at each of the three summits through rounds of shuttle diplomacy and multi-party mediation, which was widely appreciated by the international community.

4.2.3 Building an economic community and striving to lead in regional cooperation

Despite the impact of COVID-19, ASEAN economic integration has achieved fruitful results. In 2021, ASEAN’s combined GDP reached $3.4 trillion. With a trade volume exceeding $3 trillion, it became the fourth-largest trading entity in the world. With foreign direct investment of $175 billion, it trails the U.S. and China to be the third-largest FDI destination. At the same time, based on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025, ASEAN has deepened regional cooperation in areas such as digital transformation, sustainable economic development, competitiveness build-up, globalization, and more. As ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Gock Hoi pointed out, ASEAN has endeavored to maintain the leading role and respond quickly to the changing global economy (Lim 2022; Pan 2022).

The regional cooperation promoted by ASEAN consistently reinforces a spirit of openness and inclusiveness. Therefore, while pushing forward the itself integration, ASEAN strives to connect its dialogue partnerships with the goals set forth in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, promoting bilateral and multilateral cooperation in areas like infrastructure development, digital economy, and energy security, to consolidate the regional economic network, with ASEAN at the core (MFA of PRC 2022a; The White House 2022c, d).

4.3 Maintaining balance among major powers and developing differentiated relations with China and the U.S.

Managing relations with both China and the U.S. is a formidable challenge for ASEAN. Suffering from strategic anxiety, ASEAN has strived to guide its relations with China and the U.S. based on ASEAN norms and interests, while simultaneously serving as “broker” and “peacemaker” between the two powers. Favoring a balance of power, ASEAN has worked to avoid the region being split between China and the U.S. ASEAN consistently emphasizes that China and the U.S. are of equal importance to promoting its interests. As strategic competition between China and the U.S. has intensified, ASEAN has simultaneously and prudently promoted cooperation with both powers. After the first joint maritime military exercise held with China in October 2018, ASEAN countries also held one with the U.S. in September 2019. Following the upgrade of the ASEAN-China relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership in November 2021, ASEAN also announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership with the U.S. in November 2022. In addition, while some ASEAN countries have participated in the BRI and are integrated with China’s Global Development Initiative, seven ASEAN states became founding members of the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

ASEAN’s successful “wire walking” between major powers is largely attributable to its respect for both the bottom and red lines of its partners. Meanwhile, these major powers have been convinced to take postures advocated by ASEAN. For example, in May 2022, ASEAN and the U.S. held a special summit that ended with the release of a joint statement. The statement differed substantially from the “Fact Sheet” issued by the U.S., which covers the issues of “democracy” and “human rights”. With regard to the Myanmar issue and the Russia–Ukraine conflict, the joint statement reflected the ASEAN position. Regarding the South China Sea, it adopted the commonly used ASEAN narrative, not naming China and touching upon the South China Sea arbitration (The White House 2022e, f; Zhang 2022). This suggests that ASEAN is not a passive recipient in its cooperation with major powers, but wields considerable influence and capacity to shape cooperation.

To make the best use of its relationship with either China or the U.S., ASEAN has pushed forward an agenda that takes the major powers’ interests into account. Taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by China and the U.S. competing, with each seeking to increase their presence in the Southeast Asia region, ASEAN attempts to leverage its cooperation with these major powers to meet its own development needs, avoiding being used as a pawn by either major power.

The intensified strategic competition between China and the U.S. has not yet affected China–ASEAN. Becoming each other’s mutual largest trading partner in 2020, China–ASEAN bilateral trade continued to grow in 2021 and 2022. In January 2022, promoted by both China and ASEAN, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was officially launched. At the same time, China–ASEAN cooperation in digital economy, green economy, climate change, and other fields was also enhanced and elevated. ASEAN also provided positive feedback on initiatives proposed by China, including the five proposals on building our home togetherFootnote 3and the Global Development Initiative (MFA of PRC 2022a). In contrast to economic cooperation, security cooperation is still a shortcoming in ASEAN–China relations. In spite of a series of political agreements and cooperative intentions espoused by both sides, there has been no substantial progress in the area of security, due to ineffective implementation. Only a handful of ASEAN countries expressed support for China’s Global Security Initiative (MFA of PRC 2022b) while most countries took a wait-and-see attitude, either expressing concern or offering no direct response (MFA of PRC 2022c, 2023). Nevertheless, both ASEAN and China have adopted a pragmatic, rational posture on the South China Sea issue, advancing the consultation process on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Both parties also issued a joint statement at the end of 2022 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (MFA of PRC 2022d). ASEAN has become more prudent instead, as China–U.S. competition has intensified. It has prioritized keeping a low profile in the handling of the South China Sea issue, which carries the risk of being used by the U.S. to contain China.

Security remains the focal point in U.S.–ASEAN cooperation. As revealed by the results of a poll by a think tank in Singapore, elites in ASEAN consider U.S. regional political and strategic influence as inferior to that of China. But respondents increasingly welcome the U.S. to play a part in regional affairs, rising significantly from 52.1 percent in 2021 to 62.6 percent in 2022 (ISEAS 2021, 2022). Strengthening security cooperation with the U.S. not only enables ASEAN to deal with security governance, but also to imply its intention to count on the U.S. in checking and balancing China, largely reflected in U.S.–ASEAN cooperation on issues like combating illegal fishing and strengthening maritime awareness. However, ASEAN prefers the U.S. to be a deterrent rather than to intervene directly. As suggested by former Singaporean foreign minister George Yong–Boon Yeo, when U.S. warships sail in the South China Sea, they can subtly stay out of sight but within the range of radar, giving ASEAN a bargaining chip when negotiating with China. Otherwise, the South China Sea will become an arena for China-U.S. rivalry, changing China’s attitude toward ASEAN (Yeo 2022).

In the economic field, ASEAN has actively participated in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, guiding the U.S. to cater to the development needs of ASEAN, and simultaneously promoting cooperation with the U.S. in areas such as climate change, clean energy, digital economy, and food security (The White House 2022g). In contrast to the Chip alliance that the U.S. relies on with its allies to contain China, U.S.–ASEAN cooperation is more beneficial to the development of ASEAN. Considering this, the growth in ASEAN’s own strategic value has endowed it with more initiative and bargaining power in its cooperation with major powers.

4.4 Avoiding being an “agent” in major-powers competition

Since the outbreak of the Russia–Ukraine war in early 2022, the U.S. has been cobbling together a confrontational block in the Asia–Pacific region, significantly increasing the risk of the region being dragged into a new cold war. As a response, many politicians of ASEAN countries clearly opposed major countries’ intention to force ASEAN to pick sides. Indonesian President Joko Widodo made it clear that ASEAN should avoid becoming an “agent” of major countries and should not allow the current geopolitical dynamics to evolve into a “new cold war” in the region (Yang 2022). Some polls also shows that ASEAN elites suggest turning to third parties to expand its strategic space and to hedge against uncertainties brought about by China–U.S. competition. The EU and Japan are regarded as the most trusted third-party forces (ISEAS 2021, 2022). At the same time, as envisioned by politicians of ASEAN countries, a new non-aligned movement could be formed with small and medium-sized countries in the region. For example, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan proposed a non-aligned movement in the field of technology. He suggested that, absent a compromise by the U.S. and China, other countries should build a more open and inclusive multilateral network in the fields of science, technology and supply chains. Promoting the “non-aligned movement” in these fields could result in intellectual property being shared and acquired fairly. A system that encourages competition should be built up to advance innovation and reliability, rather than to support confrontation (Ng 2022). In talking about the relationship between Indonesia and India, President Widodo looked back to the historical friendship between the two countries that participated in the Non-Aligned Movement, underlining its significance for dealing with current regional affairs (Prayagraj Express 2022).

It remains to be seen whether ASEAN’s new initiative can be put into practice. It is not just a move of expediency to hedge against China–U.S. competition, but also affects reconstruction of the regional order and strategic design. China–U.S. strategic competition shapes the leadership of the regional order. China’s support for the ASEAN-centered regional structure notwithstanding, due to the widening gap between China and ASEAN, it is difficult to maintain the status quo, which is a small horse pulling big cart. In contrast, the regional order promulgated by the U.S. is to contain China with its alliance system, which fundamentally contradicts the centrality of ASEAN. Therefore, based on historical experience and regional practices, seeking to construct a new regional power or “pole” might be a new strategic option for ASEAN to reshape the regional order.

5 Conclusion

The strategic competition between China and the U.S. is dynamic. In response, ASEAN experienced a cognitive shift, from cautious optimism to strategic anxiety, and has made gradual adjustments. It has taken advantage of the situation to fully demonstrate its strategic resilience, autonomy and initiative. In this process, ASEAN’s capacity building to deal with major power competition centered on its three primary characteristics: diversified unity; centrality; and inclusive development. ASEAN has not only reduced the risk of being sidelined and divided, but has also enhanced its own strategic value, attracting more strategic input from major powers while helping to shape their policy positions.

Even so, the China–U.S. strategic competition continues to define the international affairs in the Asia–Pacific region. Simultaneously, landmark events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia–Ukraine conflict have posed profound challenges to regional and global development. ASEAN’s future and the direction of the Asia–Pacific are still hanging in the balance. At least three possibilities could be envisioned. First, China–U.S. relations continue to intensify, causing destruction to the unity of ASEAN, with its members forced to choose sides and ASEAN centrality existing in name only. Second, China–U.S. competition could enter a standoff stage, with ASEAN maintaining its current centrality. Third, China–U.S. competition might be alleviated, and the new Non-Aligned Movement initiated by ASEAN might expand and become an emerging force, forming a multipolar regional order.

Which possibility will be realized will depend on the interactions among various forces, in which the leading role of ASEAN should not be overlooked. In November 2022, Indonesia succeeded Cambodia as the rotating chair of ASEAN and announced that ASEAN Matter: Epicenter of Growth would be the core agenda for the region in the next stage. In this agenda, regional economic growth and inclusiveness are to be sought, in part by improving the effectiveness of ASEAN decision-making (Darmawan 2022). All parties believe that with the successful hosting of the G20 summit, Indonesia is ready for robust achievements in regional and international affairs, which may lead ASEAN to dealing head-on with China–U.S. competition and profoundly shaping the order in the Asia–Pacific region.