Even though one of the original mandates, the existential threat of communism, has been eliminated, it still has managed to carry on with an updated focus. With the rise of China, ASEAN members have begun to sign defense treaties with one another separately as well as with the US. It is only a matter of time before the organization evolves to become a security alliance.
ASEAN evolved from a previous organization known as the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), which consisted of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Shortly thereafter, on August 8, 1967, ASEAN was inaugurated by the signing of the Bangkok Declaration by five countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
Despite the creation of the union, ASEAN members had internal squabble and bickering with one another and did not illustrate a semblance of a regional organization. The internal dynamics began to change with the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the US withdrawal. The balance of power shifted with the US defeat and the unification of Vietnam under a Communist regime. From that point on until the end of the Cold War, Vietnam along with its benefactor, the Soviet Union, became the main threat to the organization. The Vietnamese aggression into Cambodia and other actions caused the union to not only strengthen in unity but also proclaim a unified response to Vietnam’s actions.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the fear of Communism and Vietnam evaporated amongst the ASEAN members. As a result, ASEAN began to focus on regional trade and security issues. In July of 1995, the regional calculus changed. The former nemesis, Vietnam, not only established diplomatic relations with the US but became a member of ASEAN. Shortly after, Laos and Burma joined the organization. With the inclusion of the entire region, the focus of the organization shifted to economic growth, but also resolving outstanding territorial issues. Even though China had not been a formal ally, ASEAN and China were united in their stance towards the Soviet Union and Vietnam during the Cold War. However, with the Cold War over and China’s rise, ASEAN had its eyes on a new antagonist.
China has consistently held the position that it prefers bilateral negotiations over multilateral negation when it comes to discussions of the South China Sea. China is a large nation both physically, demographically, economically and militarily, certainly relative to the other nations of the region. The imposing stature of China can be more influential when dealing with the different Southeast Asian members singularly rather than in a plurality. Another major premise behind this tactic of negotiation is that China does not want to lend any credence or recognition to ASEAN.
China’s claim and desire to recover the lost territories in the South China Sea due to the Century of Humiliation is seen as aggression and expansionist by ASEAN. They see China's slow expansion as an approach to seizing the resource-rich area without provoking too much international outcry. Rather than a full out military operation, China uses time as a weapon and incrementally expands in the region without drawing much global attention, according to ASEAN.
China’s reticence to engage ASEAN as an entity is seen by many as a divide and conquer tactic towards the Southeast Asian nations. The prevailing sentiment in the region appears to be that China is a threat to the stability and peace of the region.
As a bloc of nations, ASEAN’s goal was to help the US contain Vietnam and the Soviet Union in the region. With the Cold War gone, the organization has set its sight on China as a threat to the region. Washington has fully supported the efforts of ASEAN and its members going to the extent of establishing military relations with almost all of them and supplying most with arms.
China’s only escape from its geographical prison is through the sea, which is now littered with the US military. China views ASEAN similar to how the Soviet Union perceived NATO. Even though ASEAN does not possess the military regime that characterizes NATO it is slowly getting there. China views ASEAN as a nascent military coalition and collective security arrangement that is backed by the US military.
ASEAN members in the last decade have witnessed an exponential increase in bilateral defense and security arrangements with one another and foreign powers that China views as hostile in some respects. The head of the Indonesian army referred to the myriad of bilateral alliances amongst ASEAN members as a “defense spider web in ASEAN.” The discussion of a multilateral ASEAN security regime is no longer an afterthought or whisper, but actual discussions are taking place by ASEAN members as well as supported by the US and Japan. Members will no longer feel obligated to peace first, but rather use its military power, backed in some cases by the US, to challenge China. Diplomacy will no longer be the preferred approach. Such a coalition will only further isolate and contain China. In addition, these nations are in control of the important commercial straits that not only supply China's economy, but also fuel its growth as an aspiring global power.
Since 1993, China has been a net importer of fuel and almost all of it comes through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Such an alliance could cripple China and threatens the existence of the regime because of its ability to control the vital straits to China. Thus, China has been reticent since the beginning to give credence to ASEAN in the hopes of working bilaterally with the nations of the region rather than collectively. However with the continual support of the US and Japan, ASEAN has managed to get China to become a signatory to the Code of Conduct, which entails a behavior of peaceful resolution of issues regarding the South China Sea. However, the growing militarism of ASEAN and the potential for this nascent military alliance to actually become a multilateral security regime could not only threaten the code of conduct but isolate and contain China further. The balance of power is tipping in favor of ASEAN, but China – which sees itself as a victim of occupation once before – will not allow itself to be subjugated at the hands of foreign nations again.