Asian Multilateralism: A Test of Strength


In 2022, three ASEAN nations assumed the chairmanship of significant regional and global dialogue structures. For the first time in the history, G20 was chaired by Indonesia, while the APEC chairmanship was taken on by Thailand, and ASEAN’s chairmanship went to Cambodia. The year 2022 was expected to pass under the sign of the ASEAN leadership, with paths to an effective post-COVID recovery identified, especially since the positive economic dynamics of Southeast Asian nations provided grounds for cautious optimism.

These considerations guided Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia in setting their chairmanship agendas. As G20’s high-on-the-agenda items, Indonesia suggested discussing global health architecture as well as ways to ensure sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. Thailand urged APEC participants to focus on post-industrial recovery in the Asia-Pacific, while Cambodia articulated a fine slogan for uniting the region’s countries to tackle new challenges: ASEAN A.C.T. (Addressing Challenges Together).

However, the expected trajectories of the three presidencies were disrupted by two synchronously escalated conflicts, which Southeast Asia was until then perceiving more of background issues for the region’s institutions. The February 2022 transition of the Ukrainian conflict into a hot phase led to an almost complete—political as much as economic—disengagement of Russia from the U.S. and the EU, as well as Japan, partly South Korea and Singapore, who decided to join the sanctions pressure. With the general psychological perception of the conflict as geographically distant from Southeast Asia, its impact on the daily economic life of the region’s nations have manifested themselves in the form of rising inflation and fears about food and energy security. Moreover, they have become a determining factor in the activities of the chairing countries in organizing the institutional work of the G20, APEC and ASEAN-centric mechanisms.

The second challenge was a sharp escalation of U.S.-China tensions, exacerbated by the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on August 2-3, 2022 as well as by the trip of U.S. Congressmen that followed two weeks later. The previous visit of such a high-level American politician was a quarter of a century ago, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich made such a trip. Earlier on, contradictions between Washington and Beijing brought an unpleasant, though time-limited and relatively manageable, discord to the activities of regional institutions—today, their impact on the above-mentioned structures and on the G20 risks for the first time reaching a qualitatively new level.

The stability of the regional situation is also undermined by an “internal challenge”, namely the continuing political tension in Myanmar, where a military coup took place in February 2021. Beside the intra-regional dimension, the situation has a global aspect to it, since ASEAN’s most important dialogue partners (aka G20 participants)—the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India, the EU, and the United Kingdom—have taken diametrically opposed positions with regard to the new government in Myanmar.

Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of ASEAN’s institutional balancing—now a hallmark of the association bringing together small and medium states that seek to interact on a par with much larger international actors—has been somewhat compromised. In the coming months before the fall round of the G20, APEC and ASEAN summits, the chairing countries will apparently have to seriously rethink the forms and methods of this balancing act.

Obviously, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia would like to maintain the inclusiveness of these institutions, since it is this inclusiveness that distinguishes them from the many multilateral mechanisms established by Western countries. In the 1990s and 2000s, an inclusive approach helped ASEAN nations to form a network of regional institutions anchored in the Association, thereby significantly increasing its international prestige and facilitating a favorable economic environment for development of the member states.

The May 2022 statement of the three chairing countries that they do not want to turn multilateral structures into an arena of international disputes and that they are open to working with all partners was in that spirit of inclusiveness. Seriously pressured by the U.S. and the EU, they all refused to exclude Russia from the G20, APEC, and ASEAN-centric formats. As a result, despite persistent calls from Western countries not to invite Russian representatives, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov took part in the July 2022 G20 ministerial meeting in Bali, which ended without a final communiqué, while Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attended a meeting with his counterparts from the G20 countries, also held in Bali in July, as well as the August meeting of foreign ministers of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on the margins of the 55th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Summit.

It is therefore becoming increasingly urgent for the chairing states to work in a new, much more conflict environment than before, which makes it virtually impossible to reach consensus on the issues at hand. However, the G20, the ASEAN-centric institutions, and APEC make consensus-based decisions. Previously, there only were a few precedents when ASEAN and APEC were temporarily paralyzed by the influence of the U.S.-China tensions, with consensus lacking on the final communiqués of the summits. For example, Cambodia’s previous ASEAN chairmanship in 2012 and the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea in 2018.

For all the fears that disputes between major powers would cripple multilateral institutions, the three chairing countries still seem to have shown their own ambitions to contribute to at least a limited pacification of conflict situations in Russia-West, China-U.S. relations. In particular, this is evidenced by the diplomatic efforts of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who visited both Ukraine and the Russian Federation in June 2022. Indonesia has so far been consistent in its decision not to join sanctions against Russia, rejecting the idea of establishing threshold prices for Russian oil, which was actively promoted by the United States, because the country does not believe that this could contribute to a tangible reduction in international tensions and ensuring energy security. A cautious approach to the issue of sanctions is taken by Thailand, which celebrates the 125th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Russia in 2022, as well as by Cambodia. At the Davos World Economic Forum in May 2022, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the lifting of all sanctions against Russia, as their effect rebound hit the countries that imposed them and, most importantly, developing states that had nothing to do with the conflict and had barely begun to recover from the pandemic.

In a broader context, this year essentially puts Asian multilateralism to test. In the new international circumstances, the inevitable question becomes whether Asian countries can assert their right to manage regional and, in part, global processes—in deed rather than in word. This takes on a special sound in the context of the discussion unfolding in the Western scientific and expert community about the role of multilateral institutions in ‘‘integrating’’ such ‘‘deviant’’ countries as Russia and China (the list goes on) into the ‘‘rule-based world order.’’ Noteworthy in this discussion is the division of multilateral institutions into those that operate within this ‘‘order’’ and those outside it. [1] The multi-stakeholder formats created by Russia and China (for example, the SCO) are primarily seen as the latter, but other non-Western organizations may soon find themselves among this group as well.

The fact that the U.S. views Asian, primarily ASEAN-centric, institutions as structures of limited functionality became evident with the beginning of the establishment of Quad-like multilateral groups such as Quad+ and AUKUS. This perception stemmed from the fact that ASEAN, which was seen by Western countries throughout the 1990s and 2000s as the organization that was supposed to ensure the regional socialization of China, failed to complete this task. Accordingly, from the U.S. perspective, the activities of ASEAN-centric institutions had to be supplemented by more ‘‘effective’’ formats. This is the point of the numerous assurances by U.S. foreign and defense officials that the minilateral formats complement the ASEAN-centric formats and enhance regional security, rather than are at odds with their activities.

The year 2022 also saw the first attempts to torpedo ASEAN-centric institutions from within. In July 2022, citing the Ukrainian conflict and the situation in Myanmar as a pretext, Australia, the United States, and New Zealand boycotted a meeting of the ASEAN Defence Ministers and Dialogue Partners Meeting (ADMM-Plus) working group on counterterrorism chaired by Myanmar and Russia. So far, there have been no cases of a full-scale boycott of G20, APEC and broader ASEAN events involving Russia, but a few precedents that have already occurred have apparently been aimed at questioning Moscow’s ability to make meaningful contributions to ASEAN-centric institutions and the Association’s ability to adequately respond to new challenges.

At the same time, Russia has a direct interest in making sure that Asian multilateralism will still withstand the test of strength. First, in the face of significant obstacles to working with many multilateral structures, including those within the UN, the Asian platforms are becoming the main multilateral formats for its diplomatic activities, in addition to the SCO and BRICS. Second, despite the bulkiness and sometimes clumsiness of Asian multi-stakeholder institutions, they are an example of real accommodation of the national interests of states with a wide variety of political and economic structures. Western nations have yet to gain this valuable experience.

[1] Goddard S. The Outsiders: How the International System Can Still Check China and Russia // Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2022, Vol. 101, Issue 1. Pp. 28–39.

From our partner RIAC

Ekaterina Koldunova
Ekaterina Koldunova
Ph.D. (Political Science), Associate Professor, Asian and African Studies Department at MGIMO, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry