Duvien Tran and Khanh Vu Duc - Territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to expose divisions inside the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Without a cohesive identity and clear future vision, ASEAN will risk strategic irrelevance and remain at the mercy of great power rivalry between China and the United States for regional influence.

While nominally a unified bloc, ASEAN suffers from diverse and sometimes conflicting interests between its member states. With respect to the heated and escalating South China Sea disputes, members diverge on the legitimacy of China’s wide-reaching maritime claims and its rising assertiveness in the area.

 While countries like Cambodia and Laos are seen as sympathetic to China, the Philippines and Vietnam remain strongly opposed. Other states have taken a more neutral position.

ASEAN as a whole is no more likely to side with China than it is with the United States or US regional strategic ally Japan.

As China and the US jockey for regional dominance, the challenge for ASEAN is positioning itself between the push and pull of the two powers as a unified rather than fragmented bloc. That, however, will be increasingly difficult as China raises concerns the US and Japan are implementing a policy of encirclement to contain its rise.

Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visits to all ASEAN coutries, China’s state-affiliated publication the China Daily accused Abe of attempting to “isolate” China. It remains to be seen whether Abe’s ASEAN engagement gambit will expand Japan’s already close economic ties with member states, including those where China has strong influence.

That was seen in Abe’s pledge of soft loans this month during an official visit to finance an expansion of Laos’ international airport.

ASEAN was first established in 1967 as a six-member bloc to foster development and regional stability and serve as a bulwark against communist expansionism.

By 2015, the now 10-member grouping hopes to establish an economic community similar to the European Union, to be known as the ASEAN Economic Comm0unity (AEC).

Among the member states, there is not a common tongue, a common culture, or a common religion.

 Forms of government and their respective laws from state to state, from Brunei to Vietnam, are as varied as their citizens. ASEAN is thus formed around a set of goals and principles reflected in its motto, “One vision, one identity, one community.”

Among these principles are “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations” and “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.” Given this, it should come to no surprise that ASEAN has failed to act in a unified fashion when faced with deeply divisive issues such as the South China Sea disputes, when multilateral ideals square off against individual members’ national interests.

Fast growth, capital needs

Southeast Asia is currently one of the fastest-growing regions in the world and should sustain momentum with the implementation of the AEC. China has not been blind to the integration opportunities sitting at its doorstep, including rising ASEAN member needs for energy and transportation infrastructure.

In 2011, Chinese investment in ASEAN member states totaled about US$12 billion.

In Cambodia and Laos, two of ASEAN’s most underdeveloped nations, China has invested over the past two decades $10 billion and $3 billion respectively. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the establishment of a $50 billion Asian infrastructure bank to promote regional economic integration. The move was seen as a counter to the Japan-dominated and US-influenced Asian Development Bank.

While some believe China is buying diplomatic support, the influx of Chinese capital into these countries has given their leaderships pause when making hard strategic choices. To stand against China these days is to risk biting the metaphorical hand that feeds.

For countries such as Cambodia and Laos that do not have claims in the South China Sea and that have received billions in Chinese financial assistance to lend some support to China in the disputes is a small price to pay.

While individual ASEAN states may independently challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea, ASEAN as a grouping has agreed only to push for a binding Code of Conduct over the maritime area - an agreement that has stalled as China and ASEAN member states battle over details.

 The US has waded into the conflict, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that “freedom of navigation and respect of international law” in the area is a matter of US national interest.

While the US lacks the immediate regional presence of China, its so-called “pivot” policy aims to station 60% of US naval assets in the region by 2020. However, the policy seems to have fallen in priority with Secretary of State John Kerry’s continued focus in the Middle East and US President Barack Obama’s battle to fix and preserve Obamacare at home.

The US can still call upon traditional allies such as the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia to push the policy forward.

In addition to these great power dynamics, ASEAN must also contend with developing stable US-China relations in the region.

While the White House has juggled a near war in Syria and a hopeful breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program, it has simultaneously traded shots with China over military assets in the region.

If ASEAN cannot present a united front, it runs the risk of getting caught in the middle of any future conflict between the two superpowers.

That risk is rising in particular for the Philippines, which in recent years has overtly leaned towards the US to fortify its military position against China in the South China Sea.

ASEAN’s long-term viability cannot rest on the hope that the US will peacefully counterbalance China, a passive strategy that will only facilitate the process of choosing sides. The breakdown in consensus at the 2012 ASEAN Summit held in Phnom Penh underlined this point.

ASEAN would be best served by confronting regional issues directly rather than indirectly and together as a single unit. Otherwise the grouping risks serving as a pawn in a potentially destabilizing great power game.–Asia times