At the end of a recent ASEAN-China summit in Kunming, China, on June 13, Beijing pressured several ASEAN members close to it to withdraw their support for an ASEAN joint press statement expressing “serious concerns” about recent developments in the South China Sea. These events raised fundamental questions about the ability of the grouping to pull together amid challenges posed by the region’s new strategic realities.

What happened in Kunming was not the first time ASEAN unity was put to the test—and broke down—in recent years over the South China Sea dispute. Leaving the contentious nature of the issue aside, there has been a growing leadership void within the grouping for some time.

Larger-than-life political figures such as the late Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad shepherded the grouping in its formative years. Today there are no “towering leadership voices”—to quote former Thai foreign minister and former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan—within ASEAN. The original ASEAN members—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—once acted as the engine pulling newer and lesser-developed members along. But this line has become increasingly blurred, as each country in this fluid region struggles with balancing between its internal challenges and an ever-enlarging range of issues that deserve ASEAN’s attention and focus.

What Beijing found most disconcerting about the ASEAN joint press statement was its stronger-than-usual language: “We cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.” This suggested ASEAN had unanimously come to see an open, peaceful, and stable South China Sea as being in its collective interest.

History shows that when ASEAN has agreed on its collective interest, the grouping can be a formidable force to reckon with. This is why Beijing felt compelled to resort to the heavy-handed tactics it did to stir up divisiveness among ASEAN members.

Some have asked what this all means for ASEAN’s role in the future, as tensions in the South China Sea show no signs of abating. At the core is the existential question on what types of relationships ASEAN as a geopolitical entity wants or should have with China, the world’s rising power, and the United States, its preeminent power, in coming decades.

Most countries in Southeast Asia know, by instinct, that they should not choose one side over the other. But as an organization seeking to give its members a voice in an international arena made up of larger powers, ASEAN does not have the answer to that question. More to the point, it is difficult—if not near impossible—for ASEAN to determine that on its own. It is instead the state of U.S.-China relations, and how each power conducts itself in the region, that will determine how much strategic room ASEAN has to operate.

As long as the strategic rivalry between the United States and China remains a defining feature of the twenty-first-century Asia Pacific, ASEAN will likely continue to struggle with this question. As Singapore foreign minister Vivian Balakhrisnan noted recently during his visit to Washington, there is no historical precedent in which the world’s rising and dominant powers are so interconnected, creating ever more ambiguity for others in terms of how to navigate.

In the midst of this fluid regional environment, even governments in ASEAN that currently possess more bandwidth and focus to deal with pressing strategic issues facing the grouping prefer to play a role behind the scenes, however effective that may be. At the Kunming meeting, for example, some of the countries most concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea were just as nervous as Beijing’s closer allies that China might view their stance as inimical to its security interests—instead of being a matter of principle—or closer to the U.S. position.

While there is little ASEAN can do to change its external environment, it can and should find ways to get its house in order to the extent possible, starting with addressing its current leadership vacuum. Indonesia, long the pack’s spiritual leader, has seemingly turned more inward while also seeking to widen its international profile beyond ASEAN. Thailand, once a deft interlocutor and convener on difficult issues, has been consumed by its domestic political situation, with no clear end in sight. Malaysia, another longtime ASEAN heavyweight, is also distracted by a financial scandal related to a state investment fund.

Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s proposal to Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi when he visited Myanmar earlier this month that she take on the role as ASEAN’s chair in meetings with external partners shows that Singapore understands the real-life challenges that result from the existing leadership void. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves as Myanmar’s de facto head of government and foreign minister, will fill this role could turn out to be a consequential factor for ASEAN in the near term.

The decades during which an eager ASEAN tried to socialize then newly rising China to its norms, in hopes that the latter would turn out a benign power, are officially over. Beijing’s “charm offensive” these days, as some ASEAN countries have learned, comes packaged with both carrots and sticks. Meanwhile, the honeymoon period with Washington, which followed the U.S. focus on Southeast Asia under the rebalance policy, likely can last only so long. As some in the region ponder long-term U.S. resolve and commitment to Southeast Asia, others are increasingly careful about not getting caught between the two powers.

Whether ASEAN can collectively adapt its geopolitical identity to this backdrop will be one of the most important tests facing its members. But trying to do so without leadership and a clear vision will be even more strenuous.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the June 23, 2016, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle .)


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