ASEAN has a China problem, writes Trefor Moss of The Diplomat, and it’s a place where “individualism swiftly trumps collectivism whenever contentious issues arise.” He elucidates:
Ask the ten members about China, and you’ll get a kaleidoscope of opinions about what that country represents. Some ASEAN countries are very much pro-China: their own economic development is tied closely to Beijing’s, and they are comfortable with the political implications of their China connections. Others are cooler on relations with Beijing: they balance a wariness of Chinese influence with the obvious benefits of a healthy trading relationship. And finally, there are those that feel threatened by China and regard themselves as targets (or at least potential targets) of Chinese assertiveness.
Unity on the question of how to handle China has therefore eluded ASEAN. And given the association’s nature, this is unsurprising: neutrality and non-intervention, not unity and collectivism, are ASEAN’s most cherished principles.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the member states which feel most insecure about China – the Philippines and Vietnam – had hoped for at least some ASEAN solidarity in managing their territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. They didn’t get it. Philippine proposals in 2011 for the creation of an ASEAN-China “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation” in the South China Sea were hung out to dry by the other ASEAN countries, with only the Vietnamese expressing real support. Most instead backed a bilateral approach to arguments with China: in other words, they said they’d rather not get involved.