NIKKEI ASIA – KENTARO IWAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer JUNE 22, 2021 06:11 JST
SINGAPORE — As superpower encounters go these days, it was par for the course.
At the online ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, or ADMM-Plus, on June 16, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pushed Washington’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. His Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, vowed to protect Beijing’s “core interests.” The world has heard both points countless times.
But for Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, the important thing was that Austin, Wei and representatives from 16 other countries came together to discuss contentious subjects. Taiwan, South China Sea territorial disputes, bloodshed in Myanmar — all were on the table.
“The fact that these issues were raised shows that the ADMM-Plus continues to be relevant,” Ng said.
Indeed, the meeting is one example of how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations itself has achieved relevance, or even “centrality,” as the bloc’s leaders like to put it. The grouping of 10 small and medium-size economies has become the glue for a host of regional diplomatic forums and economic initiatives. But as the world’s biggest powers push their own Indo-Pacific strategies, ASEAN’s centrality and togetherness will become all the more difficult to maintain, experts say.
The rise of the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, and other external powers’ moves toward the Indo-Pacific will be a “test for ASEAN,” said Koichi Ishikawa, a research fellow at the Institute of Asian Studies at Japan’s Asia University and a longtime observer of the bloc.
“If the Quad and others decide the region’s order and frameworks, regardless of the will and intentions of ASEAN,” Ishikawa said, “there is a risk of shaking the centrality of ASEAN.”
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