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A House Divided? Prospects and Challenges for ASEAN Unity in an Era of Regional and Global Crises
11 Aug 2023

The S. T. Lee Distinguished Annual Lecture by Professor David Cohen, Visiting Senior Fellow, RSIS, was held on 11 August 2023. The lecture was titled “A House Divided? Prospects and Challenges for ASEAN Unity in an Era of Regional and Global Crises,” and was moderated by Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman of RSIS.

In recent years, ASEAN’s strategic position has increasingly become a focal point for great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region. Contestation over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea has been further complicated by China and US views on Taiwan and exacerbated by AUKUS and the resurging military alliance of the US and the Philippines under President Marcos. At the same time, ASEAN member states are primarily focused on domestic priorities – elections, economic challenges like the rising cost of living are some examples. Notwithstanding the domestic preoccupations, ASEAN and its member states cannot ignore the growing tensions between the US and China. With the US preparing for the 2024 Presidential Elections, and China dealing with economic uncertainty, the potential for misunderstanding between the two powers is real. It is thus timely to assess the impact of external economic and security pressures on ASEAN and ASEAN Member States to “choose sides”. At the same time, ASEAN divisions have widened over the current civil war in Myanmar and other issues. A perceived lack of progress in Myanmar in particular is damaging its international credibility and has led to criticism and pressure from various quarters. How can and should ASEAN engage in response to such pressures and manage its relations with China and the US as they vie for Indo-Pacific ascendency? The concept of “ASEAN centrality” has long served as a key component for ASEAN’s mode of engagement with external “dialogue partners” but is in need of strategic reconfiguration to manage the shifting tides of Indo-Pacific political dynamics. What can and should ASEAN do to strengthen its position and endure in an era of unprecedented threats to its unity and viability? Is time running out for it?

Watch the Distinguished Public Lecture here:

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