“The November 2022 Summits”
A View from Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia, November is typically a season of summits, as the rotating chair of ASEAN hosts the ASEAN and related summits that involve leaders of all ASEAN member states and their dialogue partners from Asia and beyond.1 The season of summits this year is particularly significant. First, there were the summits of not only the ASEAN-led, ASEAN-centered institutions (held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from November 10-13, 2022), but also that of the Group of 20 (held in Bali, Indonesia, November 15-16) and APEC (held in Bangkok, Thailand, November 18-19). Second, the series of summits were the first in-person leader-level meetings in Asia since the outbreak of COVID-19. Leaders from across the globe—not only Southeast, Northeast, and South Asia but also Australasia, North America, and Europe—participated. Third, the summits took place when a hot war, that is, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is going on in Europe, and growing concerns of a new cold war between the United States and China are casting a long shadow across the Indo-Pacific region, against a backdrop of such worldwide challenges as post-pandemic economic slowdown, energy, food, and supply chain crises, as well as domestic sociopolitical uncertainties.
The successive summits in Phnom Penh, Bali, and Bangkok, were by and large successes with mixed outcomes. That is, the summits displayed the ASEAN states’ abilities to preserve their strategic autonomy, withstand external pressures, while providing the much-needed platforms for restoring dialogue among competing powers and helping to calm tensions between the United States and China. The summits, however, also demonstrated ASEAN’s limitations in mending big-power rivalries and managing such issues as the South China Sea disputes and the Myanmar problem, especially stopping the extensive and systematic abuses of civilians by the military junta.
I argue that this mixed performance is attributable to the role and limits of leadership, weak-state diplomacy, and ASEAN-based multilateralism. From a lesser-power’s point of view, these virtues and attributes combine to allow the small- and medium-sized countries in Southeast Asia to use symbolic means and approaches to pursue substantive ends: maximizing space for continuous cooperation and partnerships, while minimizing tensions and mitigating the risks of entrapment, polarization, and marginalization. In the face of deepening and widening global uncertainties, symbolism is substance.
Symbolic Postures, Substantive Processes
The flurry of high-profile summits was highlighted by several key outcomes, including the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali; Ukraine’s presence at the East Asia Summit (EAS) and G20 meeting; as well as the upgrade of ASEAN-US and ASEAN-India relations to “comprehensive strategic partnerships.” These seemingly symbolic events constituted substantive processes that serve important ends, not only for ASEAN members but for all their dialogue partners.
The Biden-Xi G20 meeting halted the free fall of US-China relations the past few years due to disagreements and friction over numerous strategic, economic, and political issues. Of course, one meeting could not resolve the structural competition between the established hegemon and the emerging power. Cyclical tensions over such issues as Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, technology, and human rights are likely to continue, as Washington accuses China of becoming more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad, while Beijing views the United States as intending to constrain China’s rightful rise.
Nonetheless, the Biden-Xi meeting in Bali had substantive effects. Both leaders came to the G20 submit after political victories at home. Biden and the Democratic Party had defied history in the US midterm elections by keeping control of the Senate, while shattering the Republican Party’s hopes of a “red wave” in the House. During the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, Xi secured a historic third term as China’s leader, cementing his place as the nation’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Carla Freeman and Andrew Scobell observed that, against this backdrop, the political cost of the two leaders displaying mutual good will at the summit “was marginally low.”2
Given the two leaders’ consolidated domestic authority, the Bali meeting enabled them to signal the US and China’s will to restore dialogue, recalibrate relations, and reduce fears that armed conflict was imminent, which in turn, mitigated uncertainties. By striking a positive tone for relations, the meeting has set the stage for reopening bilateral talks at the senior official level, paving the way for continuous, constructive strategic communications between the two competing powers, crucial, as both set “redlines,” while strengthening “guardrails” in their bilateral ties to ensure that competition does not escalate into direct military confrontation. These processes, however indirect and fragile, are of vital significance for maintaining regional stability and global peace.
Substantive processes are also discernible from the ASEAN hosts’ symbolic acts over the Russia-Ukraine war, including: (1) agreeing to Ukraine’s accession to ASEAN’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Phnom Penh; (2) promoting dialogue between global rivals in one place without walkouts or disruptions; and (3) agreeing to a communique with non-confrontational and nuanced language acceptable to all participating countries at both the G20 and APEC summits, which, among other things, deplored the aggression against Ukraine without mentioning Russia by name.3 Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky addressed G20 leaders via video link, while Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who attended the G20 summit in place of President Vladimir Putin, stayed in his seat and later gave a speech to the same audience.
These acts neither ended inter-state animosity nor stopped the war. (Under the current circumstances, no mechanism could have done so.) The United States and its allies in Europe and Asia continue to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, while wanting other countries to join them in punishing Moscow by words and actions. Russia continues to criticize Western “politicization” and “containing Russian interests.” The ASEAN states, on their part, have variously responded to the invasion. Singapore condemned and imposed sanctions on Russia. Cambodia deplored the Russian invasion and echoed ASEAN-backed calls for an immediate ceasefire. Indonesia condemned the violation of sovereignty but did not mention Russia by name and without imposing sanctions. Myanmar’s military junta, on the other hand, supported the Kremlin. The other member states kept a low profile, which was mixed and at times contradictory. In October, while most ASEAN states voted at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Russia’s attempts to annex four regions of Ukraine, three ASEAN members (Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) abstained.
Precisely because of these continuing divisions, executing the abovementioned acts is a process with substantive impact for the ASEAN states. In Phnom Penh, where the ASEAN host invited Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba to sign the TAC, Daniel Kritenbrink, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said, “Ukraine’s presence at the East Asia Summit would demonstrate ASEAN’s conflict resolution and peacekeeping leadership in the international community, as well as ASEAN’s long-standing support for respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity.”4 Singapore-based researchers Sharon Seah, Joanne Lin, and Melinda Martinus suggest that “Ukraine’s TAC accession, while symbolic, signifies ASEAN’s in-principle support of Kyiv and its respect for territorial integrity.”5
By refusing to pick sides, while charting a middle path and centering the summits’ agendas on global economic recovery and regional stability, the ASEAN hosts withstood external pressure, preserved their own strategic autonomy, and most importantly, prevented international polarization. Facing Western pressure to withdraw the G20’s invitation to Russia, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stood firm, insisting that the G20 is “not meant to be a political forum.”6 Michael Vatikiotis opined that: “Asian leaders responsible for orchestrating the series of summits did a very good job of patching together the international system, which had been torn by recent events. They resurrected nonalignment as a respectable position, one that could help resolve some of the world’s most pressing issues.”7
As big power rivalry intensifies, Southeast Asian neutrality and impartial facilitation of inter-state interactions have become even more important. Indeed, impartiality is a central element in enabling ASEAN as a group to pursue “institutional hedging,” i.e., collective efforts by the member states of a multilateral body to use institutional means as a platform to hedge against the risks surrounding asymmetries, rivalries, and uncertainties.8 ASEAN’s institutional hedging—especially since the advent of ASEAN-led mechanisms in the 1990s—has been practiced by the three mutually-reinforcing functions of binding, buffering, and building.9 Each of these functions were in play at the season of summits this year.
The ASEAN hosts’ insistence on inviting rather than excluding Russia, despite pressure from the West is a display of the “binding” function: the institutionalizing of engagement by forging sustained dialogues aimed at keeping open channels of communication and collaboration with key partners. The ASEAN states have pursued binding inclusively, i.e., with all competing powers, rather than engaging exclusively with one side against the other.
ASEAN’s binding function is possible only because its member states insist on the non-alignment and inclusive engagement of all key actors, including rivals. Hypothetically, the moment ASEAN starts to side with one power against another, binding would be difficult because the targeted power will withdraw from the ASEAN-led multilateral processes or worse, start treating the smaller states with hostility.
Without binding all sides of a power equation, institutional buffering, in turn, would be impossible, as there will be no countervailing forces to check and constrain. Stronger powers—without institutional checks and balances—will dominate the multilateral processes, thus threatening ASEAN centrality and marginalizing Southeast Asian states’ regional role. And without binding and buffering, it would be difficult, and even improbable, for ASEAN states to build region-wide cooperation involving dialogue partners in and out of Asia.
“Buffering” is the creating and cultivating of mutually constraining andcountervailing forces to deny the emergence of any dominant power, diversifying partnerships, maximizing bargaining leverage, as well as ensuring room for competitive cooperation. Unlike binding-engagement, which aims to forge closer ties with stronger partners, buffering does the opposite by keeping distance from the big powers, limiting their influence, as well as checking and limiting their actions. For ASEAN states, buffering involves leveraging the presence and participation of multiple powers to compete to cooperate. For secondary states, the buffering processes serve as an institutional shield and shock absorber to mitigate and offset multiple risks: losing autonomy, becoming dependent, and being subservient to a dominant hegemon.
Buffering is evidenced by the simultaneous upgrades of ASEAN-US and ASEAN-India relations to “comprehensive strategic partnerships” in Phnom Penh, one year after such partnerships of ASEAN-China and ASEAN-Australia were established in 2021. The concurrent upgrades aimed to avoid privileging one power over another.
Binding and buffering, in turn, allow ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms to “build” layers of cooperation among the ASEAN states and their dialogue partners. “Building” occurs when ASEAN member states cooperate and extend collaboration with key partners near and far. Unlike buffering, which reduces loss and avoids possible harms, building creates values, injects momentum, and continuously increases layers of cooperation to maximize potential gains. While binding establishes connectivity, building adds mechanisms and utilities to already established connectivity. Institutional binding, buffering, and building processes, when combined, hedge and mitigate the ever-evolving and ever-expanding risks at multiple levels.
ASEAN’s abilities and contributions in building region-wide cooperation are often overlooked. The fifteen-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement concluded in 2020 and entered into force in January 2022, which also includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, would not be possible without the institutional support of ASEAN and such ASEAN-led mechanisms as ASEAN Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three and the EAS. On September 17, 2022, the inaugural RCEP ministers’ meeting was held in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The RCEP journey shows that ASEAN’s building function is responsive, accumulative, and adaptive. Layers of cooperative mechanisms are gradually built and added to ASEAN-plus institutions.
At the ASEAN and related summits this year, ASEAN continues to build concrete cooperation with its dialogue partners. At the summits, ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand announced the conclusion of negotiations to upgrade their free trade agreement, the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA). (The upgrade will be officially signed in 2023.) At the same meeting, China proposed a “3.0” upgraded version of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) beyond the first iteration more than a decade ago and the more recent RCEP. Thai scholar Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes the proposal as a “geoeconomic manoeuver” aimed at outflanking the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).10
The 2022 ASEAN summit agreed in principle to admit Timor Leste as the 11th member of the group. Before full membership is granted, Timor Leste has been granted observer status.
The ASEAN Summit also issued a declaration on “mainstreaming” the four priority areas of the June 2019 ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) within the ASEAN-led mechanisms. The declaration emphasized the need for ASEAN “to forge and shape the vision for an open, transparent, and inclusive regional architecture and closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and to continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions.”11
The 2022 summits also displayed ASEAN’s limitations in handling the South China Sea disputes and the ongoing Myanmar crisis. The Joint Statement on the 20th Anniversary of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), adopted on November 11, 2022, reiterated the importance of a thorough and full implementation of the DOC but without indicating any concrete progress. After a decade of deliberations, the efforts to produce a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) are still underway. ASEAN has been unable to curtail the escalating violence in Myanmar. There has been little if no progress in implementing ASEAN’s five-point peace plan. The ASEAN member states remain divided on how best to manage the Myanmar problem. While Cambodia and Thailand maintain that Myanmar cannot be expelled from ASEAN, others appeared to contemplate a de facto suspension of Myanmar from the bloc.
On November 13, 2022, speaking at the handover ceremony, as Indonesia formally took over the ASEAN chairmanship from Cambodia, Jokowi said ASEAN “must become a peaceful region and anchor for global stability, consistently uphold international law and not be a proxy (for) any powers,” adding that as a “dignified region,” the group “should also not let the current geopolitical dynamic turn into a new Cold War in South-east Asia.” As the ASEAN chair with the 2023 theme “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth,” Indonesia will take the lead to promote ASEAN as “a region with robust, inclusive and sustainable growth.”12
1. The chairmanship of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) rotates annually based on the alphabetical order of the English names of the member states.
2. Carla Freeman and Andrew Scobell, “After G-20, Amid Unprecedented Protests: Where Do U.S.-China Relations Stand?” United States Instituteof Peace, December 1, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/12/after-g-20-amid-unprecedented-protests-where-do-us-china-relations-stand.
3. James Guild, “Southeast Asia’s Month of Summits,” The Diplomat, November 22, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/11/southeast-asias-month-of-summits/; Michael Vatikiotis, “Southeast Asian Leaders Prove to Be Perfect Summit Hosts,” Nikkei Asia, November 22, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Southeast-Asian-leaders-prove-to-be-perfect-summit-hosts. In Thailand, over 100 hours were spent on negotiating how to obtain a consensus from all APEC members over the statements on Ukraine contained in the G20 declaration. See Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Three Summits Jointly Boost Centrality,” Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, November 22, 2022, https://www.eria.org/news-and-views/three-summits-jointly-boost-centrality/.
4. Nike Ching, “Ukraine to Sign Key ASEAN Peace Pact,” VOA News, November 7, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/ukraine-to-sign-key-asean-peace-pact-/6824158.html.
5. Sharon Seah, Joanne Lin, and Melinda Martinus, “ASEAN’s Season of Summitry: More Hits or Misses?,” Fulcrum, November 16, 2022, https://fulcrum.sg/aseans-season-of-summitry-more-hits-or-misses/.
6. Sebastian Strangio, “Southeast Asian Summits Open Under the Shadow of Ukraine, Myanmar,” The Diplomat, November 10, 2022, https://thediplomat.com/2022/11/southeast-asian-summits-open-under-the-shadow-of-ukraine-myanmar/.
7. Vatikiotis, “Southeast Asian Leaders Prove to Be Perfect Summit Hosts.”
8. Parts of this section are expanded from Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “Hedging via Institutions: ASEAN-Led Multilateralism in the Age of the Indo-Pacific,” Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 10, no. 2 (2022): 355–86.
9. Cheng-Chwee Kuik and Fikry A. Rahman, “ASEAN’s Dialogue Mechanisms: Institutionalizing the Quest for ASEAN Centrality,” in Jörn Dosch and Frederick Kliem, eds., The Elgar Companion to ASEAN, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, forthcoming).
10. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “Examining the Geopolitical Takeaways From the Southeast Asia Summits,” The Irrawaddy, November 26, 2022, https://www.irrawaddy.com/opinion/guest-column/examining-the-geopolitical-takeaways-from-the-southeast-asia-summits.html.
11. ASEAN, “ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on Mainstreaming Four Priority Areas of The ASEAN Outlook on The Indo-Pacific within ASEAN-Led Mechanisms,” November 11, 2022, https://asean.org/asean-leaders-declaration-on-mainstreaming-four-priority-areas-of-the-asean-outlook-on-the-indo-pacific-within-asean-led-mechanisms/.
12. Hariz Baharudin, “Asean Must Become Peaceful Region and Not Be Proxy for Any Powers: Jokowi,” The Straits Times, November 13, 2022, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/asean-must-become-peaceful-region-and-not-be-proxy-for-any-power-indonesia-president-joko-widodo.