Since taking office, Joseph Biden’s administration has overseen a renaissance in American commitment to multilateral diplomacy. In its first month in office, the new American leadership has embarked on a global charm offensive to restore frayed international ties following four years of Trumpian unilateralism and protectionism.

Within a single week, President Biden held crucial talks with counterparts from the G7 summit of world leaders, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken held virtual meetings with counterparts from the so-called “E3” European powers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as well as the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) powers of Australia, India, and Japan. Not to mention, President Biden attending the first-ever Quad summit barely two months in office, quickly followed by “two plus two” meetings between US secretaries of state and defense and their counterparts in Japan and South Korea.

In one way or another, China lay at the heart of the Biden administration’s discussions with fellow democratic powers from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. What’s unclear, however, is the place of smaller powers such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Biden administration’s overall Asia strategy.

Instead of wholeheartedly embracing the Southeast Asian organization as it is (à la Obama), or berating and lecturing it (à la Trump), the Biden administration should rather pursue “minilateral” cooperation with pivotal, likeminded ASEAN members on defining geopolitical challenges, especially the South China Sea disputes. Through robust and issue-specific cooperation with key Southeast Asian powers, the United States can more effectively uphold a liberal international order in Asia while simultaneously empowering and encouraging the regional body to up its game.

The Myth of Centrality

In their joint statement during both the Quad summit and ministerial meeting, the US, India, Australia and Japan were careful to downplay fears of a “New Cold War” with China, whom they didn’t even formally mention, and adroitly reemphasized their shared commitment to working within existing multilateral mechanisms in Asia.

In particular, during the Quad foreign ministers meeting, Blinken and his counterparts from Australia, India, and Japan expressed their “mutual support for ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] centrality” in shaping an inclusive and peaceful security architecture in Asia.

It was a clear testament to the strategic sophistication of the new U.S. administration in light of the ASEAN’s growing insecurity in the era of “great power competition”. Afterall, it was precisely the rise of the Quad and intensified Sino-American competition that spurred the publication of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) in 2019, which belied Southeast Asian countries’ collective anxiety over their potential strategic marginalization.

The AOIP, for instance, claims that ASEAN will “continue to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions” and will “lead the shaping of their economic and security architecture and ensure that such dynamics will continue to bring about peace, security, stability, and prosperity for the peoples in the Southeast Asia as well as in the wider Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions or the Indo-Pacific.”

The problem, however, is that the document is more aspirational than reflective of the geopolitical realities on the ground. Over half-a-century, ASEAN has come a long way in establishing a “security community” among its member states, where the threat or the use of force as an instrument of dispute settlement has become almost unthinkable. Yet the organization suffers from institutional paralysis when it comes to dealing with pivotal challenges such as the South China Sea disputes, and is woefully underfunded and undermanned. Moreover, the Southeast Asian body has repeatedly failed to forge a strong stance on key issues, including human rights, because of its almost obsessive commitment to a de facto unanimity-based decision-making process. As a result, a single ASEAN member, regardless of its size or interest, has a virtual veto over any major decision by the organization.

No wonder it has yet to collectively stand up to China over the festering South China Sea disputes. As veteran Singaporean diplomat Barry Desker points out, the ASEAN’s suboptimal decision-making process allows “China [to] exert its influence on ASEAN members to prevent any decisions” which undermine its interests, especially in the South China Sea.

In some sense, ASEAN is broken. The organization has become peripheral in shaping the Indo-Pacific order, hobbled by a dysfunctional form of multilateralism.

The Merits of Minilateralism

ASEAN should seriously consider relying more on the so-called “ASEAN Minus X” formula, which has allowed for majority-based decision-making on sensitive issues, including the successful negotiation of a regional free trade agreement.

Alternatively, ASEAN can more accurately reflect the meaning of the word “consensus” (Muafakat), rather than unanimity, in its organization structure. For instance, the European Union’s “qualified majority voting” modality, which takes into consideration respective size and contributions of member states, is a better way to achieve a truly consensus-based decision-making process.

But the Biden administration shouldn’t be held hostage to ASEAN’s institutional soul-searching. The reality is that only a few yet pivotal ASEAN countries are interested in the South China Sea disputes and willing to pushback against China. The voices and actions of those few but influential members are far more important than tortured and hopelessly watered down statements emanating from ASEAN meetings.

Thus, the most realistic and optimal path forward is augmenting “minilateral” cooperation with key ASEAN members such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines on primary regional challenges, especially the South China Sea disputes.

To begin with, there is much good will in the air. The new U.S. president has made it clear that despite  “extreme competition” with China, he is open to cooperation and dialogue rather than a “new Cold War” with the Asian superpower. This has gone well with key members of ASEAN, with authoritative surveys reflecting broad optimism over Biden’s engagement with the region.

Moreover, all these ASEAN countries are actual or potential “middle powers” in their own right, with Indonesia featuring among G20 powers and Vietnam rapidly emerging as a formidable industrial and military power in Asia. The Philippines, in turn, is a century-old U.S. ally with profound anxieties over China’s aggressive behavior in adjacent waters, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-Beijing posturing.

Though non-claimant in the South China Sea, both Indonesia and Singapore have actively advocated for  rules-based settlement of the maritime disputes, with Jakarta recently even invoking the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral tribunal award against China in international fora. Indonesia has also been known for its uncompromising stance over China’s creeping presence in its northern waters, which overlap with Beijing’s expansive yet vaguely defined ‘nine-dashed-line’ claims..

As for Malaysia, the country has dramatically recalibrated its historically quiescent relations with China by adopting a tougher stance in the South China Sea, including unilateral energy exploration activities and expanded naval patrols in disputed areas with Beijing.

What’s desperately-needed is the expansion of what scholars such as Rory Medcalf have described as the “SQUAD”, namely institutionalized strategic cooperation between Quad members and key ASEAN countries such as Singapore (hence “SQUAD”) but also Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, which can collectively contribute to upholding regional maritime security.

Rather than mere rhetorical reassurance of ASEAN centrality, it’s far better if the Biden administration, in conjunction with fellow Quad powers and the E3, actively coordinates its diplomatic and overall strategic positions with likeminded Southeast Asian states. The best way forward for the Biden administration and likeminded powers is to see ASEAN as it is, encourage it to step up to the plate, and seek alternatives within or parallel to the regional body. In many ways, minilateralism is now the only game in town.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.