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Shangri-La 2023: ASEAN rallies for regional stability 



Asia’s leading defense conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue, is set to take place in Singapore from June 2 to 4. The event provides a semi-formal discussion space in the context of the recent gap in multilateral dialogue on defense and security.

The gathering is also a great opportunity for the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to reaffirm their role in resolving emerging interwoven crises. ASEAN will also need to consider what else it can do to continue maintaining its central role in the regional security structure.

Resolving interwoven crises

The 42nd ASEAN Summit, held in May, ended impressively with the image of regional leaders clasping hands on a boat on the shores of the Indonesian island of Labuan Bajo, as a reminder that ASEAN countries are standing together on the same boat and facing common challenges. 

At that conference, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasized that after more than half a century of establishment and development, ASEAN has never been in such a good position, even while facing many challenges as it does now. ASEAN is the focus of a series of regional connectivity initiatives and at the same time, it is the focus of intense strategic competition among major powers.

The results of the top-level discussions show the focus on strengthening intra-ASEAN solidarity and enforcement measures. If ASEAN has become more introspective, it is the result of concerns about the unpredictable spiral of geopolitical competition between great powers. The defensiveness in ASEAN’s policy is becoming more and more obvious as regional countries prioritize economic cooperation with one another.

Southeast Asian have responded in various ways to challenges presented by the global energy, food, and semiconductor crises, the risk of deflation, and slow recoveries after the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations are focusing on internal consolidation, promoting the development and sharing of green energy, building the ASEAN electricity network, and connecting the intra-regional payment network.

Singapore appears enthusiastic about this initiative, while Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also lobbying Vietnam to support the construction of an undersea transmission line to supply Singapore.

In addition, Malaysia and Vietnam support the modernization and connection of Southeast Asia’s seaport network, the electric-vehicle ecosystem, and other initiative to create new impetus for intra-regional trade and investment.

These efforts show how ASEAN member states are joining hands to deal with challenges and become an important factor to join the world in solving today’s intertwined crises.

Easing tension in South China Sea

If years-long tension between Ukraine and Russia directly sparked the ongoing war there, many experts believe that the situation in the South China Sea and Taiwan is a powder keg that can explode at any time.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue is an opportunity for the US and China to have high-level contact to reduce tensions, but it may be missed amid the deterioration of relations between Beijing and Washington. Some observers think that China may send a military delegation to the Dialogue.

China is becoming more and more aggressive with such activities as illegally encroaching on the waters of neighboring countries, increasing militarization of rocky islands, and rapidly increasing its naval power.


There are reports that China is deploying nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, or East Sea as it is designated by Vietnam, causing deep concern to countries in the region. China is also the party promoting confrontations that reach extremely dangerous thresholds with the US Air Force and Navy in the South China Sea. Any mistake could spark a conflict between the two superpowers.

Recently, for various reasons, the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, having just met in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, said they hoped to have a “constructive and stable relationship” with Beijing. This leads optimists to believe that the East-West confrontation will cool down so that Europe can focus on Russia.

However, it should be noted that the G7 also warned China about its “militarization activities” in the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, conflicts between the parties in the military field will be difficult to cool down in a short time.

Therefore, in order for this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue to make a substantial contribution to the process of resolving the East Sea issue, ASEAN countries need to affirm the bloc’s stance on handling disputes through negotiation on the basis of compliance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), contributing to building peace, stability and development in the region.

Through multilateral dialogue as well as promoting the completion of a Code of Conduct (COC), ASEAN and its member states must play a central role in resolving the South China Sea issue, rather than as a third party.

Given that the South China Sea issue is subject to major-power involvement and overlapping calculations among the parties, ASEAN needs more than statements about the bloc’s central role in resolving the issue.

Vietnam is said to be a textbook example of successful hedging, balancing relations with China and the US as well as with Russia, without angering any country. Even as the US is eager to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership with Hanoi, Vietnamese leaders still have a delicate way of handling it while not making its giant neighbor China uncomfortable. 


An interesting detail to supplement this point of view is that Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh affirmed that he “did not choose sides and only chose peace and justice” during his brief meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Japan recently.

This also would have been noted by Dmitry Medvedev, vice-chairman of the Russian Security Council during his visit from May 22-23 to Hanoi shortly afterward.

It should be noted that not every country in the region has been able to hedge as successfully as Vietnam. The rapid foreign-policy reversal of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s administration in the Philippines in cooperating with the US has caused some concern both at home and abroad.

By contrast, the G7 Summit agreed to put Vietnam on the list of priority countries for cooperation, though the G7 member countries were its former enemies.

This weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue will still revolve around geopolitical competition between the US and China. At the same time, this event is also where the superpowers attempt to gather forces by listening to and responding to calls from stakeholders.

This means a lot to ASEAN member countries after the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May focused deeply on internal issues, to be able to give voice, perspective, and solutions to global and regional problems.

Source: Asia Times