A More Coordinated Foreign Policy to Boost Regional Competitiveness for ASEAN

  • Peng Bo, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
  • ASEAN Ideas in Progress Series 6/2021

    Centre for International Law

  • 2021


It has been one year since the outbreak began, and ASEAN countries, which are highly dependent on international tourism, are caught up in a serious economic crisis. In the first half of 2020, ASEAN became China’s largest trading partner. The RCEP signed in the second half of the year will more closely bind the economic cooperation between China and ASEAN.ASEAN is becoming a hot spot of concern. The economic recession induced by the pandemic and the change of political environment caused by the change of government all have a direct impact on the foreign policy implementation of ASEAN countries. As the largest international organization in the region, ASEAN’s performance in pandemic management and international relations is not impressive. The lack of coordination within ASEAN reduces the overall competitiveness of the region.

Although ASEAN has foreign ministers’ meeting and other mechanisms, ASEAN, as an international organization of regional integration, rarely has a unified foreign policy. The main reason lies in the significant differences in geography, nationality, language, culture and polity among ASEAN countries. Each country has its own political line and foreign policy considerations. As an international organization, ASEAN can hardly achieve unity in foreign policy. ASEAN countries hope that this cooperation platform can improve their own level of development, but they are not willing to make proper compromises on key issues such as security and foreign policy.

Within ASEAN, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam have long jostled for the top spot. Each of these three countries has its own unique strengths. In the long run, Vietnam will be ASEAN’s fastest growing country, Indonesia is ASEAN’s largest country and an important maritime crossroads, and Singapore is ASEAN’s service center, such as finance and technology. All three want to play a leading role in foreign policy in the region, but none has an overwhelming advantage over its competitors. This is different from Germany’s dominant leadership role in the European Union. The lack of leadership has exacerbated the differences in ASEAN countries’ foreign policies. The relationship between China and the United States and ASEAN countries is also dominated by bilateral diplomacy between countries.

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