Abstract

This article argues that in the post-Cold War strategic transition in East Asia, ASEAN has helped to create a minimalist normative bargain among the great powers in the region. The regional norms propagated through the ‘ASEAN way’, emphasizing sovereignty, non-intervention, consensus, inclusion, and informality were extremely important in the initial stages of bringing the great powers – especially China and the United States – to the table in the immediate post-Cold War period. During this time, ASEAN helped to institutionalize power relations legitimizing the role of the great powers as well as the ‘voice’ of smaller states in regional security management. But the process of institutionalizing great power relations contains further steps, and what ASEAN has achieved is well short of the kind of sustained cooperation on the part of the great powers that is so necessary to the creation of a new stable regional society of states. Moreover, ASEAN has provided the great powers with a minimalist normative position from which to resist the more difficult processes of negotiating common understanding on key strategic norms. At the same time, ASEAN's model of ‘comfortable’ regionalism allows the great powers to treat regional institutions as instruments of so-called ‘soft’ balancing, more than as sites for negotiating and institutionalizing regional ‘rules of the game’ that would contribute to a sustainable modus vivendi among the great powers. As such, ASEAN's role is limited in, and limiting of, the great power bargain that must underpin the negotiation of the new regional order. This is a task that the regional great powers (the United States, China, and Japan) must themselves undertake.

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