For a long time, the ASEAN was perceived as an inward-looking entity, sometimes labeled a mere "debating club" with little impact on larger-scale regional politics. Today, ASEAN not only demonstrates the willingness and ability to reform its organizational structure, but at the same time it follows a skillful hedging strategy by engaging major powers in East Asia and beyond through various cooperative frameworks.
Former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, who will serve as ASEAN's next secretary- general, characterized the association in a recent interview as "a fulcrum of power plays in the region," referring specifically to "economic power plays, political and security power plays."
The upcoming adoption of the historic ASEAN Charter is expected to increase the effectiveness of the organization (by strengthening institutions and streamlining decision making) while ensuring greater accountability of its members (by measures such as the establishment of a regional human rights body).
Besides transforming ASEAN into a more cohesive group, the Charter also aims to achieve more effective implementation of international agreements, thus enhancing the numerous multilateral processes ASEAN is engaged in. Among these processes, the intensification of ASEAN-China ties has attracted particular attention.
China's attitude towards multilateral frameworks had long been cautious. Beijing felt that such structures could facilitate -- to its disadvantage -- the internationalization of issues vital to China's national interest, such as the Taiwan question or the Spratly Islands dispute.
Attitudes changed two decades ago, when Beijing began to seek regional arrangements aimed at calming the concerns of Southeast Asian governments over China's rise while at the same time constraining US influence and more actively isolating Taiwan.
This year's speeches on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of ASEAN indicated the mutual will to reach a new quality of ASEAN-China relations.
China is ASEAN's most important trading partner (bilateral trade is expected to reach US$200 billion nest year). The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, to be established in 2010 with the six founding members of ASEAN, will include 1.8 billion consumers, representing the world's largest market of its kind.
More importantly, Beijing is willing to deepen its security ties with the association. Last week China signed a defense cooperation agreement with Indonesia, referred to by Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan (曹剛川) as the first "strategic partnership" of an ASEAN member with China. The People's Liberation Army is already providing training for ASEAN officers and earlier this year China suggested joint military exercises with ASEAN.
Notwithstanding the actual scope of such exchanges the proposals sent a clear signal to the US and its allies Japan, South Korea and Australia. The Chinese overtures directly affect US security interests in Southeast Asia, as Washington has defense treaties with ASEAN members Thailand and the Philippines and a security partnership with ASEAN member Singapore.
For the time being, China is only gradually expanding its military relationships in Southeast Asia. The key foreign policy objectives of the Chinese Communist Party remain securing internal stability, sustaining economic growth, deterring territorial threats (including perceived threats to China's sovereignty) and being accepted as an increasingly influential regional power.