ASEAN can shape its digital order

Elina Noor

About the author

Elina Noor is Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, DC.


Comparing events across centuries and continents is an artful exercise. The creation of order out of chaos in nineteenth-century Europe may have paved the way for Europe’s long peace, but it also facilitated the colonial conquests and disorder of much of Asia before the construction of the latter’s “operating system”, as we know it today. Indeed, the last 40 years of relative peace, security and prosperity in Southeast Asia were wrested from the long shadows of Cold War interventions. The question for Southeast Asia, often described as the confluence point of great power politics, is how the region will manage strategic disruption over the forthcoming decades.

The considerations for Southeast Asian states overlap with, but are not identical to, those of the United States. Yes, there will be a need for a legitimate regional order. An order premised on adherence to rules and norms is crucial for smaller countries to assert their agency. It is why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation underscores fundamental principles, including freedom from interference, subversion and coercion. It is why international law appears in almost every ASEAN statement on political and security affairs.

The region’s future will also need to be anchored by a balance of power. “Balance” is a specific term of art in international relations but may be a misnomer in this context. What the last 40 years have shown is that US military dominance — both welcomed and resented in Southeast Asia — has underpinned the security landscape of the region. China’s military expenditure has been growing over the last 26 consecutive years, but its estimated US$252 billion defence spending in 2020 still pales in comparison to the United States’ US$778 billion for the same year. The sheer size of the People’s Liberation Army and its expanding arsenal are certainly a concern for Southeast Asia, especially given China’s bellicosity in the South China Sea. But China is not yet a military peer to the United States. It has no treaty alliances in Southeast Asia, no real forward basing posture, and is years behind the United States in the number and sophistication of military exercises it carries out with the armed forces of various Southeast Asian countries.

There is no concurrence in the region that there is a “China challenge” across the board or that there is any one power that is ideologically or morally superior, given numerous examples of adventurism by both the United States and China. Both countries have had few qualms setting aside international law when rules have proven inconvenient.

Yet, as China’s economy and defence spending rise, a recalibration of the status quo, along with the inevitable action-reaction chain it has set off with the United States, will have repercussions for Southeast Asia.

Alignment with superpowers will remain fluid. There may be convergence in Southeast Asia, as well as between the region and the United States, on the need for a legitimate order and some form of power balancing in the coming decades. Among ASEAN countries, the first initiative of the newly-minted Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) pact has elicited reactions ranging from deep concern to circumspect watchfulness and full-blown support. Equally telling of this ambivalence has been the silence of other ASEAN member states.

Far from fickle or feckless, the region’s ambivalence to great power competition and its desire to enmesh as many players as possible recognises the irreducible complexities of the strategic landscape and reflects a desire to carve out space amid jostling giants.

Southeast Asian adroitness in managing this task will be tested in the technological age. In “How America Can Shore up Asian Order”, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi rightly point out that military and material balance alone will be insufficient to sustain a renewed regional order. As AUKUS and the Quad seek greater integration in emerging technologies and industrial bases, and the United States and China attempt to decouple in these exact areas, Southeast Asia will find itself at another inflection point. Already, the tremors are being felt as the great powers jostle over ports and high-speed rail links to semiconductor supply chains and information superhighways.

This affords an incredible opportunity for ASEAN stakeholders to contribute to international discussions on the standards, norms and rules that will govern technology. The region holds significant potential for the digital economy as well as the supporting infrastructure. ASEAN’s population is 650 million and its projected “e-Conomic” annual growth rate is 24 per cent to US$300 billion in 2025. Of prime value will be data from the 400 million ASEAN citizens currently online that will hone the technologies serving the region.

The region has a chance to actively define the parameters of how technology is conceptualised, designed and built for use in Southeast Asia’s diverse contexts. Importantly, this allows Southeast Asians to articulate their own priorities, principles and perspectives in debates that will underwrite a digital future that could otherwise be dictated by a binary world order.

Challenge the expert

Ben Scott, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Rules-Based Order Project, challenges Elina Noor’s key arguments.

You argue that the United States has not yet lost its military primacy in the Indo-Pacific. What do you say to the argument that China’s proximity would give it a winning advantage in a military contest in the region?

By the US Department of Defense’s own assessment, “[D]espite the PLA’s progress over the past 20 years, major gaps and shortcomings remain.” The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) projects a 30-year pursuit of a world-class military. This, of course, assumes all things — including economic growth and demography — remain equal. However, if anything, the last two years of COVID-19 have proven that glide paths are not always linear, smooth, or certain.

The United States military may struggle to retain a 20-year lead over China in the longer term. But the reality is that US military spending was three times that of China’s in 2020 and represented a year-on-year increase of 4.4 per cent to China’s 1.9 per cent. While the PLA Navy has the most number of vessels in the world, the US Navy is still a qualitatively superior battle force.

The US military currently outpaces China in presence, expenditure, and sophistication. It conducts regular bilateral or multilateral exercises with all ten ASEAN member states. The US operational or logistical presence in Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines is bolstered by 120 active bases in Japan (the highest in the world) and 73 in South Korea. Nearly half of all US military deployed abroad are in those two Northeast Asian countries alone.

There is no doubt that China’s aggressive military build-up in the South China Sea rings alarm bells for Southeast Asian claimants and others in the region. However, for Southeast Asian states the question of consequence is not how they would fare in a confrontation with China; rather, it is how a showdown between China and the United States in Southeast Asia would impact the region.

The effects of a US-China conflict, were it to erupt in the South China Sea, would be several orders of magnitude worse for the region than the proxy conflicts of the Cold War. Southeast Asia’s concern is both to forestall this worst case scenario and to avoid entanglement in what would surely be an ugly if not protracted US-China conflict.

In the face of “recalibration” or “strategic disruption” caused by China’s rise, do you expect ASEAN unity and centrality to be weakened?

The short answer is “yes”, if ASEAN elites do nothing about it.

As the other authors have pointed out, China’s rise presents new uncertainties to ASEAN not because of China’s system of governance, but because its ascendance — perceived as a threat to US primacy, leadership, and US underpinning of a “rules-based order” — has prompted resistance. The reinvigoration of the Quad and the configuration of AUKUS bear this out. These major power gambits may end up simultaneously marginalising ASEAN’s relevance and narrowing ASEAN’s strategic options despite professions of ASEAN centrality by all.

As it is, ASEAN unity and centrality are already being tested internally. The latest crisis in Myanmar, as well as the differentiated attitudes among the ten governments to issues such as the South China Sea dispute and resource competition in the Mekong, have shown that the biggest challenge to ASEAN credibility comes from within. Despite ASEAN’s commitment to a people-centred and people-oriented community, criticism of the grouping’s apparent ineffectuality from the region’s youth to its policy elites has been scathing.

External validation is nice, but ASEAN unity and centrality must ultimately be manifested from its core. With its many blueprints, plans, and visions, the group is not short of aspiration to shape the regional architecture. But it needs the political focus, courage, and creativity to implement the many “key elements of ASEAN centrality in a dynamic and outward-looking region” it has set out for itself.

What would it take for ASEAN to collectively seize the opportunity presented by emerging technologies? What digital standards, norms, and rules would Southeast Asian countries advocate?

Demonstrating ASEAN unity and centrality requires anticipating over-the-horizon developments, consolidating positions on those trends, and acting proactively rather than reactively. In spite of the region’s technological divide, ASEAN has done relatively well in advancing its digitalisation agenda, albeit primarily from an economic angle. The region is abuzz with market potential, investment interest, and government enthusiasm for all things tech. Even during the pandemic, the digital economy in six ASEAN countries reached US$100 billion in 2020.

However, the region’s digitalisation-for-development focus overlooks some fundamental considerations. These include the longer-term implications of the US-China geo-technological rivalry on Southeast Asia’s digital infrastructure; the ethics of Big Data collection and algorithmic design; and the region’s locus in emerging technologies such as quantum computing, biometrics, and augmented reality.

For these reasons, the region must be bold in rethinking what a digitalised future built on standards, norms, and rules would look like beyond the current trappings of dominance and privilege; beyond “established” constructs of realism or liberalism; and beyond systems and structures that favour a legacy of imperialism and oppression. As a collection of diverse, dynamic, post-colonial nation states, ASEAN members can challenge the binary of the “like-minded” and the “other”. After all, 80 per cent of the world lives outside China and the United States. Implementing the 2015 United Nations’ Group of Governmental Experts’ 11 norms of state behaviour in cyberspace and participating in the UN Open-ended Working Group is a great start for ASEAN to contribute to a more secure and stable cyberspace. However, it would be better for Southeast Asia to reimagine technology inclusively for a more just world order. It should do this in deed and discussion, taking into account its indigenous and minority populations, and in concert with the rest of the world’s 80 per cent.


Five essays from experts from, or based in, Southeast Asia provide a sense of the region’s complexity and the nuance with which any effort to shore up – or rebuild – regional order must grapple.