ASEAN as the 'regional conductor': understanding ASEAN's role in East Asian regional order

Robert Yates

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis addresses the puzzle of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) prominence in regional order negotiation and management in East Asia during times of transition and crisis. It argues that ASEAN's prominence is not merely the result of structural dynamics of great power rivalry, but due to ASEAN creating a ‘regional conductor’ role in negotiation with great powers. The thesis contributes to the literature by developing an English School-inspired 'role negotiation' framework and uncovering the social foundations for ASEAN’s role, rooted in cumulative and on-going role negotiation. The framework shows how actors come to perform social roles through a process of legitimation: they conceptualise and claim a role and seek endorsement from key audiences. This thesis applies the framework to the US in early Cold War Southeast Asia, China during the Cambodian Conflict and to ASEAN in post-Cold War East Asia. It finds that negotiations over the US' and China's roles during the Cold War established, and reinforced, a division of labour where great powers provided security public goods but the key 'great power' function of diplomatic leadership was subcontracted to ASEAN. ASEAN's diplomatic leadership in Southeast Asia provided a foundation for creating its 'regional conductor' role in the uncertainty of the early post-Cold War years. ASEAN extended its diplomatic leadership into the wider East Asian region, convening the full regional ‘orchestra’ and providing a ‘score’: a framework of norms and institutions within which all regional players can operate. However, ASEAN’s position in a post-Cold War division of labour is insecure because, unlike during the Cold War, there is no clear goal shared between all key players. ASEAN’s legitimacy as 'regional conductor' is therefore based on its neutrality and competence to convene inclusive dialogue; its ability to address substantive issues between the great powers is limited. In order for the regional orchestra to play more beautiful music, the great powers themselves will need to reach agreement on a more sophisticated 'score'.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Goh, Chui, Supervisor
Award date1 Dec 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • East Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • Regional order
  • Social roles

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