Even when great-power relations in Asia were good, Asean needed to find its own economic and strategic space between them. Now that relations between the United States and China are souring, against the larger background of a possible retreat from globalisation and the renewal of strategic rivalry, it is imperative for Asean countries to draw closer so that they can deal with wider discord more effectively. The danger of complacency is that Asean itself could be divided along externally created fault lines. That would mean a severe setback for South-east Asia, which has emerged as a successful example of regionalism. While there is little that Asean can do to influence relations between the great powers decisively, it must not let the drift into global tensions undermine its hard-won centrality. This means that the great powers must not bypass Asean when pursuing their interests in South-east Asia.
In one sense, the challenge is for Asean to find its way back to the future. The association began life as a product of the Cold War, but it survived the global contest between the United States and the Soviet Union by not tilting to one side so abjectly as to give the other a compelling reason to subvert it. Following the end of the Cold War, Asean's expansion reiterated its founding rationale: to unite South-east Asian countries with disparate political systems into an economic region integrated enough to give external powers a stake in its common vitality. The emergence of institutions such as the Asean Plus Three process, the East Asia Summit process, the Asean Regional Forum, and the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus framework bears witness to the success of Asean's engagements with its external sphere.