IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

ASEAN at 50: It’s always been about security

130812-N-KE519-021 CORAL SEA (Aug. 12, 2013) - An MV-22 Osprey helicopter assigned to the Dragons of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Reinforced) flies near the forward-deployed amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) as seen from the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 9). Bonhomme Richard is the flagship of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), is currently conducting certification exercise (CERTEX) in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Edward Guttierrez III/RELEASED)

Written by Alan Collins.

ASEAN’s founding declaration in 1967 – the Bangkok Declaration – may not have explicitly named security as a field of cooperation but it underpins everything that ASEAN has been about and, at fifty, remains its primary concern.

Security is not understood in the traditional sense of military alliances and defence treaties, and indeed the desire to distance the Association from such an understanding explains the absence of security in those original texts; it would be 39 years later that the inaugural ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) was organised.

China’s ambitions in the South China Sea have led Beijing to seek to drive a diplomatic wedge between the ASEAN members, and it is evident from the difficulties ASEAN foreign ministers have had in agreeing the text for their communiques that Beijing’s efforts are not in vain.

This breadth of security activity is now conceived within the discourse of ASEAN’s goal of creating a Community; a community that is not designed to replicate the European Union and create a supranational governance structure for Southeast Asia, but rather a framework that strengthens the member states and continues the goal of state- and nation-building.

For a group of newly decolonised states (the exception being Thailand) the original members of ASEAN faced those security threats common to the decolonising world; how to make strong states and nations from the territories bequeathed to them by departing external powers. Southeast Asian governments therefore originally understood security as being primarily about the protection of borders, independence, sovereignty, and incumbent regimes; this still remains the case today.

In effect, ASEAN was formed as a ‘limited security organization’ that recognised the security interdependence of regional states and gave ruling regimes the space to concentrate on economic development and political security in the first instance. ASEAN thus had an important role in its newly decolonised members’ state- and nation-building projects. Security was thus understood as enhancing the economic development and political independence of the state and only by having strong states could the region become strong and manage intervention by external powers.

This is captured in the regional discourse that ‘regional resilience’ would stem from ‘national resilience’ and in such aspirational goals as making Southeast Asia a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality. Only a cursory understanding of how disastrous American state- and nation-building had been in South Vietnam is needed to appreciate the lesson learnt in the capitals of ASEAN members that unmanaged external intervention was not conducive to their economic development and political stability.

While the security environment of Southeast Asia has evolved considerably since ASEAN was formed, and indeed ASEAN members have embraced both traditional and non-traditional approaches to security, the primacy of state and regime security – captured in the all-embracing term “national security” – and the need to ensure that Southeast Asian states continue to manage the role of external actors, remains critical in understanding member states’ perspectives on security.  It is now captured in the discourse of “ASEAN centrality” in regional organisations and the reinforcement of the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty in the ASEAN Charter.

Security has thus always been conceived as a holistic concept – captured in the phrase “comprehensive security” – and therefore while many of the security matters that afflict Southeast Asia appear to be new, they are, for the most part, problems that ASEAN members have faced for decades. For example, terrorism linked to the so-called Islamic State: which declared the establishment of a ‘province’ in the southern Philippines in 2016 and the ongoing fighting in Marawi has led to fears that the Philippines could become the ‘new Syria’; and is associated with attacks in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

While the connection to global jihadism is new, the use of violence by domestic opposition groups to the ruling regime has a long history in the region with terrorist organisations active in many ASEAN members. Likewise, although natural disasters have increased in the loss of life they have wrought – the Aceh Tsunami and Cyclone Nargis were two particularly destructive events – concern with such disasters and how to respond to them has been an ASEAN concern since the 1970s.

What is new in the last ten years of ASEAN’s life is a willingness to explicitly use the term security, such as in the ASEAN Political-Security Community, and the adoption of new norms in relation to conflict management as part of the Bali Concord II. This has led ASEAN to complement its dialogue on non-traditional security with discussing matters of military defence.  The ADMM has also been complemented with the ADMM+, which includes ASEAN Dialogue Partners. This breadth of security activity is now conceived within the discourse of ASEAN’s goal of creating a Community; a community that is not designed to replicate the European Union and create a supranational governance structure for Southeast Asia, but rather a framework that strengthens the member states and continues the goal of state- and nation-building.

Two specific challenges face ASEAN at its fiftieth birthday. One is the traditional concern of limiting the meddling of an external power in Southeast Asia, while the other is the changing context for state and nation building in an era of globalisation. For the first, China’s ambitions in the South China Sea have led Beijing to seek to drive a diplomatic wedge between the ASEAN members, and it is evident from the difficulties ASEAN foreign ministers have had in agreeing the text for their communiques that Beijing’s efforts are not in vain.

ASEAN’s desire to limit the involvement of external powers has always been equivocatory, but the ramifications for ASEAN unity from its members’ divergent responses to China’s South China Sea activities are a serious threat to regional resilience.

The second threat is ASEAN members’ failure to engage their own people in state- and nation-building. The process of globalisation, with its global trade flows in goods and services, innovative communication and transportation technology, has enabled financial and people mobility that has brought to Southeast Asia, as elsewhere in the world, an interpenetration of states’ societies of ideas often associated with democratisation.

While ASEAN has adopted the language of becoming “people-oriented” and “people-centred” they remain ill-defined terms and there is no empowering of the “people”; as witnessed this month in the march by over 1000 civil society protestors in Manila while officials of ASEAN governments met behind closed doors. With the region witnessing an authoritarian turn, past experiences suggest that within the state elite there is an absence of understanding of the vital role that civil society can play in achieving national resilience.

Security, the strengthening of the state and nation – through national resilience breeding regional resilience – remains ASEAN’s primary goal and its ability to deliver on this goal remains challenging.

Alan Collins is a Professor at Swansea University. Prior to this he was a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he also completed his PhD. He has published on ASEAN as a Security Community, the role of civil society in ASEAN, and the security dilemmas within Southeast Asia. Image credit: CC by Naval Surface Warriors/Flickr.