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ASEAN and Its Security Offspring: Facing New Challenges

Authored by Dr. Sheldon W. Simon. | September 2007

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In its 40 years of existence, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played well above its collective weight in world politics, though its reputation for effective diplomacy was seriously tarnished by an inability to resolve the region?s 1997- 98 financial crisis and other political challenges in the 1990s, including East Timor?s secession from Indonesia, annual forest fire haze from Indonesian Borneo that creates a regional public health hazard, and the 1997 Cambodian coup that overturned an ASEAN-endorsed election. The primary explanation for ASEAN?s political weakness has been its attachment to the principle of noninterference in its members? domestic affairs. Much of ASEAN?s political effort in the early 21st century is devoted to overcoming this weakness.

The primary impetuses for ASEAN moving beyond sovereignty protection are transnational challenges, particularly terrorism, the exploitation of ocean resources, and maritime security, all of which require international cooperation. Secessionists from southern Thailand and the southern Philippines flee to northern Malaysia and Borneo respectively; illegal arms trafficking moves from Cambodia and Thailand to insular Southeast Asia; and radical Islamists go back and forth between Indonesia and the Philippines. Porous borders, suspicious border guards, inadequate coast guards, and armed forces that rarely collaborate beyond bilateral exercises are all counterproductive with respect to transnational challenges.

ASEAN states are attempting to overcome these deficits. Trilateral maritime cooperation in the Malacca Strait by its littoral members (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia) to patrol for pirates and terrorists receives technical assistance from Japan and the United States. Anti-terrorist collaboration has expanded through ASEAN states? law enforcement and intelligence communities, with significant technical support and training from the United States and Australia. Moreover, in 2007 ASEAN tabled a draft charter that alters the association?s noninterference principle and, for the first time, promotes democracy as a regional goal.

On broader security matters, ASEAN declared Southeast Asia to be a nuclear weapons free zone via treaty in 1995. Concerned about nuclear weapons proliferation in Northeast and South Asia, ASEAN desired to separate itself from the nuclear standoffs of its Asian neighbors. Moreover, ASEAN sees the nuclear free zone treaty to be an extension of its 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) that prohibits the use of force in settling international disputes. Signing the TAC has become the prerequisite for joining Asia?s latest security discussion forum, the East Asia Summit (EAS) which held its first annual meeting in December 2005. Inspired by ASEAN and its Northeast Asian partners (the Republic of Korea [ROK], Japan, and China), India, Australia, and New Zealand have also joined, but so far not the United States. Some in Washington are concerned that ratifying the TAC could limit U.S. military actions in the Pacific, though the treaty?s advocates point out that America?s closest Asian allies?Japan, the ROK, and Australia?are EAS members and do not believe their security obligations toward the United States have been jeopardized.

Asia?s largest security discussion body is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) consisting of all East Asian states, the European Union, the United States, and Canada. While the great powers dominate ARF discussions, its structure and procedures are modeled on ASEAN?s. Both ASEAN and the ARF emphasize security transparency such as the publication of national white papers on defense that include both order of battle and doctrine. The ARF looks forward to preventive diplomacy and even conflict resolution? though neither of these future action categories has been implemented. The ARF has attained some success in anti-terrorist collaboration involving terrorist finances and the sharing of information among national financial intelligence units.

Given ASEAN and ARF deficiencies, it is not surprising that the United States continues to rely primarily on bilateral security relationships in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, with the creation of the EAS and ASEAN negotiating a new charter that includes designating the association a Security Community, Washington would be wise to rethink its multilateral diplomacy. ASEAN, the ARF, and the EAS could well become prominent political and economic actors in the 21st century. The United States should not let this parade pass it by.


Most Southeast Asians believe their security is best maintained in the early 21st century not by isolating the region from great power activities, as originally envisaged in the 1970s Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality, but rather by engaging them in multilateral endeavors, such as the ASEAN post-ministerial conferences, ASEAN Plus Three, and the ARF. While these measures were initially directed toward keeping China and the United States involved in assuring the region?s security, ASEAN also welcomes participation by India and Japan.

India and Japan have exchanged high-level visits with virtually every Southeast Asian state. ASEAN members welcome India?s efforts to strengthen ties with Burma as a way of balancing China?s influence. Also, India is involved in the ASEAN PMC. Although Delhi has not been able to turn ASEAN Plus Three into ASEAN Plus Four, it has been accepted into the ARF and the new East Asian Summit.

For the United States, ASEAN and the ARF security deficiencies are not a significant drawback. Washington?s security strategy in East Asia continues to rely on bilateral relations and has developed a mix of bilateral and multilateral endeavors in Southeast Asia. In the war against terror, the strongest bilateral tie is with the Philippines where U.S. military assistance and training, now in their 8th year, are designed to enhance the Philippine armed forces? ability to suppress the Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao.

On the multilateral dimension, little has been accomplished because neither ASEAN nor the ARF have been willing to tackle the core security issues affecting the region, be they external support for insurgencies, major refugee flows, or disputes over sovereignty of islands. Inclusive memberships in both organizations and the ASEAN consensus principle work against their security effectiveness.47 Thus, Washington?s only multilateral initiative in Southeast Asia is quite modest: the offer to fund a regional antiterrorism training center in Malaysia, which would focus on law enforcement and intelligence exchange, but not involve military training. As Stephen Leong of Malaysia?s Institute of Strategic and International Studies said, not only would the center show that ASEAN was involved in the antiterror struggle, but it ?will also help to boost the confidence for foreigners who want to invest or travel in the region especially after the Bali bombing.? More recently, the United States seems to be paying greater attention politically to ASEAN, when in the summer of 2006, Washington announced that it would appoint an ambassador to ASEAN as an organization, though no one has been appointed to that office by early 2007.48

Security regionalism in Southeast Asia remains, therefore, a weak reed. Absence of interoperability among the region?s armed forces, embedded suspicions about neighbors? motivations, and an unwillingness or inability to set up effective arrangements to cope with transnational challenges all tend to move security cooperation by default to the bilateral?or at most trilateral?level where more effective collaboration exists. This principle appears equally true for U.S. security arrangements in Southeast Asia. Bilateral military exercises and bilateral antiterrorist and law enforcement collaboration dominate. Multilateral exercises, such as Cobra Gold in Thailand, while valued, are viewed by Southeast Asians as less useful than bilateral security links to the United States.49 There is no evidence that this situation will change.


47 John Garfano, ?Power, Institutions, and the ASEAN Regional Forum: A Security Community for Asia?? Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 3, May/June, 2002, p. 520.

48 Sheldon W. Simon, ?U.S.-Southeast Asian Relations: U.S. Strengthens Ties to Southeast Asian Regionalism,? Comparative Connections: An E-Journal of East Asian Bilateral Relations, Honolulu: Pacific Forum/CSIS, July-September 2006.

49 Sheldon W. Simon, ?Theater Security Cooperation in the U.S. Pacific Command: An Assessment and Projection,? NBR Analysis, August 2003.