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ASEAN and Its Security Offspring: Facing New Challenges

ASEAN and Its Security Offspring: Facing New Challenges - Cover

Authored by Dr. Sheldon W. Simon.

September 2007

184 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Southeast Asian states within ASEAN agree that security relations with the great powers are best achieved by enmeshing the latter in ASEAN procedures. The primary goal of ASEAN is that China, Japan, the United States, and India commit to maintaining Southeast Asia's autonomy, integrity, and prosperity. ASEAN is less successful in resolving conflicts internal to the region including human rights in Burma, transnational terrorism, environmental concerns, human trafficking, and illegal arms trade. Sovereignty protection frequently trumps cooperation on these issues.


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.

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