Prospects for Southeast Asian security cooperation

Prospects for Southeast Asian security cooperation
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks during the opening ceremony of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
PHOTO: Reuters

ASEAN was established in the wake of a confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, to prevent future clashes and to create peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Simultaneously, ASEAN consists of fully sovereign and independent countries, proud of their independence, and every decision has therefore to be unanimous.

This has limited the possibility of co-operation in the security field, although gradual and minor improvements have occurred.

Times have changed, and so has ASEAN, which is to become an economic community in 2015. Integration will require parts of state sovereignty to be surrendered. As such, other fields of co-operation will be more open to ASEAN, albeit gradually.

In this respect, ASEAN in the last 20 years has established regional security institutions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM-ADMM Plus) and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

But these regional security institutions have never been completely effective. There is limited triangular co-operation on security in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the nations responsible according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Nonetheless, ASEAN has made a start: ARF for confidence-building measures and preventive diplomacy and ADMM/ADMM+ for co-operation in non-traditional security and creating confidence-building measures between military bodies, while the EAS is intended for strategic dialogues at the highest level.

We must hope that these initiatives will serve to establish the kind of understanding, trust and co-operation that can only be brought about through regional institutions, and in so doing create a peaceful, stable and dynamic East Asia.

Today's East Asia is different to the Europe of the early 20th century, which had no regional institutions, but rather two large, adversarial alliances. Our region is endowed with regional institutions that enable their members, whether powerful or weak, to create a rule-based system, a balance of power and adequate institutions to cope with future competition between China and the US.

However, for now, the ASEAN-based regional institutions are not strong enough to deal with the rivalry between the world's two major powers or prevent potential future confrontations between them.

Only the EAS has the potential to do so, as it is the only summit on security and strategy for East Asia.

As such, ASEAN must transform the EAS into a strategic regional institution. Indeed, there have been efforts among ASEAN think tanks to push for the integration of security within ASEAN.

We need to avoid having two regional security institutions dealing with regional security: the hub-and-spoke of the US alliance system on the one hand, and another, prospective system to be established by China in the near future with Russian support on the other.

There is talk that China is interested in shifting a recent security conference initiated by Kazakhstan into a new regional security institution for Asia that excludes the US.

The EAS has to become not only an ASEAN-based regional institution, but also a wider regional one. It should have its own secretariat, based in ASEAN but organised separately by ASEAN and its partners for administrative support.

The intellectual or political issues to be discussed and hopefully agreed upon should be prepared by sherpas of high position and calibre.

The meetings should be substantive, with real exchanges among leaders, and should be prepared mainly by the sherpas so that the main subjects for discussion are agreed upon by the leaders.

The chance of success is there if members really can get through to each other on strategic issues in the region.

The principles and purpose of making the EAS the over-arching regional institution of East Asia are already to be found in existing ASEAN documents.

The principles were laid down in the Treaty of Amity and Friendship initiated by ASEAN, and later signed by all 18 EAS members.

The purpose was clarified in the ASEAN+6 Agreement that was signed in Kuala Lumpur during the founding of the EAS in 2005, which was later accepted by the US and Russia when they became EAS members a few years later.

The writer is the vice chair of the board of trustees of the CSIS Foundation.

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