On to the Hard Stuff: An ASEAN Defense Community?

By Derek Pham, Intern Scholar, CSIS Southeast Asia Program

Photo by Shannon Moore, used under a Creative Commons license.

On May 6, AFP reported that China and South Korea are in talks to set up a hotline between their ministers of defense. Though both countries have hotlines between their navies and air forces, no hotline exists between the ministers. Given these two countries’ histories and relations, initial talk of defense minister hotlines indicates growing defense cooperation, and a push for transparency and communication at the highest levels. Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged.

By contrast, finding the right tools to move forward with a region-wide political-security arrangement has eluded ASEAN. While defense and security discussions are not anathema per se, the region’s leaders have intentionally pursued “strategic avoidance” on sensitive defense and security issues. The casual observer need only to look at the ASEAN website under “Political-Security Community” to see just how initiatives promoting greater defense and security cooperation measure up against other initiatives, like the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Unfortunately, the results are underwhelming.

The region is growing more vulnerable as a result of the globalization of security concerns, but no coordinated approach exists to address natural disasters, growing energy needs, and territorial disputes, among other things. The status quo in ASEAN—an intense focus on economic development and unenthusiastic pursuit of security cooperation—is becoming unsustainable.

To ASEAN’s credit, recent chairs have made known their intention to talk about “hard issues,” which has helped the bloc to take a stand in some circumstances. For example, Vietnam’s 2010 chairmanship institutionalized the ADMM+ Defense Ministers meeting, and Indonesia, as ASEAN chair for 2011, has claimed it will actively pursue a resolution to the Thai-Cambodia conflict and a legally-binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

There have also been setbacks. Defense chiefs at the 2010 ADMM+ have chosen to reconvene only once every three years, with the next meeting scheduled for Brunei in 2013—not nearly enough of an opportunity to push forward with meaningful resolutions or coordinated action to hard problems. Furthermore, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently announced that the South China Sea issue will not be discussed at the East Asia Summit—even as tensions between China and the Philippines grow without a legally binding Code of Conduct to mitigate tension.

Leaders are cognizant of the issues that ASEAN faces concerning defense and security coordination, but they are hampered by an inability to address these issues together as a community. A blueprint for security cooperation, in the ASEAN Security Community Plan of Action, is insufficiently detailed to ensure tangible action on defense issues.

Paving the way for an ASEAN defense community can start with small, but focused, initiatives. Every controversial project always does. In time, it will gain acceptance if metrics for success are clearly defined and the vision for such cooperation is maintained. In the South China Sea, for example, ASEAN can follow China and South Korea’s model and—for the sake of facilitating much needed communication over claimant states’ intentions in the sea—ASEAN can promote setting up defense hotlines between claimant navies or air forces. Leaders might take it one step further and consider endorsing defense hotlines between all defense ministries. A security “gold-standard” might be, as Fuadi Pitsuwan has suggested, establishing an ASEAN peacekeeping force.

If ASEAN leaders, however, continue to defer to the “ASEAN Way” of consensus as the bedrock of all security arrangements, refusing to remain flexible in the face of pressing regional issues, then the ASEAN Way may, ironically, undermine what it is meant to uphold: peace and stability. Regardless of the kind of defense and security cooperation, an ASEAN defense community must emerge alongside those forces that are shaping the ASEAN Economic and Socio-Cultural Community.

Ideas for diversified and robust defense engagement rarely make it past the brainstorming roundtable. “Strategic avoidance” limits creative approaches. It is time for ASEAN’s leaders to leave no possibility unconsidered, and that includes talking about—and eventually acting on, even with the smallest steps—those tricky issues that, at the end of the day, matter so very much.


2 comments for “On to the Hard Stuff: An ASEAN Defense Community?

  1. Jeremy E. Plotnick PhD
    May 10, 2011 at 04:36

    In my opinion Mr. Pham is quite correct in pointing out the risks that ASEAN faces by not evolving a more robust and formalized joint security mechanism. Further, while I believe that many officials in the ASEAN diplomatic and defense community recognize this important shortcoming, they have appeared unable or unwilling to push the issue in open forums. For their part, the local political leadership in many, if not most, ASEAN nations have been less than enthusiastic in pursuing security cooperation beyond periodic joint training exercises.

    A possible underlying cause of this lack of progress is the lack of strong domestic political systems in many ASEAN states and the resulting inability to by political leaders to be seen as surrendering (if only symbolically) any control over the state’s defense. If we look at the case of Thailand’s border dispute with Cambodia over the last several years (and most particularly the last several weeks), we can see that the conflict is driven (at least in part) by Thai domestic politics. For this reason the government has been unwilling to involve third parties in conflict resolution efforts and has continually referenced its responsibility to protect national sovereignty and security. Powerful nationalist elements in the local power structure support this position and are strongly opposed to negotiations on the issue. These same elements would also tend to oppose a viable multilateral approach to regional security.

    When national governments are unable and/or unwilling to stand up to nationalist forces within their societies for fear of losing power – the establishment of a viable joint security mechanism is not likely to make significant progress.

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