Defining crossroads for Asean in a new security reality

Historical regional cohesiveness in Southeast Asia is primarily tied to trade and the economy, and a common yearning for security.

This region is primarily shaped by economic and security imperatives, and openings for value-based and normative moral high ground for strong value-driven developmental essence is inadequate, unlike in the European Union.

Asean was born out of a common fear of communism and external threats, and it remains the same for now. However, the ability to stand up to external threats, from the point of view of a collective joint deterrence and capacity, remains lost.

Asean has been trapped by its own policies, decision making, and its concept of neutrality, in managing relations with external powers. Changing regional and global security architectures and paradoxes have meant that conventional status quo and dogma of past systems have become increasingly irrelevant and prohibitive in ensuring Asean remains secure and resilient.

One of the main objectives in the founding principles and aspirations of Asean is the need for regional cohesiveness and an appreciation of the peoples’ affiliation within the scope of regional spirit and solidarity. Primary to this is the spillover impact of economic prosperity from better intra-regional trade and investment, and linkages of strategic interdependence.

Others include the aspiration for stronger people-to-people ties, understanding, and community confidence and appreciation in creating a deeper regional bond, ease of mobility, and the transfer of knowledge and capital. All these remain wanting, and the region and entity are still mired in wariness, security dilemma, distrust, prevailing national identities, and continental barriers.

With a region that is as dynamic as Southeast Asia, the different models of governance and historical systems remain a barrier in achieving the intended models as outlined. Systemic disparities in development and economic resilience, urban-rural gap, literacy and rights gap, and continental vs archipelago differences, all remain structural hindrances to a collective, regional, future-driven, socio-economic development.

Asean relies on external economic and market lifelines and support in fuelling its future economic relevance. Intra-growth and connectivity in terms of ease of investments and in doing business remain challenging. Internal peer competition and the scramble for geostrategic interests, with the urgency in shoring up individual alliances and affiliations with external support, all lay bare the inadequate sustaining tools in creating a credible, Asean-centred capacity building.

Despite being labelled as the most important region, with one of the greatest prospects of socio-economic strength with its vast population of more than 600 million, its growing vibrant young demographic advantage, an abundance of natural and energy resources, food and energy security, and its strategic and vital geographical location in the centre of the global trade and supply chain,  Asean’s potential remain as yet, unrealised due to the inability to break from past dogmas.

The fact remains that the region still needs to rely predominantly on external powers and resources in ensuring its security and economic sustainability.

Lacking in all parameters of hard and soft power projection to match those external influences, the region and Asean remain subservient to the intent and influences of policies by external powers, all the while pinning hopes on their self-restraint.

Consistent realities on the ground that witnessed the various hard power projections and militarisation activities in the South China Sea, with continuous grey zone tactics and intimidation, especially against the Philippines as recently as this week, all reflect the failed model and approach in managing and preventing tensions and conflicts.

The reluctance and inability of Asean to effectively portray a realistic stance in big power competition have driven it to the brink of greater irrelevance, opening up new floodgates of individual responses and policies in beefing up one’s own security and deterrence through bilateral approaches and defence agreements with the West.

Asean is seen as a lost cause by the West in trying to project a more effective and credible stance towards Beijing.

The expansion of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between Manila and Washington for instance, will see the strategic presence of US power in the most direct counterbalancing locations to Beijing’s intent in the region. The 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the US remains the lynchpin of Manila’s security fall-back.

In a full-blown conflict, neutrality no longer will provide the expected outcome of being safe from any direct, or indirect fallout.

Asean remains trapped in its own time warp, still believing in the perceived efficacy and reliability of its own creation of conflict prevention and management measures.

The various platforms created, ranging from the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and others, failed to rein in regional tensions, and other security issues.

Without its own deterrent capacity in ensuring a rules-based order and adherence to international law, incidents in disputed territories are predominantly being managed from a weakened position.

The influence of China and its grip in the region remains another factor that has divided Asean, further weakening its unified resolve in ensuring credible measures, mechanisms, and deterrence in pushing for a peaceful and stable region.

One-sided economic dependence on Beijing and the fear of inciting its potential wrath and economic retaliatory measures, coupled with hard power tactics, have stymied the full capacity of the region to manage things.

Asean’s spirit of communal understanding and appreciation remains low, as compared to established systems, like the EU. The lack of a new drive to enhance intra-regional connectivity, people-to-people appreciation, and an openness in economic and business efforts, have hampered the true capitalisation of regional strengths.

Peer competition and wariness remain stumbling blocks, worsened by lingering geopolitical distrusts.

Collins Chong is a foreign affairs and strategy analyst at Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.