July 3, 2013
MY COMMENT: This article concludes that “ASEAN has to become more cohesive, relevant and effective if Southeast Asian nations do not want to become objects of competition for influence among major powers”. ASEAN is a loose organization and cannot be effective if all it does is talk, all talk and little action. It claims to want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to issues concerning Southeast Asian security but because it is incoherent and lacking in focus, ASEAN is rapidly losing credibility as body committed to building a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality. In stead, ASEAN will likely be caught in renewed big power rivalry namely between the United States and China. –Din Merican
COUNTRIES AT THE CROSSROADS
Awidya Santikajaya, Canberra | Opinion, Jakarta Post | Mon, June 03 2013, 11:36 AM
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently launched the 2013 Defense White Paper, which analysts say concerns mostly Australia-US-China relations. The paper confirms China’s military modernization as a natural outcome of its economic growth, a stance that is different from the 2009 Defense White Paper, which emphasized the need for substantial improvement in Australia’s military capabilities in response to China’s increasing power.
While we cannot deny the fact that China is still the key to Australia’s defense strategy, there is certainly a paradigm shift in Australia’s defense posture that sees the growing importance of Southeast Asia.
The new White Paper reveals that Southeast Asia is not only pivotal given its close geographical proximity to China, but also for its strategic position connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The paper even identifies Southeast Asia as the geographical center of the emerging Indo-Pacific system. After decades of relative ignorance, the Indian Ocean is now becoming increasingly critical and strategic.
From an energy security point of view, the Indian Ocean is a crucial lane for transporting oil and gas from Middle East and North Africa to the center of global growth in the Asia-Pacific region. The intertwining significance of both the Indian and Pacific oceans has underlined Southeast Asia as an emerging center of gravity. While major powers are busy increasing their influence in Southeast Asia, the Australian Defense White Paper itself emphasizes the significance of Southeast Asia’s stability and peace to Australia’s strategic posture.
Not only Australia, but also other major powers have also expressed greater interests in Southeast Asia. India, for instance, during the last year’s ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, agreed with Southeast Asian nations to foster broader security cooperation beyond the existing framework for combating terrorism signed in 2003. India is also looking at possibilities for more bilateral security engagements with Southeast Asian nations, including with the visit of the Indian defense minister to Myanmar earlier this year.
The US has also actively approached Southeast Asia by strengthening America’s military deployments in the South West Pacific and advancing political and economic relationships. On the other hand, China’s intention to advance military cooperation with Southeast Asian nations is heavily constrained by disputes over the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, China is consistently seeking military-to-military relations once other major powers are absent from the region or Southeast Asian nations aim to play soft-balancing cards. For example, it cooperated with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand in joint patrol operations on the Mekong River.
In managing security relations with Southeast Asia as well as shaping the Indo-Pacific security architecture, the majority of powers embrace ASEAN-led regional schemes, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting (ADMM). Non-ASEAN powers praise ASEAN for its initiative and commitment to multilateralism in which dialogue and confidence building have become the core principles.
Processes in ASEAN have provided a positive foundation for the region’s security cooperation. Having said that, in the era of the emerging importance of Southeast Asia, there is continuous curiosity about whether ASEAN’s mechanisms effectively satisfy the interests of non-ASEAN powers, as well as protecting the interests of ASEAN nations themselves.
While non-ASEAN major powers have formally accepted the norms and procedures of ASEAN-centered institutions, the main obstacles to sustaining these institutions come from ASEAN members. There are at least three issues that need to be seriously addressed.
First, ASEAN’s credibility in leading regional building in the Indo-Pacific is weakened by the lack of a cohesive stance among ASEAN members. It is true that for decades, divergent security perceptions and interests within ASEAN have encouraged members to engage in close and constructive dialogues. Nevertheless, extreme diverse and contrasting positions within ASEAN will only see security arrangements dominated significantly by political gravitation from non-ASEAN major powers, instead of being led by ASEAN.
Second, existing ASEAN mechanisms provide various interpretations in dealing with political security issues. Specifically, its chairman and secretary-general rotation system has weakened ASEAN’s sustainability and consistency to carry out certain programs and to deal with particular challenges.
For instance, in responding to recent conflicts in Myanmar in which hundreds of Muslim Rohingya have died in just a few months, there was little effort made by the current Secretary General to contribute to conflict resolution, unlike the previous Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan who proactively warned Naypyidaw about the danger of continuous ethnic violence, including by proposing tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar.
There was also no initiative by the current chair — Brunei Darussalam — to address conflict between the Malaysian government and the loyalists of Sulu Sultanate in Sabah. In dealing with security issues, ASEAN is influenced by each country’s or individual’s initiative and interest, rather than structured and binding procedures.
Third, there is the trend of a security dilemma within ASEAN. Feeling insecure about threats from other ASEAN countries and from volatile major power commitments to security alliances, Southeast Asian nations have been improving their military capability. Indonesia, for instance, planned to buy more than a dozen Sukhoi fighter jets and already secured contract for 130 Leopard 2 tanks. Thailand, at the same time, increased military spending at 7 percent from the previous year. There is nothing wrong with increasing the defense budget, but there is also an urgent need for ASEAN to mitigate any risks coming from a small scale arms race.
In his recent speech in Washington, D.C., Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa entertained the idea of an “Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation” in order to advance trust and communication in the region. The idea will possibly have a greater chance of success since all nations in the Indo-Pacific region heavily require trust to build sustainable peace and stability.
Having said that, the wider geographical scope of security arrangements, the more fluid, unpredictable and complex are the geopolitical rivalries among nations. In this sense, in this current age of uncertain geopolitical change, ASEAN has to become more cohesive, relevant and effective if Southeast Asian nations do not want to become objects of competition for influence among major powers.
The writer is a foreign policy observer who lives in Canberra.