Regional security in ASEAN

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In order to tackle the emerging geopolitical challenges, ASEAN should move towards deeper forms of cooperation in defence and security 

The Bangkok declaration, founding document of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, states that regional peace and stability are among the two main goals of the organization. However, the structure of the Association itself somehow hampers the process of advancing significantly towards a common security and defence community. 

ASEAN was born from the union of a series of cardinal principles on which the trust among member states was built. This approach - called The ASEAN Way – is founded on the recognition and adherence to the principle of national sovereignty, which entails non-interference in internal affairs, abstention from the use of force to settle disputes and unanimity in the decision-making processes. Security and common defense have thus always been sensitive issues in the region, and progress in these directions tended to be modest.

In the last decades, Indonesia has been one of the main actors advocating for accelerating the integration process in this field. In 2003, at the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali, the Indonesian government reached its goal of including the ASEAN Security Community among the three founding pillars of the organization. The ASEAN Political-Security Community – as it is named since 2015 - represents a notable step towards for member states, establishing a useful platform to solve disputes and to encourage dialogue and cooperation in defense and foreign policy. Since 2010 then, meetings between ASEAN Defence Ministers with the counterparts of different international partners, among which China, US, Japan and Australia, have acquired always more importance and centrality. 

Despite these last years’ progresses, ASEAN still struggles to push forward a concrete agenda in strengthening regional cooperation in defense. As for the European Union, also ASEAN member states are skeptical about deeper forms of integration in the military sector. The current level of cooperation involves consultation with partners and dialogue, yet member states are still reluctant to the formulation of a common long-term strategy. On the delicate issue of the South China Sea, which involves several ASEAN nations including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the long-term common strategy that would be necessary to meet the challenge is struggling to emerge. 

Today, in an evolving and uncertain geopolitical context, ASEAN countries need to deepen and intensify their internal discussions on common security. The role of the US in the Pacific is rapidly changing, China is moving in the South China Sea and the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the regional and global equilibrium. The economic and geopolitical dimensions are always more interrelated, and it is thus time for ASEAN to also invest in the common security and defense sector. 

Despite the outbreak of the global pandemic, 2020 presents particularly interesting opportunities in terms of defence for South-East Asian countries. Two ASEAN’s countries, Indonesia and Vietnam, are members of the UN Security Council, which represents a unique opportunity to advance the priorities of the region in the most influential diplomatic arenas. The South-East Asia region is acquiring increasingly more economic and commercial relevance at the global level, and needs now to start building common geopolitical instruments to tackle the increasing challenges. It will be therefore essential for ASEAN to continue its course towards the establishment of a concrete defense and security community, with the goal of guaranteeing the principles of peace and stability that underlie the Association itself. 

By Tullio Ambrosone and Luca Menghini

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