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Why Southeast Asia and ASEAN are a strategic problem

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While it is true that ASEAN has been successful in giving a complex region a sense of identity and largely avoiding interstate conflict, it may well be that its use-by-date is coming.

This is not only because it consistently sweeps contentious issues under the carpet of unanimity, but also because it is being overtaken by current strategic events.

ASEAN itself and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have become notorious for their inability to make decisions in areas such as preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. At the annual meeting of the ARF’s Expert and Eminent Persons group earlier this year in Canberra, an agreement was reached about principles for the avoidance of maritime incidents. But not once in the previous 10 meetings have any concrete proposals for advancing preventive diplomacy been agreed upon. The reality is that the focus of regional security architecture has now moved to the East Asia Summit because that is where the strategic weight in the region is and where there are the most serious risks of armed conflict.

The lack of decision-making by ASEAN and the ARF comes at a time when the regional security outlook is looking ominous, particularly in Northeast Asia.

ASEAN itself risks being side-lined as China militarises the South China Sea and ignores territorial claims by ASEAN countries. There has been little progress over 15 years towards a robust code of conduct for the South China Sea that is legally binding.

China will continue to play on the weaknesses that separate the 10 members of ASEAN. As a senior former official of a Southeast Asian country said to me last year: ‘ASEAN is broken and our big mistake was to expand it from 6 to 10 countries’. Cambodia and Laos are in the pockets of China, as increasingly so are Thailand, the Philippines and even Malaysia.

The risk here is that Southeast Asia is becoming a very weak reed on which to build trust about the future stability of the Asia Pacific region. What we are witnessing is a drift by ASEAN into China’s orbit. There is every sign that China is succeeding in establishing a sphere of influence over Southeast Asia, including control over important strategic waters in the South China Sea. A Southeast Asia that kowtows to Beijing would pose a major strategic challenge for other key players in the region like Australia.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that ASEAN has been successful in avoiding armed conflict between its member states (after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978). And the very fact that members of the ARF meet frequently to talk about issues is a positive diplomatic development. But we need to ask ourselves just what ASEAN and the ARF are contributing to the lessening of tensions in the region by way of concrete agreements or understandings.

For example, what has ASEAN or the ARF contributed to the most dangerous looming crisis in the region with respect to North Korea and its threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States, South Korea and Japan? The answer is nothing other than the vain hope that the Six Party Talks might resume and once again produce no result. And who believes that any of the ASEAN countries would stand up to China militarily in the event that it decides to use force in the South China Sea?

One of the most useful confidence-building measures that has been developed by the region recently is the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). This important agreement (which is based on the 1972 avoidance of naval incidents at sea agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union) has been signed by most countries in the region and is the basis of a formal agreement between China and the United States. However, neither ASEAN nor the ARF played any significant role in its development. It is the brainchild of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium led by the Chiefs of Navy of practically all naval forces in the region.

There has not been such a period of profound strategic anxiety in the region since the Vietnam War. If ASEAN and the ARF are to remain relevant they need to come up with concrete ideas for conflict resolution and the lessening of tensions and not believe that if they simply indulge in endless talks the risk of armed conflict will automatically disappear.

Author: Paul Dibb, ANU

Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University. He has represented Australia at all the annual meetings of the ARF Expert and Eminent Persons since 2006 and chaired the 11th meeting in March 2017.

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