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Asean a collective security organization?

A lthough its name gives no hint of it, Asean was envisioned to have an exclusively economic orientation. The world however woke up to its immense potentials as a regional body for its work in the political and security area, for the critical role it played in resolving the Kampuchean crisis.

Soon, with the adhesion of the communist states of the former Indochina, Asean was to emerge as a unique regional organization, one whose members followed various political and economic regimes. Indeed, one could logically expect Asean not to follow other, especially Western, models of regional integration, and instead to craft its future as its members see and think of and by themselves.

But Asean leaders at their first Summit in Bali in 1976 overruled Asean becoming a collective defense organization. One foreign minister was even quoted as saying categorically that Asean had nothing to do with military cooperation.

Obviously much water has gone under the bridge since then. After a journey of many steps that, after the Asean way, each step had to be agreed upon by consensus, the Asean Economic Community was finally inaugurated recently. Along the way, there was a realization that a secure environment has very much to do with sustaining economic growth, and serious threats to regional security have come from new and unprecedented factors: terrorism, piracy, transnational crimes, natural disasters, pandemics, besides the emergence of a new struggle for primacy between and among status quo and rising powers.

Hence, the proposals to establish an Asean Defense Community. A landmark in the journey towards this goal was the inauguration in May 2006 of the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), which was followed by the organization of Asean Chiefs of Defense Forces Informal Meeting and several military working groups
The three-year programs of the ADMM have apparently been successful in inculcating and developing the habits of cooperation on which to found a security community.

The 14th Asean Summit envisioned the establishment of the Asean Political-Security Community by 2015 after determining how far Asean defense cooperation can go in building a security community. The building of the Economic Community proceeded cautiously at first and then concluded at an accelerated pace. One hopes at least the same for the Security Community.

The countries of Southeast Asia have counted on the American presence to maintain the balance of power and ensure stability in the region. When the Philippines had the US military facilities removed from its bases, rejoicing in Southeast Asia was very much limited to Filipino nationalists. Singapore for example rushed to fill the vacuum left by the action of the Philippines by entering into an agreement allowing US ships and aircraft to use its military facilities for repair, resupply, and logistics support. Previously, the countries of Southeast Asia did appear to be free-riding on the Philippines’ hosting of the US military facilities.

Robert D. Kaplan seems to argue against relying too much on the shield provided by the military superiority of the United States. While the military budget of the United States suffers yearly reductions, China, despite a slowing economic growth, has the determination and capability to challenge and surpass the United States’ dominance of the seas and skies of the region. The attention of the United States moreover is spread over several fronts while China is focused on its southern backyard.

Actually, the original vision of the United Nations for world peace consists of a global collective defense system supported by regional collective defense organizations. My friend Ambassador Encomendia argues that the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty has lapsed because it was intended to provide security for the Philippines while a regional collective defense organization was being formed. Its “indefinite” term means not “forever” but “in the meantime.” The Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established but met an early, largely unmourned demise.

SEATO failed because it primarily served American foreign policy interests. A regional collective security organization that is based on the common regional interests and not the states’ domestic regimes may fare differently. The competing, overlapping claims of Asean members in the South China Sea need not be an obstacle since they agree to be guided by the rules of international law. With the integration of the Asean economy, an attack on one member can affect the prosperity of all the others. There may be members with no claims in the South China Sea; this does not mean that their interests are not threatened by an aggressive expansionist power in the neighborhood.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the total military expenditures of Asean countries in 2013 equalled around US $38 billion dollars, miniscule compared to China’s $188 billion. But Brian Wivell believes that a united front with shared military resources of approximately a fifth of China’s expenditures could be substantial in deterring China from aggressive action.

Anyway, Asean military cooperation would not be for the purpose of fighting China but for the purpose of negotiating from a position of strength, not weakness. And by the way, states individually or a group, according to Bill Hayton need not go toe to toe with the military assets of China or any superior power. They can learn from a page in China’s book on military strategies. Shashoujian or “assassins mace” is a strategy using relatively inexpensive weapons to surprise and disable a much more sophisticated adversary.

Kaplan projects that the future balance of power in Asia may follow that of nineteenth century Concert of Europe in which case China, the United States, Japan, India, and perhaps one or two others would sit down at the table of Asian power as equals. Asean with its huge integrated economy and a possibly unified defense front could, we hope, be at the table.

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