Earlier this week, Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein reiterated his country’s desire to establish an ASEAN peacekeeping force as the chair of the grouping this year.
According to the Malaysian newspaper The Star, in an address to the defense ministry before beginning his visits to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, Hishammuddin said that he is in the process of visiting every one of the nine other ASEAN countries and that one of the things he would discuss would be the formation of an ASEAN peacekeeping force.
Seasoned ASEAN observers know that the idea of an ASEAN peacekeeping force is nothing new and has been around for years. Nor is it a purely Malaysian idea – other Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN bigwigs have also supported it the past. As I have noted in an earlier piece, Malaysia is merely reviving an old initiative now when it has the rare privilege of holding both the ASEAN chair as well as a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The case for establishing an ASEAN peacekeeping force today is clear. Southeast Asia is home to several internal conflicts and some fellow ASEAN members have already been involved in observing peacebuilding initiatives in hotspots like Aceh and Mindanao or participating in peacekeeping operations as in East Timor. Today, most ASEAN members have participated to varying degrees in UN peacekeeping operations and have already set up national peacekeeping training centers. ASEAN has already begun setting up a network among these centers – known as the ASEAN Peacekeeping Centers Network (APCN) – and it has held APCN meetings on the subject (with the first being held in 2012 in Malaysia).
Stubborn obstacles remain, however, to setting up a full ASEAN peacekeeping force, even though the voices opposing the initiative may not be as loud today as they were in the past. Resource constraints, inexperience in interoperability, and a general discomfort with ASEAN becoming too securitized too quickly are often cited as concerns. But the real issue is the unwillingness by some ASEAN members to move beyond a strict adherence to the grouping’s principles of noninterference and respect for state sovereignty, even though these have been interpreted flexibly in the past to justify other policy shifts in the absence of full consensus.
It is still unclear how Malaysia’s proposal will play out this year and beyond. If strong opposition continues, then gradualism will continue to prevail. A gradual approach would entail the eventual expansion of the nascent APCN to include all ten members and slowly broadening its activities from information-sharing and capacity-building to bolder efforts further down the line such as enhancing interoperability and eventually establishing a common standby agreement to support peacekeeping operations. What is clear, however, is that the idea of an ASEAN peacekeeping force – as is often the case with many bold initiatives within the regional grouping – is increasingly becoming a question of when, rather than if.