ASEAN Is Not a Security Community (Yet)

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ASEAN Is Not a Security Community (Yet)

Has the bloc really been the force for peace in the region that some claim?

ASEAN Is Not a Security Community (Yet)
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Since the formation of the Association of South East Asian Nations in 1967 with the Bangkok Declaration, there have been no major wars between its members – although there have been a number of militarized border disputes. Constructivists (Amitav Acharya premier among them, writing on the subject from 1991–present) maintain that this “lasting peace” is the result of community, and that ASEAN is therefore a security community (SC). I contend that there are more important factors than community at play that are responsible for the lack of war, and moreover that ASEAN is not as secure as it appears.

To begin, let’s define our terms. “Security” is, to be concise, the absence of violence and threat of violence. A “community,” aptly described by Acharya, is a group with a shared identity and common norms. “Security community,” a term coined by Karl Deutsch in 1957 and best defined by him, is a group “with reasonable expectations for lasting peaceful change” – that is, the resolution of disputes by peaceful means.

Is ASEAN a security community? Both the assertion that it is secure and a community are dubious – while there has been no war, the militarized border disputes have occasionally resulted in casualties, including civilian losses. Individual member states also have tainted track records on human rights and human security, raising questions about the security of individual citizens: Thailand’s 2003 “war on drugs” witnessed the extra-judicial killing of at least 2500 alleged drug dealers; according to Human Rights Watch’s recent assessment, Burma’s human rights situation is regressing; and several ASEAN states have questionable levels of freedom of speech and assembly.

A community feeling is suspiciously absent as well, evidenced in the 2003 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, the Malaysian threats to cut off Singapore’s water supply to apply political pressure, and the disputed territories of Pedra Branca (claimed by Singapore and Malaysia; the ICJ ruled in Singapore’s favor in 2008) and the Ambalat sea block (claimed by Malaysia and Indonesia; still contested). Most telling, however, is the 2003 Bali Concord II which establishes the goal of an ASEAN SC, acknowledging that it is as of yet unreached; this was reaffirmed in the 2009 “Blueprint.”

Even if we suppose that ASEAN meets the most minimal definition of an SC – having both the S and the C – that its S is caused by its C is even more difficult to prove. To validate constructivist claims we would require this thicker level of causation, and building on that a thicker level still which separates SCs as distinct from other security arrangements in causing peace.

If not an SC, what is responsible for ASEAN’s lasting peace – or more accurately, ASEAN’s lack of major war? Realists would invoke the tired “balance of power” explanation, a collective hedging against Beijing and Washington (and possibly Tokyo); the 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) declaration, asserting that ASEAN will be free from the interference of outside powers, is the key example here. But realists would be remiss to think that ASEAN, even collectively, could deter a great power – never mind ASEAN’s hard refusal to adopt a military pact, opting instead for the “ASEAN Way” of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference, consensus-style decision-making based on tolerance and equality, and a preference for an informal, barely institutionalized environment (much of ASEAN’s inter-diplomacy is Track II). Democratic peace theorists might point to economic interdependence and democracy but ASEAN does not, as a whole, practice democracy; nor is it economically interdependent – only Singapore and Malaysia have a high ratio of bilateral trade and economic interdependence.

Chih-Mao Tang, an assistant professor at Soochow University, Taiwan, posits a “long, capitalist peace”: since gaining independence, ASEAN states shifted focus from nationalism to state-building, earning legitimacy through economic growth. They adopted liberal capitalism, changing from import-substitution strategies to export-orientated economies (Singapore in 1965; Indonesia and Thailand in the 1970s; Malaysia in 1980s; Vietnam in 1990s), which requires regional stability to attract investors and trading partners. In adopting liberal capitalism, these states were benignly signaling each other, assuring the intent to avoid conflict – at least on the state level.

But what of human security? Alan Collins, a senior professor at Swansea University, U.K., points to the increased involvement of civil society, shifting policy influence from the elites exclusively toward the people. The Bali Concord II, for the first time in ASEAN scripture, mentioned the “D” word: it envisions “a just, democratic, harmonious environment.” But in this context democracy is less a commitment to pluralism than it is a definition of difference, i.e. not-communist – after all, ASEAN was founded on the common threat of communist insurgencies and ethnic separatists. The increased participation of civil society would demonstrate a real interest in democracy beyond the lip-service of Bali II, and could herald a shift toward peace inclusive of human security. Of course, “democracy” is usually nothing more than a euphemism for “liberal capitalism,” which has no vested interest in amplifying citizens’ voices, encouraging their participation in government, or protecting individual human security beyond ensuring workers’ willingness and ability to produce labor.

Rizal Sukma, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, says that, in Deutschian terms, ASEAN is not a security community but a security regime; but, without violating the sacred principle of non-interference, it could be a community that is mindful of human security by increasing cooperation on transnational issues (such as climate change and drug trafficking) and humanitarian crises.

Constructivism, like all grand theories of IR, is flawed, and these flaws become increasingly apparent as we “zoom in” on case studies. ASEAN’s lasting peace (again, ignoring human security) could more easily be explained by liberal capitalism, which has no room for war at the state level, than by community. It is the task of future researchers to determine the formula, if such a task is achievable, for creating ASEAN’s lasting peace and supposing how it might be implemented elsewhere. More importantly, it is the role of scholars and policymakers alike to focus less on theory and more on praxis, in discovering how we might make ASEAN (and elsewhere) peaceful not only at the state level but the transnational and individual levels.

Morgan Potts is an assistant editor at Sino-NK, and a production editor at the British Association for Korean Studies.