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Southeast Asian States Need to Reassess the Region’s Security Guardrails

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Southeast Asian States Need to Reassess the Region’s Security Guardrails

The flexible and inclusive security mechanisms of the post-Cold War era are beginning to decay. What might replace them?

Southeast Asian States Need to Reassess the Region’s Security Guardrails

Cambodia hosts the 29th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 5, 2022.

Credit: Cambodia – ASEAN 2022

Southeast Asia is entering another period of acute uncertainty as it transitions from the unipolar order of the post-Cold War era to an increasingly multipolar world – and one of increasing strategic competition. Approaching this crossroads, Indo-Pacific nations have started calling for the creation of new guardrails.

Guardrails is a term to describe a series of overlapping mechanisms to shield the region from the impact of structural pressures such as great power rivalry. As highlighted by last month’s Joint Communique between Indonesia and Australia, the goal is to foster a condition where “competition is managed responsibly, where sovereignty and territorial integrity are respected, and where countries can exercise their agency free from coercion.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, noted the importance of guardrails, which serve as a “pressure valve of dialogue.” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan asserted during the 2023 Southeast Regional Geopolitical Update at the Australian National University that the region must develop guardrails in order to shield it from “the most intense [U.S.-China] competitions across multiple domains in our lifetimes.”

But new times call for a new approach to the creation of guardrails and the dilemma of what to do with the pre-existing, and in some cases outdated, security mechanisms.

Weak by Design: The Corroding Post-Cold War Guardrails

The Post-Cold War regional order was sustained by a series of overlapping mechanisms under the ASEAN umbrella, including Track 1 events, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Track 1.5 events, such as the South China Sea Workshop, and Track 2 events, such as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

Those who harp on ASEAN’s various failures often fail to understand the concept of multilayered institutions as guardrails for the post-Cold War period. These tracks were complementary, and each served a unique function. The formal setting of Track 1 enabled policymakers to find a common denominator, and the informal setting of Track 1.5 enabled policymakers to wear different hats and engage in a more hostile dialogue with their counterparts without undermining diplomatic relations. Track 2 enabled influential scholars in policy spheres to build regional networks and offer recommendations.

In 1995, the ARF was established as a weak institution. The weakness was intentional because its formation aimed to achieve the conflicting goals of integrating China, anchoring the U.S., and introducing new confidence building and preventive diplomatic measures. If the guardrails were too formal, Beijing would refuse to participate, and the U.S. would be the sole major power, which was undesirable for Southeast Asian states that wished to preserve their strategic autonomy. As Michael Leifer explained in 1995 this dilemma motivated Southeast Asian states to refuse to refer to the new institution asthe Asian Regional Forum, as advocated by Australia, Japan, and the U.S., which envisioned a stronger and more functional security institution. Between 1993 and 1995, ASEAN worked toward creating an ARF that was weaker but more inclusive – the only regional security forum in East Asia that allowed open discussions between all of the major powers.

Equally important components of the post-Cold War guardrails were the informal institutions built around the ARF, such as the South China Sea workshops or the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), where policymakers and influential scholars could debate exhaustively without affecting diplomatic relations.

These institutions created guardrails in three ways. First, they allowed regional officials, like the prominent Indonesian diplomats Ali Alatas and Hasjim Djalal, to exert significant pressures on their Chinese counterparts when discussing the South China Sea dispute without engaging in public debates in formal forums such as ASEAN meetings. With contestation happening behind the scenes in an informal setting, the formal meetings could focus on finding a modus vivendi between the great powers.

Second, they allowed the diffusion of ideas from great powers into the region and vice-versa. David Capie and Paul Evans’ “The Asia-Pacific Security Lexicon,” published in 2001, was written to teach Chinese officials about key regional security concepts such as comprehensive security and non-interference so that the Chinese participants could emulate and interact with Southeast Asian participants across the different tracks.

Third, they created deeper connections across the region between influential scholars in policymaking, such as Desmond Ball of Australia, Noordin Sopiee of Malaysia, and Ralph Cossa of the United States. These connections offered policy recommendations that had the potential to shape the evolution of regionalism in Asia.

Given that the ARF’s weakness was intentional, the current decaying formal and informal security institutions have not failed; indeed, they have served their fundamental purpose. China has been integrated into the region, the U.S. has been anchored as regional sheriff, the concept of comprehensive security has been understood, and most importantly, networks of informal and formal connections between policymakers and scholars across the region have been created.

The success of Southeast Asian states in persuading great powers to participate in their multilayered institutions reflected an acute uncertainty that followed the end of the Cold War. But the period of relative stability between 2002 and 2012, fostered in part by these guardrails, begat complacency and institutional decay, which helped corrode these mechanisms. The promise of stability made Southeast Asian states deemphasize security cooperation and work towards economic integration,.

Beyond Agency: Strategic Choices in an Entangled World

In the 15th century, countries in Southeast Asia had to navigate the competition between Java and the Chinese empire, and kingdoms in the middle, such as the Malacca Sultanate, could maintain their autonomy by playing the two regional powers off against one other. During the Cold War, countries in the region did similarly, as evidenced by Indonesia’s tilt towards the USSR in order to gain U.S. support in West Papua. The long experience of interacting with great powers has taught the region to hedge, not to place its eggs in any one great power basket, to create exit plans, and to trust those who stay.

The latter point – trust those who stay – reflects an acceptance by Southeast Asian states that they are geographically stuck with each other, and therefore must collectively take the initiative to establish  regional security guardrails, rather than relying on the U.S. or China to do so. This sense of geographical reality caused them to sink U.S. efforts to create SEATO, and instead to take the initiative in 1967 of creating creating ASEAN.

However, the emerging multipolar world is characterized by “deep entanglement” like never before. This fact, and particularly the region’s close economic entwinement with China,  has created an unprecedented challenge for Southeast Asian states. The U.S. has so far been unable to completely decouple its economic cooperation with China because of intertwined interests: it needs to cooperate with China to meet national goals such as its green transition, and Beijing has exercised restraint in the face of U.S. sanctions.

If it is difficult for the U.S. to move away from China, it is even more costly for Southeast Asian states. China’s infrastructure investment creates more permanent entanglement, given that it cannot simply be withdrawn in a time of crisis as Western investors did in 1998 during the Asian Financial Crisis. Furthermore, Chinese investment across Southeast Asia is also increasingly intertwined with regime security and legitimacy. In Malaysia, Chinese investments such as the East Coast Rail Link or the Kuantan Port are located in areas of political importance to the country’s ruling establishment.

Southeast Asian states are active participants in facilitating the order transition. The modality of Southeast Asian states to shape the strategic equilibrium comes from the fact that they offer several vital lifelines for great powers.

For China, Southeast Asia is a testing ground for its regional influence. Getting Southeast Asian states to legitimize its rise by both emulating its economic model and fending off pre-existing negative perceptions against it are at the top of its foreign policy agenda. This is why China has intensified its engagement with the region in the last 10 years and has worked closely with key partners such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Cambodia to bolster its regional position. Indonesia, in particular, holds a special position due to the abundance of critical minerals key to semiconductor production. Although the relationship is mutual, where Southeast Asian states actively tap into Beijing’s infrastructure funds, it is equally important for Beijing to showcase its technological prowess. Similarly, the U.S. sees Southeast Asian states as key partners in balancing Beijing’s influence.

Realizing their special position, key Southeast Asian states have tapped into this growing rivalry by once again playing these great powers off each other: encouraging China to help them bolster regime security by offering various key investments of political importance, and persuading the U.S. to balance China by helping to develop their maritime capacity.

With these modalities, Southeast Asian states are not interested in guardrails that simply preserve their autonomy. They have moved on from the adage of “not wanting to choose” between the U.S. or China because they have made a decision to pursue “piecemeal alignment,” as Khong Yuen Foong has described it. The region has made the decision that the U.S. remains the security partner of choice, and it is more accepting of a more forward American presence in the region to balance China – within limits.

Southeast Asian countries are concerned about not simply preserving their agency but also in advancing their interests in various sectors. In this period of transition, each country in the region is asking itself how to avoid invidious choices between the great powers, to weigh whether one choice is better than the rest, and to consider whether to gamble on the choice that best aligns with their interests.

Guardrails with New Goals

If the critical goals of the post-Cold War order were to anchor the U.S. in Southeast Asia, integrate China into the region, and promote a security lexicon of confidence building, a multipolar world suggests different goals.

First, the region should seek to harness Beijing’s economic rise in order to support regime security and national interests while creating multi-layered restraints on China’s power. This includes deepening bilateral relationships, recognizing cooperation between emerging and established institutions, such as the possibility of ASEAN working with the Quad or harmonizing with AUKUS, and increasing cooperation with the U.S. in the maritime sector.

Second, the region should encourage a U.S.-China modus vivendi that is geared not toward a great power condominium and the division of spheres of influence but toward limited competition. Third and finally, the region should seek to minimize the impact of sectoral competition between the U.S. and China from challenging its existing choices by encouraging what Evelyn Goh has described as “positive-sum games.”

Strategic equilibrium thus involves a number of delicate operations: to balance China without engaging in a policy of containment, to accept major power competitions as the new normal while avoiding conflict, and to encourage cordial relations between major powers without making them too friendly.

To achieve these three goals, there are three possible choices that Southeast Asian countries can make concerning the current institutions. They can rejuvenate the pre-existing regional security institutions, such as the ARF, support the creation of new security institutions, or take the middle way.

The first approach is easier said than done. Despite the urgent need for guardrails, reviving the region’s faith in the ARF is a challenging task. Creating a new security institution or supporting a new one, such as the Quad, also poses the challenge of harmonizing differing visions and integrating actors of different sizes and attitudes while remaining functional. The inability to do this near-impossible task would risk creating another dysfunctional ARF.

But there is a middle way. The region can take stock and re-evaluate its institutional inventories and selectively empower workable assets and kill dysfunctional ones. The most valuable asset of the old guardrails is the network of Track 1.5 and 2 dialogues, such as CSCAP.

The Shangri-La Dialogue also to some extent fulfils this function, but CSCAP is unique because of its nature as an institutionalized network spanning the Asia-Pacific region, its close connection with respective countries’ governments, and its purpose of finding a regional consensus and workable policy recommendations.

It is thus worth enhancing the prominence of CSCAP as the first step and to task it to find regional ways to redefine comprehensive security concepts for the new era and lay the foundation for new guardrails. Moreover, in a recent conversation, the influential Indonesian scholar Rizal Sukma noted that CSCAP is better at advising the East Asia Summit than the ARF, given that confidence in the latter institution remains high among its members.

The time is ripe for new guardrails, and growing competition offers opportunities. The key is understanding, appreciating, and empowering the assets that the region already possesses and infusing them with a new purpose.

This article is based on the author’s reflection from various discussion during with scholars during the Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update at the Australian National University, Canberra, on May 1, 2023.

Guest Author

Emirza Adi Syailendra

Emirza Adi Syailendra is a Ph.D. candidate at the Strategic and Defence Study Centre at the Australian National University and serving as Working Committee at the ANU Southeast Asia Institute. He is also an associate research fellow at the Indonesia Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.