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The Perils of Overstretching Minilateral Cooperation Within ASEAN

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The Perils of Overstretching Minilateral Cooperation Within ASEAN

Calls for ASEAN member states to extend minilateral cooperation into the security realm could entail hefty costs.

The Perils of Overstretching Minilateral Cooperation Within ASEAN

ASEAN flags at the Opening Ceremony of the ASEAN Pavilion on World Expo 2020.

Credit: ASEAN Secretariat/Eant Phone Aung

The role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional security has been questioned since the return of major power competition in recent years. The establishment of minilateral institutions such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), AUKUS, and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral security alliance have all threatened to undercut ASEAN’s centrality in regional affairs. Nevertheless, the rise of competing institutions in the Indo-Pacific region are products of tacit frustration with ASEAN’s inability to provide effective platforms to manage pressing security issues.

Meanwhile, ASEAN-led summits and initiatives have been increasingly derided as “talk shops.” The 30th ASEAN Regional Forum in Jakarta failed to make concrete progress on the Myanmar crisis and the negotiations for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. At the recent ASEAN Plus Three summit in Jakarta, China’s unveiling of a new territorial map that lays claims over the entire South China Sea compounded ASEAN’s institutional inefficiency in managing regional security issues.

The 2023 State of Southeast Asia survey, conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, showed an overwhelming 82.6 percent of respondents expressing the belief that ASEAN is inefficient and becoming increasingly irrelevant on the global stage.

The search for a remedy to the problems undercutting ASEAN’s centrality has given rise to a narrative encouraging the extension of minilateral arrangements in the traditional security sphere, including in the South China Sea. Some have advocated that ASEAN should institutionalize ASEAN-led minilateral cooperation to manage traditional security issues whereas others have proposed the need for ASEAN to engage with external powers in the minilateral format of “ASEAN Plus One” to diffuse geopolitical tensions.

Granted that these proposals allow ASEAN to bypass its cumbersome consensus-based decision-making processes, and permit it to adopt decisive stances on key security issues, including the disputes in the South China Sea. However, the extension of minilateral cooperation into the traditional security sphere is not devoid of costly trade-offs for the Southeast Asian bloc.

For instance, non-confrontation is the bedrock of ASEAN’s relations with external stakeholders. This approach has been instrumental in ensuring that ASEAN remains friends to all, thus preserving its attraction as a convening hub for mutually beneficial cooperation. ASEAN’s abrupt embrace of minilateral cooperation in the security realm, which would involve a tentative adoption of a more confrontational diplomatic tone towards traditional security issues, would signal its radical departure from this long-standing tradition. In so doing, it may tarnish its existing relationship with trade partners on which it is highly dependent.

Minilateral cooperation is not novel in ASEAN’s experience. In fact, in 2018, ASEAN adopted the “Our Eyes Initiative,” a minilateral endeavor formed to combat transnational terrorism. While the bloc may have smoothly pushed through the establishment of minilateral cooperation in the non-traditional security domain, the same cannot be guaranteed if and when the organization attempts to extend minilateral cooperation beyond the non-traditional security sphere. Doing so will raise deep concerns among member states given the possibility that their national interests may be overridden by a majority vote. An insistent push for extending minilateral cooperation towards the traditional security sector may aggravate tensions among member states or worse, risk a dissolution of ASEAN.

Beyond that, problems of institutional ambiguity are also bound to arise. A compelling case in point would be the South China Sea. All along, ASEAN and its multilateral forums have always been the key players in managing the territorial contestation between its members and China. Through the endorsement of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in 2002, ASEAN has explicitly erected a non-confrontational framework for how member states should approach the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN is also currently negotiating with China a binding Code of Conduct that aims to achieve a peaceful environment in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, the establishment of a new ASEAN-led minilateral cooperation in the South China Sea that seeks to employ confrontational measures in voicing disappointments towards China’s assertive behaviors would contradict ASEAN’s pre-existing declarations and approach, which stress self-restraint and non-confrontation. Moreover, given the differential approaches between ASEAN and a putative ASEAN-led minilateral, and the fact that both would be formal ASEAN institutions, the question of which approach would take precedence as ASEAN’s official position would become highly ambiguous. The introduction of a confrontational ASEAN-led minilateral in the South China sea might further compromise ASEAN’s current COC negotiations with China. Ideally, ASEAN-led institutions are meant to complement each other. Ambiguity, on the other hand, would further tarnish its reputation as a constructive actor in regional security.

Of course, it can be suggested that the goals pursued within the minilateral cooperation must be aligned with ASEAN’s existing policies. In this case, the creation of the minilateral cooperation will be a self-defeating exercise, given that the core purpose of establishing minilateral cooperation is meant to transcend ASEAN’s conservative form of multilateralism. ASEAN-led minilateral cooperation which either toes the line of ASEAN’s conservatism or being subordinated to ASEAN and its multilateral forums is unlikely to be of significance to ASEAN in mending its faltering relevance in regional security – the whole reason why people are considering minilateral options in the first place.

Finally, it could also be geopolitically costly for ASEAN to pursue minilateral cooperation with external powers through the “ASEAN Plus One” format. With the intensifying great power contestation in the region, there are heightened sensitivities about the strategic alignment and intentions of states. A minilateral “ASEAN Plus One” cooperative format involving ASEAN’s close cooperation with another major power such as United States or Japan may play to the suspicions of other rival major powers such as China that the formation of the exclusive minilateral club could be used to soft balance against Beijing. This may jeopardize ASEAN’s prime position in regional diplomacy, which allows it to reap benefits from win-win cooperation with every major power in the region.

While I have argued that there are high costs to ASEAN of extending minilateral cooperation into the traditional security sector, this is not to suggest that minilateral cooperation is unequivocally detrimental for the bloc. It would be ideal for ASEAN member states to pursue minilateral cooperation in traditional security domains outside the frameworks of ASEAN in their own individual state capacities. Indeed, ASEAN members have already begun pursuing minilateral cooperation outside of ASEAN, where they can cater directly to their niche security needs. ASEAN, on the other hand, should be preserved as an institution to attract win-win cooperation from external stakeholders instead of expecting ASEAN as a decisive actor in managing security affairs just to salvage its diminishing centrality.