With its strategic geographical location, Southeast Asia serves as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and East Asia. Some countries in Southeast Asia are also famous for their maritime territory, which consists of a group of islands.
Historically, this archipelago was known as Nusantara, stretching from the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Strait, Indonesian waters to the South China Sea. Today, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore play an important role in the global economy. Their strategic location at the crossroads between Europe and East Asia makes these straits the convergence point of international shipping lanes.
On the other hand, the South China Sea has been a source of tension in recent decades due to China's sovereignty claims in the region, which have led to several clashes and rising tensions between countries.
From this fact, the question arises whether it is more beneficial for ASEAN to have a joint armed force or to maintain the security of each country individually.
Contemporary Threats in ASEAN
Today, Southeast Asian countries face increasingly complex maritime threats. These include military threats and unconventional threats such as drug smuggling, border disputes, piracy, maritime accidents, natural disasters, and other illegal activities. Unconventional threats share common characteristics of transcending national boundaries, causing social and political instability, and requiring regional and multilateral cooperation.
The Straits of Malacca and Singapore have been in the global spotlight since the 1990s due to the increasing incidence of piracy. The region has become one of the most heated security issues in Southeast Asia, aside from the conflict in the South China Sea, as modern piracy activities continue to threaten merchant ships passing through the straits. In fact, the border areas between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are known as "the main hub of terrorist activities and related crimes in Southeast Asia". In addition, Myanmar's conflict and refugee problem has become a concern for many countries.
The Dynamics of ASEAN Security Cooperation
In fact, ASEAN already had a defense pact in the Cold War era called SEATO. However, only two ASEAN countries, the Philippines and Thailand, joined this defense pact. However, this alliance was dissolved in 1977 because it could not satisfy its members.
Then in 2009, ASEAN adopted the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) as a joint effort to create a peaceful and harmonious environment in the region. In the document, there is a commitment that all members are equally responsible for achieving cohesive, stable and resilient regional security.
It is important to note, however, that the adoption of the APSC does not automatically mean a defense pact. The APSC is based on the recognition that cooperation in addressing common threats is necessary for mutual prosperity. ASEAN remains committed to the principles of non-interference, consultation, and consensus.
On the other hand, ASEAN also has the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), where maritime security is a key concern. Then, through the APSC, ASEAN also established the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) as a comprehensive approach and focus on security issues in the region.
Several ASEAN countries have worked together to address these threats. Indonesia and Malaysia cooperate in conducting joint maritime border patrols through MALINDO. In addition, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore cooperate through the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP), which includes the Malacca Strait Sea Patrol (MSSP) and Eyes in the Sky (EiS), and the Intelligence Working Group (IEG). There is also some other security cooperation in the form of forums and joint exercises, such as WPNS and Exercise Komodo.
Why isn't ASEAN a military alliance?
ASEAN countries do have security cooperation, but not in the form of a military alliance or the establishment of joint armed forces. The two are different because security cooperation only includes information sharing, policy coordination, training, joint exercises, and joint actions to address existing security threats. The ultimate goal is to create a secure environment, enhance stability, and promote mutual security between the countries involved.
A military alliance, on the other hand, is a formal agreement between two or more countries to assist and protect each other militarily in the face of common security threats. Military alliances usually include a commitment to provide military support in certain situations, such as a military attack on one of the alliance members. In this case, the countries that are members of the military alliance will share the same assumption of "who or what is a threat to the state? In this case, ASEAN is still unable to form a military alliance due to its principle of non-interference.
Is it possible for ASEAN to establish military regionalism?
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, as long as ASEAN still has the principle of non-interference, it is difficult to form military regionalism or a security alliance in the region.
Moreover, disagreements and different views among ASEAN countries further complicate the formation of military regionalism. For example, not all ASEAN countries believe that migration is a threat to every country. In fact, many question whether it will affect their national interests in the future.
Each country in ASEAN implements its own defense policies, which are influenced by different political positions. However, given the security threats in the region, greater cooperation is needed. What can be done is to strengthen coordinated cooperation and develop workable standard operating procedures.
Ciptadi, Andromeda Windra. (2021). ASEAN Naval Force: The Next Defence Regionalism. Jurnal Maritim Indonesia, 9(3)
ASEAN. Maritime Cooperation. asean.org
ASEAN. ASEAN Political Security Community. asean.org
Krishnan, Tharishini. (2022). The Future of ASEAN Maritime Security Cooperation. eastasiaforum.org