Towards a Southeast Asian Regional Security Architecture: Malaysia Can Play a Constructive Role

Dr Chandra Muzaffar (President - International Movement for a Just World)                    


There is no regional security architecture in ASEAN at this juncture of history. For such architecture to emerge ASEAN governments and peoples must be totally convinced that such an edifice is vital for their very survival.

As of now, ASEAN governments see security through the lens of the nation-state. In such a situation how do we – ASEAN citizens in particular – build a viable regional security architecture?

We could conceive of a RSA at three levels. It should begin with the nation-state itself. A secure state is not necessarily a state with formidable armed forces or a massive military budget. A cohesive state where wealth is equitably distributed, opportunities for political and civic participation are enhanced and human dignity and social justice are embedded in the structure and culture of society is a better guarantor of security for its people.

At the bilateral level, relations between states within ASEAN would be more secure if they are determined to resolve their disputes through dialogue and negotiation. A number of ASEAN states are faced with disputes some of which have been dragging on for decades. But by and large ASEAN states appear to be more inclined to peaceful resolution of conflicts, which is in effect one of the inherent strengths of our regional entity.

However, it is at the regional level that the construction of a RSA appears to be most challenging. For a long while, some ASEAN states have been orientated towards one global power or the other. With the emergence of China as a major economic power in the last two decades, the United States of America (USA) which has always played a dominant role in Southeast Asia is feeling threatened. Conflicts, present and potential, in the South China Sea convey the impression that the two powers may be falling into the Thucydides Trap where the tussle between a declining power and a rising power could lead to an actual war. If it does, ASEAN could well be a victim.

In order to avert such a calamity, ASEAN states should give priority to the goal of forging a common position on their relations with both the US and China. They should achieve a consensus on contentious issues such as military and security treaties with the two powers; providing access to military assets from the two countries; and hosting military bases for foreign powers on ASEAN soil. Even on economic, cultural and educational ties, there should be some shared understanding on how ASEAN states would approach China and the US.

The task of evolving a consensus within ASEAN on the role of the US and China and perhaps other big powers in ASEAN, and ASEAN’s attitude towards them is going to be long and arduous. In addressing this challenge, we should perhaps be guided by a concept that emerged from within the region 48 years ago. This is the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), initiated by Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, which envisaged an ASEAN free from interference by outside powers, practising peaceful coexistence and preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual states. ZOPFAN was adopted as a Declaration on 27 November 1971 in Kuala Lumpur.    

To give meaning to ZOPFAN in today’s environment, some concrete mechanisms will have to be created. A Rapid Response Task Force comprising diplomats and security personnel could be established which would attempt to ease tensions arising from frictions in relations between ASEAN and the big powers. The task force will work closely with ASEAN governments. We should also set up an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) with representatives from all ASEAN states, which will explore ways and means of strengthening solidarity within ASEAN especially among its citizens. A people-based regional outfit is the most effective mechanism for developing regional resilience in the face of big power rivalry. The Code of Conduct that ASEAN and China are trying to formulate which will regulate interaction among states in the South China Sea is yet another mechanism that offers some hope.

All these efforts and proposals will come to nought if ASEAN states become obsessed with military expansion as the best method of enhancing regional security. Even if only one or two ASEAN states choose this path, it is not inconceivable that it will encourage others to follow suit. This could lead to an intra-ASEAN arms race and may even set the stage for wars within and without the region. Fortunately, there are civil society groups in a number of ASEAN states that are against any such development. They realise that you cannot secure peace through war. Only peace can attain peace.

© 2019 MiDAS, All Rights Reserved