The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Reflections on a More Confident and Relevant ASEAN?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on March 17, 2011
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ASEAN’s perceived utility stems largely from its capacity to manage and diffuse tensions between its member states. The foundation of this achievement is largely recognized to be its normative framework – the ‘ASEAN way’, which is widely seen as the region’s most important informal mechanism of conflict management. Thus, when an on-going dispute over territory along the Thai-Cambodian border manifested in violent clashes on 4-7 February, violating fundamental ASEAN principles of the non-use or threat of force and the peaceful resolution of disputes, it generated debate regarding the fundamental [ir]relevance of the organisation, given its ostensible failure to fulfil it’s very raison d’être.

In the wake of the clashes, some commentators suggested that the incident could portend a reversal of ASEAN’s successes in securing regional stability and the return to force as the tool of choice for settling differences. While potentially alarmist, the escalation of the territorial dispute nonetheless presented an important litmus test for the 10-member association, which is in the midst of a drive to form a political-security community. However, several weeks after the height of the dispute, it is possible at least tentatively, to draw some positive insights.

Through the dispute, ASEAN has arguably signified its intention to move into a new phase, governed – necessarily – by a more proactive attitude towards regional peace and security. With a mandate reaffirmed by the ASEAN Charter, and without requiring prompting, Indonesian FM Marty Natalegawa, representing the ASEAN Chair, initiated shuttle diplomacy to attempt to pave the way for bilateral talks and to halt the violence. ASEAN’s role as mediator was strengthened on 14 February when the UNSC expressed its support for ASEAN’s active efforts in the dispute, endorsing the upcoming informal meeting of Foreign Ministers on 22 February.

Out of this meeting, there emerged agreement that a group of Indonesian observers would be sent to the disputed border area as well as consensus on the importance of holding further bilateral talks, with Indonesia’s support. It is expected that the two will discuss the plan, including the terms of reference for the observer mission, during the Thailand-Cambodia Joint Boundary Committee (JBC) on demarcation and General Border Committee (GBC) meetings in Indonesia on 24-25 March.

Indonesia’s engagement in the dispute on behalf of ASEAN has been described by Natalegawa as a ‘seminal development in ASEAN’s capacity to deal with a conflict situation’. Ultimately, in spite of accounts of its relative impotence in addressing issues of regional peace and security, it appears that ASEAN is making serious attempts to manoeuvre around its inherent constraints to take on a more proactive role in this area. ASEAN’s proactive engagement in the Thai-Cambodia crisis can boost its confidence in this regard, provided it manages to negotiate a stable solution to the conflict in the coming weeks and months. Though perhaps the real challenge will lie in maintaining the momentum when Indonesia passes its chairmanship to Cambodia in 10 months time, given that it was Natalegawa’s initiative and diplomatic skill that has been most striking during this crisis.

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