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

ASEAN and growing global expectations vis-a-vis multilevel security governance

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on September 2, 2011

ASEAN seems to face relatively greater pressure to contribute effectively to a multilateral order and multilevel security governance. This partly arises from its role as the driver of the wider regional agenda through various ASEAN-led multilateral institutions, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three, the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting – Plus (ADMM+8). With ASEAN in the metaphorical driving seat, the institutions are also expanding in scope – both in terms of the issues they address and their membership. For instance, the US and Russia participated in the inaugural ADMM+ in October 2010, and are due to take part in their first EAS later this year.

The idea of a regional-global security mechanism based on regional organisations assuming complementary roles vis-à-vis the UN has been reiterated in numerous UN documents in recent years, including the report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document.

However, there are a growing number of critics who point to an ostensible legitimacy deficit vis-à-vis ASEAN and its wider regional role, with many lamenting that ASEAN’s institutional weakness diminishes its credibility as the driver and enforcer of the regional agenda. Accordingly, critics push “ASEAN” to put its own house in order and to ‘decide what it wants to be’.

While building institutional capacity in terms of a coherent and functional framework for responding to regional security concerns is without a doubt critical, many of ASEAN’s critics nonetheless seem to under-emphasise the constraints that the inter-governmental organisation faces in becoming more proactive, effective, and credible. Not least, ASEAN is handicapped by various relational dynamics, including the influence of powerful socio-political forces with the ability to constrain the domestic and regional agenda.

No case illustrates this more starkly than the diplomatic saga that has ensued in the Thai, Cambodian and Indonesian capitals since violence broke out on the Thai-Cambodia border in February and April this year. The primary factor behind ASEAN’s difficulties in resolving the bilateral dispute is the complexity of Thai politics and the motivations of several key actors, including the powerful military establishment and several key political groups, primarily the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) (although the UDD is similarly known for its readiness to deploy “mob politics” to destabilize the government).

Over and above Indonesia’s difficulties in bringing the two parties to the table to agree on demilitarization and the deployment of an observer team, the ASEAN chair’s tenuous diplomatic role is a stark reminder of the influence that diverse domestic actors can exact on ASEAN’s agenda and the constraints on ASEAN’s autonomous evolution, despite expectations to the contrary. If ASEAN desires to become more proactive in regional security governance, it will, in one way or another, invariably need to take account of powerful domestic dynamics and interests – which often lie beyond the reach of the official state line.

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