Inaugural ASEAN defence ministers meeting – further signs of change in ASEAN?

Updated On: May 09, 2006

ASEAN defence ministers are putting behind decades of territorial disputes and religious conflicts to hold inaugural talks in Kuala Lumpur this week. 

Part of changes taking place in the ASEAN grouping, the meeting is a significant development that could have a big impact on Asian regionalism.  The meeting takes place under the auspices of ASEAN’s community-building agenda.  While finding common ground in national security is tough in ASEAN, the meeting is part of efforts to create an ASEAN Security Community - a vision for more political and security cooperation.  It may not be a defence pact, but it is a big step forward in confidence-building for ASEAN.  Ministers are likely to agree to cooperate in areas of common interest, such as counter-terrorism, maritime piracy, smuggling and trafficking in migrants and drugs.  Unfortunately, Myanmar will not be attending.

Officials consider the meeting a milestone in security cooperation, providing members with a platform to brief the group on its security situation, in a grouping where intra-mural defence cooperation has always been shunned.  Malaysian officials say given that security had once been “a taboo topic”, this meeting shows ASEAN has “reached a new level of maturity, good will and understanding.”  Malaysia's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said recently, “We must move beyond the norm of ASEAN, looking at ASEAN as an economic or social and cultural (entity), to something that covers security."  The meeting is expected to give the grouping a boost at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which has been dominated by bigger players like the US in recent years.

Given the current terrorism problems in Southeast Asia, it is even more urgent and important that ASEAN cooperate closely in security and defence.  A recently released International Crisis Group (ICG) report pointed to the changing nature of Southeast Asian terror groups, saying that Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorist Noordin Mohamed Top relies heavily on his network of loyal supporters; a network that will be available to others even after he is arrested, therefore ensuring that the network will continue to be a worry to security forces.  Drawn from local jihadist networks, the network could run into the hundreds, and will clearly survive beyond Noordin’s arrest.

On the ASEAN front, the defence minister’s meeting marks a departure from the ASEAN way of non-interference, which has been blamed for organisational inertia and lowest common denominator mindset, is also part of the changes taking place in the ASEAN grouping.  Through the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN hopes to move towards institutionalisation; specifying the rights and responsibilities of members, consolidating and rationalising its institutional mechanisms and giving ASEAN a legal personality in dealing with the outside world.  A further dent to the non-interference doctrine comes in relation to Myanmar.   While the winds of change are slow, ASEAN has made public its anxiety over the slow pace of political reform in Myanmar.

Changes are taking place in ASEAN because, for starters, transnational threats of the recent years; the Asian financial crisis, terrorist attacks, SARS and the Asian tsunami have built a sense of shared vulnerability and put pressure on the non-interference policy.  Further, the rise of India and China, plus nationalist re-assertion inJapan, has forced ASEAN to think and act as a united grouping.  Finally, there’s the contribution of increasing economic interdependence and the role of think tanks and civil society in contributing to the changes moving ASEAN.

Whither Asian regionalism? (The Straits Times, 5 May 2006)
Asean defence ministers look for unity (Bangkok Post, 7 May 2006)
JI chief's network will survive his arrest (The Straits Times, 6 May 2006)