Economic development through greater regional cooperation was the primary aim of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when it was formed on August 8, 1967 by the founding countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Although one of the motivations at that time of forming the association was the common fear of communist expansion (especially in Vietnam) and insurgency within their respective borders, the ASEAN has not ventured into creating a military alliance to promote “regional peace and stability”. Hence, the ASEAN is formally recognized as an economic organization with no military obligations tying member nations.
But with the recent rise of security tensions, primarily caused by the aggressive actions taken by China against the Philippines and co-claimant ASEAN nations over territories located at the South China Sea; the prospect of creating an ASEAN military alliance to solve the “Chinese security problem”, has become very tempting.
The researcher believes that indeed, stronger military relations between ASEAN nations will not only help address the security threat posed by China but also assist in resolving the territorial disputes between co-member nations.
Thus, this paper proposes a restructuring of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) such that it will allow the establishment and creation of the following: (1) A regional military alliance that will promote collective defense (2) the ASEAN peacekeeping force and (3) the ASEAN Security Council. The paper also examines the imperative role of the United States and Japan in the resolution of the security issues in the region; the feasibility of the proposal in the context of the status quo, and the possible problems that will face the military alliance once it is forged.
During the 1970s until the 1990s, security issues began assailing the stability of the Southeast Asian (SEA) region as territorial disputes erupted between fellow ASEAN nations and China. The said disputes were mainly about the disagreement on maritime boundaries and territorial claims made on islands on the South China Sea (or the West Philippine Sea). The situation did not improve upon entering the 21st century as the conflicts seemed to worsen. In 2005, Chinese ships allegedly fired upon two Vietnamese fishing boats from Thanh Hoa province which killed 9 people.1
If there was something common with all the incidents of skirmishes and standoffs in the much contested area since the 1980s, it was the constant involvement of the Chinese navy. China was dubbed as the rising bully of the South China Sea. With a formidable military strength and an aggressive foreign policy in dealing with territorial disputes, China was becoming a great security menace to not only the Philippines and the SEA region but to the rest of the world.
The stability of the SEA region is a paramount concern of Philippine national security, one of the three pillars of Philippine foreign policy.
2 Moreover, Philippine defense officials and security experts view Chinese expansionist aspirations in the South China Sea as the main longterm security threat to the Philippines.
3 The renewed tensions between the Philippines and China last April 8, 2012 at the Scarborough Shoal has led to speculations of a Philippine-China war and its implications to the Philippine-US mutual defense treaty. International relations experts though, doubt the commitment of the US to come in the Philippines defense once it is attacked by China as it has not confirmed whether the scope of the treaty covers contested territories in the South China Sea.4
“Chinese ships ‘shot to kill’ Vietnamese fishermen; survivor”. Vietnam Seaports Association. 17 January 2005. “Philippine Foreign Policy”. The Official Website of the Republic of the Philippines – Department of Foreign Affairs. 11 August 2009.
Sokolsky, R., Rabasa A., & Neu, C. R. 2001, p. 33
“Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses”. Inernational Crisis Group. 24 July 2012. 2
With that in mind, it is apparent then that relying on the US for military assistance in the event of a Chinese attack is useless. What the Philippines need is a military alliance of committed nations who have more or less the same stake in the South China Sea territorial dispute. That being said, the most logical choice would be creating an alliance with our fellow ASEAN claimant nations.
2. REGIONAL COLLECTIVE DEFENSE: ATTEMPT AND FAILURE
The idea of creating an international organization for collective defense in the SEA region to offset growing Chinese influence is not new to international politics. In fact it was once tried with the signing of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty or Manila Pact, in Manila, Philippines which created the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
The organization was then formally established on February 19, 1955 at a meeting of treaty partners in Bangkok, Thailand.5 One of the rationales for the creation of SEATO was to counteract communist influence in Southeast Asia, especially that of Communist China, through an anti-communist
collective defense alliance.6
The organization though is generally considered a failure because internal conflict and dispute hindered general use of the SEATO military. Also, SEATO was inefficient in promoting regional stability (failing to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War) as only two SEA nations joined the organization, namely the Philippines and Thailand. Majority of the members were located outside the region.
After a final exercise on 20 February 1976, SEATO was formally dissolved on June 30, 1977.7
3. RESTRUCTURING THE ASEAN POLITICAL-SECURITY COMMUNITY (APSC) Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in response to the growing threat of terrorism in the region, called for a collective security system within the ASEAN in 2004.8 But
Franklin 2006, p. 1
Encyclopaedia Britannica (India) 2000, p. 60
under the original ASEAN charter, a multilateral approach on military and security issues is disallowed. Furthermore, the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) in its blueprint has vowed to rely exclusively on peaceful processes in resolving intra-regional and extra-regional differences.
Since the status quo hinders any step towards regional collective defense, a major overhaul would be required for the proposal to push through.9 This paper proposes a revision on the original ASEAN charter in a way that will allow the transformation of the APSC into an authoritative military body.
Such transition will be facilitated by the creation of the ASEAN Security Council which will serve as the overseeing organ of the APSC and will assist in the forging of a collective defense alliance and a peacekeeping force under the ASEAN. The fundamental concept of each proposal is discussed briefly below. 3.1 ASEAN Security Council
The proposed body will serve as the highest authoritative body of the APSC and will be composed by the member states of the ASEAN and represented by a delegate from each nation. Its tasks will include (but will not be limited to) supervision, policy formulation and implementation, and decision-making regarding regional security issues under the APSC. 3.2 ASEAN Collective Defense Alliance
The forging of this alliance must be legitimized under the ASEAN charter through the necessary amendments and should not in any way violate existing international laws. Under the proposed framework, every ASEAN nations must pledge to defend each other in the event of an extra-regional attack. In dealing with intra-regional disputes though, collective defense cannot be invoked. Any incidence of intra-regional conflicts will be subject to investigation of the ASEAN Security Council and will be decided on accordingly.
“ASEAN and collective security system”. The Jakarta Post. 7 December 2004 See The ASEAN Charter, pp. 23-28 and ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint, pp. 8-14
3.3 ASEAN Peacekeeping Force
During times of regional unrest caused by military conflict between member nations, the formation of a peacekeeping force maybe ordered by the ASEAN Security Council. The peacekeeping force will be composed of military personnel contributed by the non-involved states and will serve a specific term or until the conflict is resolved.
Duties of the ASEAN peacekeeping force will include protecting civilians, assisting in post-war disarmament, escorting of important diplomats and peace negotiators, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants.
4. POLITICAL-SECURITY IMPACT ANALYSIS
The evocations of an ASEAN military pact will have a strong bearing on China’s future foreign policy. Perhaps a positive effect (if the recommendation is pursued) will be the taming down of the aggressiveness of China in dealing with the South China Sea issue. With a population of over 600 million people, a steady and growing economy, and tightening diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan; the military potential of the ASEAN cannot be simply overlooked.
Both the U.S. and Japan, with their political and economic stakes in Southeast Asia and shared apprehension of the growing Chinese power, are likely to support a militarily united ASEAN to secure their interests in the region. Furthermore, a militarily integrated ASEAN eases the burden of the U.S. in playing the role of regional balancer and provides both countries with a strong political leverage in dealing with Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
That being said, it is only logical to count on both technical and moral support from the two extraregional powers should the ASEAN decide to pursue the endeavor. Another possible positive outcome will be the proficient resolution of intra-regional conflicts. Under the proposed APSC framework, existing and future intra-regional disputes will be settled through the ASEAN Security Council instead of state-to-state negotiations. A collective defense alliance also serves as deterrence to any thought of aggression towards a comember and strengthens solidarity through a common sense of military identity.
But other considerations like the reactions of Chinese allies or even those of neutral observers to the region will also matter. A negative feedback by the international community can have a bad implication to the future of the proposed collective defense organization. China’s reaction itself is also an important consideration. Although it is more likely that China will become more restrained in dealing with a militarily united ASEAN in the South China Sea, one cannot absolutely ascertain such outcome. An opposite course of what is expected, however unlikely, is still possible.
Another point to ponder upon is the role the Philippines will play in the pursuance of an ASEAN military pact. Do we play the regional leader role and take on the initiative? Or become a regional-subsystem collaborator and let another ASEAN nation assume the central role? Whatever it may be, it is a necessity for the Philippines to pick an active role if it is to protect its interest in the matter.
Establishing a collective defense system within the ASEAN will not be an easy job. There will be many obstacles towards the path: socio-cultural divisions, lingering tensions over unresolved territorial feuds, and differing levels of threat perceptions dims the prospects of turning the organization into a formal military pact.10 But as highlighted earlier, the pressing need of military cooperation in the light of the Chinese threat can override the said obstacles.
The support of extra-regional powers like Japan and the US will be vital to the success of the proposal. The U.S. who is trying to preserve its hegemony and Japan who is currently involved in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, will likely support the advancement of the ASEAN into a collective defense organization considering the political advantage they will be able to reap from it.
International feedback will also play a significant role in the success or failure of proposal. The approval (or disapproval) of the international community will greatly affect the progress and future of an ASEAN collective defense system. But what matters most is the 10
Sokolsky, R., Rabasa A., & Neu, C. R. 2001, pp. 45-47
reaction of China and its allies. A strong negative response from the aforementioned can easily plunge the region into a state of cold war— a possible outcome that is extremely contrary to the aims of the proposal.
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Leifer, Michael (2005). Chin Kin Wah, Leo Suryadinata. ed. Michael Leifer: Selected Works on Southeast Asia. ISBN 978-981-230-270-0.
Sokolsky, R., Rabasa A. & Neu, C. R. (2001) The Role of Southeast Asia in U.S. Strategy Toward China. ISBN/EAN 0-8330-2893-6.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (India) (2000). Students’ Britannica India, Volume Five. Popular Prakashan. ISBN 978-0-85229-760-5.
Holsti, K. J. (1970). National Role Conceptions in the Study of Foreign Policy. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1970), pp. 233-309
Inernational Crisis Group (July 24, 2012). Stirring up the South China Sea
(II): Regional Responses. Retrieved February 16, 2013, from:
The Official Website of the Republic of the Philippines – Department of Foreign Affairs. Philippine Foreign Policy. 11 August 2009. Retrieved February 16, 2013, from: http://www.dfa.gov.ph/index.php/about-the-dfa/philippine-foreign-policy