Asean Needs New Tools for New Threats

Though the interdependency inherent in globalization renders all member nations of ASEAN increasingly vulnerable to external threats, this same inter-dependency must be drawn upon if these challenges are to be met effectively, says this article in The Singapore Times. The author, deputy director of Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, states that financial volatility, transnational terror, and infectious disease represent a new breed of transnational threats that are inherent to globalization. If ASEAN nations are to remain strong in the 21st century, he says, out-dated values of national sovereignty and isolated self-interest must be replaced by collective action. Currently, however, ASEAN lacks mechanisms strong enough to ensure unified action, and progress will need to be made in developing a security community that is highly integrated and aware of common interests if the region is to respond effectively to future threats. – YaleGlobal

Asean Needs New Tools for New Threats

Amitav Acharya
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

IN RAPID succession, South-east Asia has faced three critical challenges in the past six years: the 1997 regional economic crisis, the Al-Qaeda terrorist threat and the outbreak of Sars. Although the three challenges have different causes, they share some common features. First, they tend to materialise suddenly and rather unexpectedly. Second, they reflect the forces of globalisation at work. The manner in which they spread and their contagion effects attest to this. Third, the sources of these dangers are not exclusively external or internal to the region. Rather, they emanate from external forces interacting closely with the internal vulnerabilities of states.

Financial volatility, transnational terror and infectious disease represent a new breed of transnational threats that are likely to become a recurring scourge of globalisation in the 21st century. Because they are rooted in globalisation, which is an irreversible trend, such perils cannot be defeated permanently. It is more realistic to think in terms of their management, rather than eradication. This reality is going to define a new international hierarchy and order in the 21st century.


GLOBALISATION dictates three important conditions for any effective regional response system to such dangers.

First, exclusionary and inward-looking responses will not work. No region can afford to be an island. Asean would have to remain open for business to the outside world. In fighting the dangers, it has to work with outside countries and institutions, including United Nations bodies like the the World Health Organisation, drawing upon their resources and adapting them to local circumstances.

Second, old attitudes towards sovereignty and non-interference must change. Currency speculators, terrorists and viruses have scant regard for national boundaries. Hence, the old framework of the nation-state is inadequate for responding to transnational perils. Collective action to combat the dangers should be seen not as an abrogation of sovereignty, but rather the pooling of it. Third, intra-regional unity is of critical importance. No single Asean member has the ability to manage transnational problems like terrorism or Sars alone.

Divisions and conflicts among the member states, on whatever grounds, impede the development of an effective regional response system. This brings me to the idea of developing an Asean security community.

A security community is not a military alliance. As American political scientist Karl Deutsch defined it, a security community is a group of states that have developed a long-term habit of peacefully managing their relations, so that the use of force in resolving intra-mural disputes becomes inconceivable.


A SECURITY community is built upon a large measure of economic interdependence and integration. It is bound together by a sense of collective identity, a socio-psychological 'we' feeling.

It is also a platform for collective action against transnational challenges that affect the security and well-being of its members. Since the grouping was founded in 1967, no Asean member has fought a war against a fellow member. This is an enviable record which no other regional grouping in the developing world can match.

But the continued progress of Asean as a security community has been challenged by several developments. In the 1990s, expansion of membership to include all the 10 countries of South-east Asia increased Asean's political diversity and created a two-tier Asean.

The economic crisis of 1997 strained key intra-mural relationships and brought latent territorial and political conflicts out into the open. With the downfall of Mr Suharto, Asean lost Indonesia's active leadership and guidance, a key ingredient of its success up till then.

Therein lies the challenge: How to ensure Asean does not become a 'sunset' organisation, but is transformed into a more mature security community? There are no real prospects for an armed conflict between Asean members, although tensions in Singapore-Malaysia relations have been accompanied by some loose talk of war.

Occasional skirmishes on the Thai-Myanmar border have also taken place. The recent mob attacks on Thailand's embassy and business interests in Cambodia are indicative of a competitive nationalism that continues to define relations among some Asean members.

There is no intra-Asean arms race, but a certain amount of imitation and rivalry does drive arms acquisitions in the region. Such perceptions and ambiguities in intra-Asean relationships can and must be completely eliminated.

Asean must also develop new institutional mechanisms and practices for coping with such potential sources of conflict, and for meeting external challenges. The resort to the International Court of Justice on territorial disputes and the dispute-settlement mechanisms in the Asean Free Trade Area are welcome developments in this regard. But there exists a widespread perception that Asean's institutional mechanisms have not kept up with the new challenges its faces.

For example, the Asean Troika, announced in 2000 as a potential mechanism for regional preventive action and crisis management, and the provision for a High Council for dispute settlement, adopted in 1975, remain unused.

The Asean way stresses informal and non-legalistic approaches to conflict management, but the availability of legal mechanisms would help Asean members to depoliticise bilateral disputes. Asean must institutionalise and legalise its crisis-management and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

A security community is not a defence community. The latter responds to external military threats that are perceived commonly by its members. Asean faces no such common military threats. But the group needs to develop new common measures against transnational non-military perils that affect national and human security.

To be sure, not all Asean countries are equally targeted by, or vulnerable to, terrorist groups. Similarly, the Sars crisis has not affected all Asean nations.

But these differences are obscured by the burden of geographic proximity and the reality of close economic interdependence. While Al-Qaeda can claim some sympathisers in the region, the Sars virus has no secret political admirers in the region. Travel advisories issued by foreign governments, and political and strategic risk assessments which guide investor decisions, tend to have a regional, rather than national, impact. Hence, the new transnational challenges can actually help Asean to develop effective group response systems that will strengthen it as a regional security community.


THE challenge of combating terrorism can be addressed in various ways. The trilateral counter-terrorism agreement originally signed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia could be made more specific.

Asean should also look into the possibility of developing a regional code of conduct on terrorism, and a common Asean arrest warrant, which would permit wanted persons to be handed over directly from one judicial authority to another.

Asean members should develop a common list of terrorist organisations, create joint investigative teams, develop the practice of sharing data regarding terrorism with an Asean police authority, and establish specialist anti-terrorist teams within such a body.

An Asean communicable diseases network, providing an early warning and response system for epidemiological surveillance and control of communicable diseases, can help Asean in detecting and controlling diseases such as Sars. Such a system could alert public health authorities on outbreaks with greater than national dimensions, and help coordinate Asean action.

The writer is deputy director of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies and author of Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: Asean and the Problem of Regional Order. This article is adapted from his keynote address at a symposium on Asean cooperation, organized by the Indonesian Mission to the UN, in New York, yesterday.

© 2003 Singapore Press Holdings