This essay was originally written for a Conference marking the 90th Anniversary of Southeast Asian Studies and Overseas Chinese Studies in Jinan University, Guangzhou, on July 15-16, 2017. Some text is drawn from the integrative chapter in a newly published volume "Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Sociocultural Reflections" (ERIA, DFA, 2017)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) turns 50 in 2017. Critics and supporters of ASEAN have much to say about the group’s achievements and shortcomings since its establishment in 1967. Critics will say ASEAN has been measured and found wanting. There are too many conflicts within and among its members that remain unresolved. The principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs have been too privileged in practice, at the expense of effective cooperation and integration. Organizationally, ASEAN is too process-oriented while inadequate in achieving timely results and impact. Consensus among member-states remains shallow even on certain critical issues that require solid agreement. The absence of a common foreign policy and differences in security priorities and threat perceptions continue to stand in the way of a true political-security community, it might also be said.

Image Credit: Reuters/Mark Crisantol

Supporters, on the other hand, will argue: were it not for ASEAN, would Southeast Asia even be as peaceful, stable, and economically progressive as it has been and still is, after several decades? Aren’t the norms and practices associated with the ‘ASEAN Way’ for which it has often been criticized – including informality, nonconfrontation, relying on consensus-based decision making – part of the reasons the member states have remained together all these years? The fact that other countries, including big powers and non-likeminded states, choose to engage in ASEAN-led multilateral arrangements is also clear recognition of the organization’s important contributions.

The Indomalphi (Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines) implemented their first joint maritime patrol in June 2017, after almost a year since the signing of the framework in 2016. The recent attack of the Maute group in Marawi reaffirmed the need and urgency of cooperation. With growing common threats, how can trilateral or minilateral arrangements such as Indomalphi contribute to ASEAN security? What are the implications for ASEAN security cooperation?

Photo by Bobby Nugroho, Nikkei Asian Review*

Photo from: Japan Times

Since Donald Trump took office as the new president of the United States, he has been giving confusing signals to the international community and allies as to how the US will pursue its longstanding role as champion of the liberal democratic order and number one security provider all over the world.

As promised during the presidential campaign, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in January, and in June withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. During the presidential campaign, he criticized China for being a “currency manipulator” and angered Beijing in his telephone call to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Eventually, he reversed his stand and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would honor the “One China” policy, at the request of the latter.

Many questions are being asked about how evolving big power dynamics should be managed and how to properly adapt to the new circumstances.

President Duterte had been criticized for appearing soft in defending Philippine national interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), especially in the face of his decision to expand cooperation with a fellow disputant and potential external security threat. Such criticism largely rests on two key assumptions: 1) that asserting the country’s landmark victory in the 2016 arbitration decision is the best way to defend the country’s WPS interests and canvassing regional and international support is the best way to pressure China into compliance and; 2) maintaining robust or even deepening security relations with the US is the best deterrence against Chinese expansionism in the tightly contested strategic and resource-rich sea..

Duterte’s misgivings about the two aforementioned assumptions can be attributed to the following observations: 1) that other claimant states, notably Malaysia, and even Vietnam and Indonesia (China’s excessive nine dash line claim overlaps with Indonesia’s Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone) were able to manage their disputes with China through diplomacy without resorting to arbitration or other third party legal approaches; 2) China’s rise as a regional and global development partner and provider of economic goods will make such international pressure to compel China to submit unlikely to prosper and 3) that South China Sea (SCS) does not appear high in US foreign policy and that US security commitment to regional allies may waver or become unreliable under the Trump Administration.