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ASPI: Southeast Asia Patterns of Security Cooperation

Executive Summary

By Carlye A. Thayer, Professor of Politics in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Australia will face a more complex strategic environment in Southeast Asia over the next five years. That environment will be characterised by an overlay of mutually supporting and competing security patterns in which Southeast Asian and external powers will play more significant roles. The strategic weight of key Southeast Asian states—principally Indonesia and Vietnam—is growing. But it is not growing as fast as the strategic weight of the Asian great powers, whose influence will be felt increasingly in the region. Australia will need to reassess its future role within that shifting environment and devise a set of strategies that will allow it to promote its national interests there.

Southeast Asia’s emerging strategic environment is being shaped by eight major trends: the global economic and financial crisis, China’s military modernisation and transformation, the United States’ stepped‑up engagement, increased arms procurements, the heightened importance of the maritime domain, the increasing salience of transnational security issues, the persistence of ‘everyday security challenges’, and the evolution of the regional security architecture.

In sum, the security environment in Southeast Asia is being shaped by global, Asia–Pacific-wide and domestic trends. Southeast Asia will have to work hard to maintain its regional autonomy as global forces erode the boundaries between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.

Four major patterns of security cooperation combine and compete to shape Southeast Asia’s security environment: multilateral defence cooperation between external powers and individual Southeast Asian states; US–led theatre security cooperation; Chinese‑led exclusivist East Asian regional security cooperation; and multilateral efforts centred on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Each of these patterns overlays the other.

The major strategic trends impacting on Southeast Asia have produced tensions in inter-state relations that may be grouped into five clusters: maritime disputes in the South China Sea; the security dilemma created by China’s military modernisation; the potentially destabilising effects transnational security challenges.

Emerging security tensions have resulted in some increased cooperation among regional states and between regional states and external powers. At the same time, in particular cases these tensions have undermined confidence and trust among states and contributed to competitive rather than cooperative patterns of security cooperation.

The weakness of individual Southeast Asian states likewise constrains their capacity to act multilaterally to address region-wide security challenges. In cases where the interests of external powers are affected these powers may decide to act more assertively outside the framework of multilateral regional security institutions.

Both the United States and China seek to shape the regional security environment in accord with their national security strategies. Both major powers reach into similar toolkits to find appropriate political, economic and military instruments suitable to their national strategies. But the two major powers differ in their vision of what kind of security order they would like to see emerge in Southeast Asia and how they go about influencing their preferred outcomes. In other words, the United States and China use similar means, but in different ways and towards different ends.

China and the United States each seek to shape a different regional order. China promotes multipolar security arrangements that uphold state sovereignty irrespective of the type of domestic political system in order to balance if not constrain the power and influence of the United States. China’s approach emphasises nominal equality among members of regional multilateral institutions and is particularly focused on binding ASEAN to exclusive East Asian regionalism. In reality, China is nonetheless first among equals.

The United States, in contrast, pursues a national strategy aimed at creating an Asia–Pacific‑wide security order under US leadership founded on rules based multilateral institutions that promote universal values such as democracy and human rights. The US approach is to enlist the support of key allies and strategic partners as the critical mass towards achieving those ends.

Southeast Asia has been unable to insulate itself from Sino-American strategic rivalry, and Sino-American strategic competition appears likely to intensify.

Changes in Southeast Asia’s security environment are pulling Australian strategic policy in different and possibly contradictory directions. The US alliance relationship focuses mainly on conventional threats across the Asia–Pacific region, while the focus of the Five Power Defence Arrangements is giving greater prominence to addressing non‑traditional threats in the maritime domain. ASEAN‑led regional security cooperation is at a nascent stage. ASEAN’s default position has been to address soft security issues such as transnational or non‑traditional threats. The commencement of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus process holds the prospect that ASEAN and its security partners will develop new areas of practical security cooperation which could benefit the region.

Australia’s strategic planners need to pursue a range of pathways to secure Australia’s national interests in Southeast Asia. One pathway would entail building on and redirecting the presently existing web of security ties into a more robust multilateral framework. Another pathway would involve encouraging the US to become more engaged in Southeast Asia as a region in its own right. Australia might help build regional support for that role where it could. And a third pathway would involve Australia revitalising its own security ties with key Southeast Asian states in order to increase the region’s strategic weight in dealing with external powers. Australia also should work closely with Southeast Asian partners to develop a common vision of the region’s future.

This is the executive summary of a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (APSI) Southeast Asia: Patterns of Security Cooperation. The full study can be found here.

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