Written by Naureen Nazar Soomro.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regarded as a successful regional organisation in managing regional peace and stability, has been playing an active and effective role in conflict management by mostly avoiding inter-state conflicts. The term conflict management combines three elements: prevention, containment and termination. Although ASEAN has not been that successful in ending the conflicts within the region, it has prevented high scale conflicts. The ASEAN Declaration, or the Bangkok Declaration of 1967, clearly stated that the Association would avoid interference in intrastate conflicts. But, as far as inter-state conflicts are concerned, the conflict prevention approach that ASEAN has adopted has helped the region well. This is why inter-state conflicts in ASEAN have not escalated to the level where force is required. The consensus among the member states of the Association regarding these issues has served the members fairly well.

The principle of promoting peace and stability was endorsed by the ASEAN leaders through the ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration, signed to mark the 50th anniversary of ASEAN on 8 August 2017. The ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration reaffirmed their commitment to the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, and stability, including the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. Besides the founding document of the Association, the Bangkok Declaration in 1976, another two documents – the ASEAN Concord (Bali Concord I) and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), have also been signed. These have underscored the key mechanisms which have helped achieve the goals of regional security, peace and stability. These Treaties and Concords were based on notions similar to the United Nations’. The principles and policies agreed upon by the member states were as follows:

  1. Mutual respect for the independence, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations;
  2. The right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference in the internal affairs, subversion, or coercion;
  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
  4. Settlement of difference or disputes by peaceful means;
  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
  6. Effective co-operation among themselves.

The first three principles focus on the non-interference in the internal affairs of the member states, whereas the last three focuses on mutual understanding amongst the members states over the avoidance of use of force in case of inter-state dispute. The settlement of disputes by peaceful means has no doubt made ASEAN unique. Nevertheless, this uniqueness has led to challenges. The limitations and challenges which ASEAN currently faces range from terrorism to violent extremism to human and illicit drug trafficking.

It is necessary to discuss two basic aspects of ASEAN’s approach to conflict management. First are the mechanisms that have been formulated in the ASEAN Treaties and Declarations. Second,  are ASEAN’s negotiation and decision-making approaches. These mechanisms are generally termed as the “ASEAN Way”.  The member states believe in one-to-one informal bilateral meetings between leaders. Building trust among themselves has been a key factor in the ASEAN Way, where consultation and consensus has been considered as a way to save face. The ASEAN member states avoid airing their disagreements in public, which has helped ASEAN achieve the distinctive conflict management mechanism that rests on dialogue and consultation.

Despite all these commitments and initiatives, the Southeast Asian region has experienced inter- and intra-state disputes from time to time. The tensions between Myanmar and Thailand in the late 1990s, and the differences between Cambodia and Thailand between 2008 and 2013 have been challenging for ASEAN. In the 1990s, Indonesia and Malaysia’s dispute over Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Ligitan was taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the consent of both parties. The South China Sea (SCS) conflict is seen as an internal conflict by China and Taiwan, whereas the other parties such as Vietnam claim their historical rights over the area and view it as an inter-state/inter-regional issue.

Until 2015, ASEAN’s member states have been struggling to find areas of agreement over the South China Sea issue. China, being ASEAN’s largest trading partner, has been eager to minimise ASEAN’s role in resolving the issue. ASEAN’s weakness has been to fail to achieve consensus on the issue. The Code of Conduct (COC), that was agreed upon during the Summit in 2002 by ASEAN and China, was only a set of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, but not an instrument to settle territorial disputes.

In economic terms, Southeast Asia has the potential to become the fourth biggest economy by 2030. Security and stability in the South China Sea region particularly, and in Southeast Asia in general, is critical for both Southeast Asia and ASEAN as an organisation. With the region’s geo-strategic and geo-political importance; with its sea frontiers possessing important sea-lanes connecting the oil rich Indian Ocean region to the strategically important Asia Pacific region, and its status as being China’s backyard means that ASEAN needs an approach that paves the way for the long-term solution of the issue.

The ten ASEAN foreign ministers at the ASEAN annual summit in Manila in August 2017 emphasized the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint. ASEAN needs to further its dispute settlement capacity by obtaining a firm commitment from the stakeholders to avoid militarising the disputed areas. Despite all these weaknesses and challenges, ASEAN remains an inspiration for regional organisations in the developing world both in the realm of intra- and inter-regional cooperation.

Naureen Nazar Soomro is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of York, UK and Assistant Professor in Area Stduies (Far East & Southeast Asia) at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, Pakistan. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Secretary of Defense/Flickr


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