Monday, September 16, 2013

The Philippines and the ASEAN Political-Security Community

Aileen S.P. Baviera, Asian Center, University of the Philippines
12 May 2013

Among the goals set by ASEAN for the year 2015 is to build the foundations for the ten Southeast Asian states to evolve into a cohesive political-security community. Compared with the two other "pillars" of the ASEAN community - the ASEAN economic community and the ASEAN sociocultural community - this goal may be the most difficult to attain. The Philippines has played and should continue to play an important role in bringing the vision of a truly cohesive and progressive ASEAN community into fruition. But the road ahead - especially towards an ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) - is full of potholes and obstacles, some of which may challenge the Philippines to define more precisely the interests, values and principles that it stands for.

Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law

The APSC Blueprint and its Plan of Action call for member states to "ensure that countries in the region live at peace with one another and with the world in a just, democratic and harmonious environment". Moving together towards this objective entails "respect for democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms". The establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009 was a modest but important step in this direction, and is something that both the Philippine government and non-government organizations worked hard and can proudly take some credit for.

By accepting the ASEAN Charter and AICHR which embodies these new aspirations, the leaders of ASEAN have begun to depart from their past hard-and-fast principle of non-interference in internal affairs. The process will require that some states undertake fundamental reforms in their internal governance structures. The Charter's stated bias toward a “people-oriented community” further emphasizes the importance of people's welfare and popular participation in community building, thus indicating a major role for civil society.

Challenges to attaining these goals arise from the diversity of the political cultures and traditions, ideological orientations, legal systems, and the levels of socioeconomic and political development across the ten countries. All countries in ASEAN, bar none, need to improve their record on human rights and democratic governance. Even in the Philippines, reputed to be the liveliest democracy in the region, the sustainability of democracy, and the commitment to human rights by both the elite and the masses cannot be taken for granted, and there is much room for improvement on both fronts. Moreover, where democracy is not accompanied by good governance, social justice and rule of law -  as had been the Philippine case - democracy stands out not as a beacon but as a warning to other ASEAN countries.

Singapore, on the other hand, stands out as upholding norms of good governance and rule of law, but is authoritarian and has been criticized for human rights violations. For Philippine democracy to be more attractive than Singapore in its demonstration effect to our mostly authoritarian-ruled neighbors, our political system will have to function better on all counts. Otherwise, we do the peoples of ASEAN a disservice by proving that democracy - at least in the Philippines - only contributes to a weak State, an entrenched oligarchy and an undisciplined civil society. If the Philippines were to remain the champion in ASEAN of democracy and human rights, then internally it must succeed in using democracy to battle corruption and privilege and to promote the rule of law.

During the drafting of the ASEAN Charter, Philippine civil society organizations helped lead the way in bringing other ASEAN CSOs to the table in order to engage each other and to dialogue with representatives of their States. The continuing engagement of Philippine CSOs both across borders and with the Philippine State will be critical to ASEAN's success in building a community founded on such norms.

Peace and Security in Southeast Asia

The APSC Blueprint also aspires to "respond effectively, in accordance with the principle of comprehensive security, to all forms of threats, transnational crimes and transboundary challenges". It commits to resort to only peaceful means in resolving disputes among ASEAN states and with their neighbors.

These objectives require member states to set high standards of self-restraint, mutual accommodation as well as active cooperation in managing conflicts and security challenges.  ASEAN has long been beset by a wide range of security problems: internal conflicts causing refugee spillovers into border regions, inter-state territorial and resource disputes, and a host of nontraditional security challenges such as illegal migration, human trafficking, transnational terrorism, narcotic drugs, maritime piracy, pandemics, natural disasters, and haze or pollution.

ASEAN has set up a variety of mechanisms to cooperatively address these transnational issues. The Philippines has been quite active in efforts against anti-terrorism, trafficking in persons, and pandemics, among others.

However, ASEAN has had a poor record of stepping up to the plate whenever crises occur involving bilateral disputes between member states. In such cases, the traditional approach has been to try to sweep conflicts under the rug, while encouraging the concerned states to sort out their differences bilaterally. More recently, members have opted to bring their disputes with fellow-members to non-ASEAN parties for resolution, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore taking maritime territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice, as did Cambodia and Thailand regarding their Preah Vihear Temple dispute. This shows the members' lack of confidence in ASEAN's own capability to address intra-ASEAN disputes. 

In contrast, the Philippines is quite unique in the region in allowing not one but two ASEAN neighbors to play a role in resolving its internal disputes. Indonesia helped bring the GRP-MNLF peace negotiations to a successful end during the Ramos administration. Malaysia is trying to replicate this in the GPH-MILF peace process, but finds that its motivations and sincerity are doubted by many in the Philippines, in light of its history of support for Mindanao separatists and the still-unresolved question of the Philippine claim to Sabah.

What will an ASEAN Political-Security Community mean for Philippine security and its relations with ASEAN neighbors? APSC is, like ASEAN itself, work in progress. Through APSC, ASEAN seeks to promote transparency and greater understanding of each other's security perceptions and defense policies.

ASEAN established a Maritime Forum in 2007 and an ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in 2006. The 3rd Maritime Forum meeting in Manila last October focused on freedom of navigation and marine environmental cooperation.  ADMM, meanwhile, seeks to strengthen regional military cooperation for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), and to promote cooperation on nontraditional security concerns between defense establishments and civil society organizations. Notably, while moving to enhance defense cooperation, APSC explicitly eschews turning ASEAN into a military alliance.

Emphasis on these activities show that ASEAN is not yet ready for the business of resolving conflicts among its member States. For the time being, conflicts must still be dealt with through traditional bilateralism, or - if the parties consent - using the good offices of a third party outside ASEAN. This will be true for future Philippine efforts to find a successful end to the Sabah question, or territorial and maritime boundary overlaps with Southeast Asian neighbors. Nonetheless, by developing common understanding and mutual sensitivity, binding themselves to shared norms, and promoting a dense web and patterns of congenial interactions, member States can create an atmosphere conducive to friendly dialogue and peaceful settlement of disputes, at least at the level of leaders and officials concerned.

ASEAN Centrality and the Regional Security Architecture

Finally, APSC would give ASEAN a central place in the development of a new regional security architecture in the Asia Pacific. Tow and Taylor define this architecture as "an overarching, coherent and comprehensive security structure … which facilitates the resolution of (the) region’s policy concerns and achieves its security objectives". The architecture that ASEAN aspires for is one that is "open, transparent and inclusive, while remaining actively engaged, forward-looking and non-discriminatory", i.e. not ASEAN-centered but making ASEAN central to broader regional politics and diplomacy.

Since the end of the Cold War, ASEAN has played a high diplomatic profile and demonstrated its ability to engage non-ASEAN states, particularly big powers (China, Japan, India, Russia and the US) , in regional security consultations. Aside from bilateral dialogues with them, ASEAN serves as the hub of multilateral security arrangements where they participate, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Expanded ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM Plus).

ASEAN’s overriding purpose in such engagement is to ensure that other countries consider themselves stakeholders willing to work together - rather than be spoilers - in the peace, stability, security and prosperity of Southeast Asia. This is therefore one of APSC's more strategic goals that the Philippines should actively support. It will become more difficult to do so if the growing strategic competition between the United States and China  persists, which will only polarize and divide ASEAN. Thus a more appropriate strategic policy for the Philippines will be to strive for a stable US-China relationship rather than a conflictual one. “ASEAN centrality”, after all, is not a question of ASEAN hubris, but one of ASEAN survival.

To sum up, the ASEAN Political-Security Community project is important to the Philippines and to the region. Without rule of law and a more democratic order in each ASEAN state, without the ability to peacefully work together to resolve conflicts and mitigate security challenges, and without recognition and cooperation of big powers in the region and beyond, ASEAN's dream of becoming a community may well come to naught. Should ASEAN community building efforts fail, the Philippines will lose a valuable platform for projecting its foreign policy and security interests more effectively.

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