Commentary

Nontraditional Security Concerns in Southeast Asia

by Donald K. Emmerson and Colin Willett
July 20, 2017

NBR convened a roundtable discussion on July 20, 2017, in our Washington, D.C., office with the goal of highlighting less commonly discussed security concerns and areas for potential U.S. engagement.

Regional Challenges and Policy Responses

Today, Southeast Asia faces a range of security concerns. While the maritime challenges have captured headlines, other critical concerns have been less discussed. NBR convened a roundtable discussion on July 20, 2017, in our Washington, D.C., office with the goal of highlighting less commonly discussed security concerns and areas for potential U.S. engagement. The roundtable, titled “Nontraditional Security Concerns in Southeast Asia: Regional Challenges and Policy Responses,” featured remarks from experts Colin Willett, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs in East Asia and the Pacific Bureau at the U.S. Department of State, and Professor Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.

During the discussion a variety of salient points emerged. Willett highlighted five key considerations. First, Southeast Asia is a very diverse region with various security concerns and needs. Second, from a structural perspective, Southeast Asia security concerns are largely internal and have historically been in conflict with neighboring Southeast Asian states. Third, many of the region’s security concerns are economic, which invite future resource competition in the region. Fourth, the military capacity capabilities throughout ASEAN are vastly different thus creating challenges for coordinated efforts and expectations. Fifth, national versus ASEAN identity conflicts poses a challenge in furthering regional cooperation.

Second, Emmerson emphasized that “traditional” security issues in Southeast Asia are inherently “nontraditional.” Emmerson was also cognizant of the challenges posed by China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative as pressure points within ASEAN states to assert control in East and Southeast Asia. Emmerson utilized the majority of his time to propose five provocative potential futures for ASEAN, which were crafted in response to global events, such as political and economic influence of China’s rise. The influences shaping ASEAN’s future may determine whether ASEAN will be relegated to the role of regional facilitator, a tributary region kowtowing to China, or thriving as a centralized union.

Following presentations, the Q&A portion debated the utility of ASEAN in response to China’s growing influence in the region and questioned if the various (and numerous) regional forums employed by ASEAN promoted ASEAN centrality or further highlighted a lack of unity and singular policy objectives. This led to a discussion on the architecture and function of working groups such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit or ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting. Furthermore, domestic concerns unique to each Southeast Asian states provide breaks towards ASEAN unity, or hedging towards China, as security concerns and capabilities are vastly different between states.