In an exclusive interview with Technical Politics, Professor Tan See Seng of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) discussed the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and gave his thoughts on ASEAN’s security frameworks, and possible structural problems amongst the organisation. Prof. Tan also outlined the implications of ASEAN’s place between the ‘great powers’, and discussed the looming threat of a Second Cold War.

Prof. Tan started his career as a political scientist after studying in both Canada and the United States, where he received his doctorate at Arizona State University. Subsequently, he received tenure as a Professor at the RSIS, and concurrently, he was appointed Deputy Director and Head of Research of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies. In addition, he became the founding Head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies. Both organisations are based in Singapore and operate out of the RSIS.

Prof. Tan has established himself as a dedicated scholar on Southeast Asian security matters, as is demonstrated by his authorship or editing of 13 monographs, and publication of over 120 academic papers.

In an exclusive interview for Technical Politics, Nathan Wilson asks about the growing military cooperation between ASEAN nations, non-interventionism, ASEAN’s internal structures, and ASEAN’s posture with relation to the growing tension between the United States and China.

Interview: “‘The ASEAN Way’ … Is Really a Tool of Expedience”

NW: What do you think the long-term outcomes of the growing military cooperation among ASEAN nations will mean for the region?

TSS: It will certainly help to build confidence and potentially lower mistrust between and among the ASEAN states. For example, during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which devastated swathes of Sumatra in Indonesia, the Singapore armed forces were set to deploy on a humanitarian mission, but were delayed because the Indonesian leadership worried about the idea of having Singaporean soldiers traipsing on Indonesian soil. It was the personal relationship between the two commanders – the Singaporean heading the humanitarian task force and Indonesian ground commander in Meulaboh – who knew each other from past defence exchanges, that helped smooth ties and paved the way for the Singaporean contingent to provide much needed aid and assistance to the inhabitants of Meulaboh. So, the improving of mutual confidence and enhancing bilateral trust is a key outcome of cooperation.

On the multilateral level, continued cooperation and exercises will contribute greatly to the preparedness of the ASEAN Military Ready Group, the joint HADR [Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief] element that is meant for deployment to stricken areas throughout Southeast Asia and potentially beyond. On the other hand, even HADR exercises and missions can be a two-edged sword and can be used at times by states for deterrence purposes.

Some research suggests that states at times employ military cooperation as a way to signal to prospective rivals their deterrent capabilities and resolve; alternatively, accentuation of security dilemmas between these states could be the intended consequence. Indeed, the Singaporean HADR operation in Meulaboh mentioned above reportedly had that effect, intended or otherwise. The fact that the Singapore forces “showcased” their lift capabilities and moved so rapidly into Meulaboh reportedly served notice to the Indonesian forces regarding the SAF’s operational strengths.

On the other hand, an example of failed deterrence could be the Chinese PLAN’s contribution to the search-and-rescue mission for the downed Malaysian Airlines flight 370 in the Indian Ocean. While the Chinese armada looked formidable, the problems it faced with resupply exposed gaps in the PLAN.

NW: Do you believe that the ‘ASEAN Way’ policies of non-interventionism can survive in a ‘Post-Marawi’ world? This is especially relevant regarding intelligence sharing and joint operations amongst nations.

TSS: It’s important to bear in mind the ‘ASEAN Way’ was never meant to be an absolute doctrine.

Historically – and well before Marawi, we might add – intra-ASEAN relations show the numerous times ASEAN leaders “contravened” the non-interference principle. Often times, the ASEAN Way is invoked only when member states feel their sovereignty is being rudely challenged or threatened.

There’s no conceivable way intra-ASEAN cooperation could have taken place at all over the years had the member states all treated their observation of the non-interference principle dogmatically and religiously. Indeed, it could be argued that ASEAN members, or some of them at least, are in fact relatively open to advancing cooperation and integration among themselves in ways that challenge their sovereignty, yet they do it willingly, if only because they have built sufficient trust among themselves over the years.

Think, for example, the plans for ASEAN economic integration as well as security cooperation under the ASEAN Community vision, many of which could be construed as quite intrusive of each other’s domestic affairs. In the security arena, the same is true of HADR and CT [counter terrorism]. For HADR, if we consider things like the terms of reference for HADR activities by the militaries in the territories of ASEAN member states, the key variable really is the readiness of affected countries to “invite” assistance from provider countries, which no longer makes it interference or intervention. The same is true of CT, as shown during the Marawi war, and things like the Our Eyes intel-sharing and surveillance mechanism.

What I’m trying to say here is that the so-called ASEAN Way, despite its official privileging of the non-interference principle, is really a tool of expedience that ASEAN states call upon as and when they feel it is necessary in their respective contexts. On the other hand, if we consider quasi-innovations like the ASEAN Charter and its implications – on paper at least – for non-interference, it suggests, rather than ASEAN seeking to go “beyond the ASEAN Way” (as my good colleague Mely Caballero-Anthony titled one of her books), the ASEAN Way might better be considered a potentially flexible convention that could evolve over time in response to changing circumstances.

Will ASEAN ever rid itself of the non-interference principle? I suspect not for the foreseeable future, since it continues to serve a useful diplomatic weapon that could be deployed on a selective, need-to basis.

NW: Moving on from specifics around ASEAN’s policies of non-interventionism, what structural  problems exist within ASEAN that prevent it from establishing a strong internal security architecture?

TSS: The most basic and central obstacle is the robust state-centricity of ASEAN. So long as the organisation continues to privilege the primacy of the member states, there’s no real incentive for those members to build a strong security architecture that potentially requires them to pool or share their sovereignty.

While existing regional frameworks like the ADMM [ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting] – and its offshoot the ADMM-Plus – have solid cooperative dimensions to them, their raison d’être is really the strengthening of individual state strength and capacity rather than their regional organisation and its supporting architecture. Indeed, this goes back to the very genesis of ASEAN and its Indonesian-inspired concept of ‘ketahanan nasional’ [national resilience] where strong member states beget a healthy regionalism. This has been, as my friend Lee Jones has put it in another context, the “unchanged melody” of ASEAN. The failure of the ARF [ASEAN Regional Forum] to be a security actor of consequence is due in no small part to this.

Where intra-ASEAN military cooperation goes… what is interesting is what will happen when ASEAN’s efforts to establish and implement preventive diplomacy measures in the HADR and CT areas that rub against longstanding proclivity of state primacy.

Moving on from ASEAN’s internal structures, Prof. Tan next gave his thoughts on ASEAN’s wider place in the world.

NW: Do you believe that ASEAN nations can form a solid consensus around the South China Sea disputes and China itself? If so why? if not, why not?

TSS: It’s exceedingly difficult to for consensus on the SCS to be formed given the excessive economic reliance of many ASEAN states – especially the CLM countries [Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar], or even Thailand and the Philippines under their current leaderships – on China, as well as China’s divide-and-rule tactics in the SCS. The closest ASEAN states have come to something akin to a “solid consensus,” as you put it was at the ASEAN Hanoi summit in June 2020, where the member states acted with a firmness and cohesion hitherto unseen, and collectively affirmed the 1982 UNCLOS, the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out. But that’s probably as far as the ASEAN states are prepared go, although in fairness, it’s big progress when we consider some of the low points that ASEAN has been to where the SCS is concerned.

NW: What are your thoughts on ASEAN’s place regarding a possible second Cold War between China and the United States? What position should ASEAN take or hold, if any, with respect to the great powers?

TSS: ASEAN has long insisted – and will continue to do so – on its refusal to choose sides in any China-US conflict. ASEAN established, through its wider regional architecture of institutions, a brand of “open regionalism” through which ASEAN has sought to institutionalize its ties with and regularize multilateral consultation and cooperation with the great powers and regional powers. Through a common strategy of hedging – albeit practised in different ways by individual member states – ASEAN has sought to be a friend of all and an enemy of none. In incessantly stressing the importance of “ASEAN centrality,” ASEAN has sought to stay on the via media between the two superpowers, cooperating with both but refusing alignment with one at the expense of the other.

Needless to say, the pressure from both the Chinese and Americans to side with either of them is tremendous and not easily resisted or resistible. But ASEAN will keep trying. A recent example of this is the way ASEAN has responded to both China’s BRI and the US-led FOIP.

Professor Tan’s latest works include The Responsibility to Provide in Southeast Asia: Towards an Ethical Explanation (Bristol University Press, 2019) and The Legal Authority of ASEAN as a Security Institution (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

A Biden Presidency will no doubt offer opportunities for a reconfiguration of the relations between United States and China. In the event of a deterioration of relations between the two countries to the point of a ‘Second Cold War’, it will be imperative for Southeast Asia’s sake for it to avoid once again becoming the site of a proxy conflicts.

Nathan Wilson is a student of philosophy and politics at the University of Stirling, specialising in International Politics and Political Violence within the Asia-Pacific region. He previously studied abroad at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. 

Picture by Kirill Petropavlov via Unsplash. Picture cropped. 

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