ASEAN and Asia's Regional Security Architecture

By Teo, Chee Hean | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, April 15, 2008 | Go to article overview
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ASEAN and Asia's Regional Security Architecture


Teo, Chee Hean, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


Chee Hean Teo is Minister of Defense, Republic of Singapore. Minister Teo presented this speech on ASEAN's role in Asia's regional security architecture on February 10th before the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy. ASEAN at the Crossroads of Asia Asia is changing, and changing rapidly. The growing economic influence and strategic importance of Northeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent are apparent. Southeast Asia, positioned at the crossroads of India, Japan and China, is an integral part of this Asian tapestry.

Southeast Asia sits astride the world's most important sea lanes, strategically located between two of the fastest growing economies in the world. Nearly a third of the world's trade and half the world's oil are transported via the Malacca Straits, which runs through the heart of Southeast Asia. It is also a region rich in mineral and energy resources.

North East Asia, and South and South West Asia each have their own regional security challenges. But the future of these two regions are also becoming increasingly intertwined. India and countries in the Gulf are rediscovering and renewing their historical links with China and East Asia. The overland links between these regions, as in historical times, face the immutable challenges of geography - mountains and deserts, frigid winters and searing hot summers - and the friction of traversing many nations and cultures which are often at odds with each other.

The historic links through the maritime routes of Southeast Asia, fanned by warm trade winds, and centered on its great trading ports, are now being re-established.

The new economic realities in the region will also have long term strategic and security implications. As their economies globalise and grow, China and India will naturally seek to extend their influence and secure their interests beyond their immediate neighbourhoods. Their growing economic might will allow them to progressively develop the military capabilities and diplomatic influence to do so. It is notable that Asia has more nuclear-armed states than Europe, and it has more states aspiring to nuclear- armed status.

Other major powers will respond to these economic and strategic developments. Japan is re-defining its role on the world stage, bidding for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In January last year, Japan formalised their Defence Agency as a cabinet level Ministry of Defence. Russia is already a major arms supplier to countries in Asia, and its share of the arms market in Southeast Asia is increasing.

Even as the US remains pre-eminent and important as a stabilising force in Asia, new players and resurgent powers are jostling for influence, access to markets and strategic resources. Southeast Asia is an important crossroad where the great game is being played out.

Developing Cooperation out of Conflict in ASEAN

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, has a history of developing cooperation out of conflict. When ASEAN was formed in 1967, the five original members, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, were in the midst of fighting communist insurgencies. Indonesia had just ended an armed Confrontation with Malaysia and Singapore. The five founding members decided that they should put conflict behind them and take the path of cooperation.

They, and Brunei which also joined ASEAN, succeeded beyond expectations, and enjoyed a period of peace and unprecedented economic growth through to the mid 1990s.

In the 1980s, ASEAN stood against Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. But by the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, ASEAN was able to bring into the ASEAN family Vietnam (July 1995), Laos (July 1997) and Cambodia (April 1999), countries which once stood on the other side of the Cold War divide.

ASEAN also brought in Myanmar (July 1997), to try to socialise it into the norms of ASEAN - but this is still a work in progress.

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