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Chairman's Circle March 24, 2015

“Challenges of the ASEAN Political-Security Community 2015″

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Overview

The twelfth Asia Foundation-supported Chairman’s Circle was held on March 24, 2015, at Aloft Hotel Bangkok, under the theme of Challenges of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) 2015. Moderated by Mr. Adam Martin, Program Officer at the Human Development Forum Foundation (HDFF), the event featured four distinguished panel speakers that have extensive experience and expertise as academics and professional practitioners. They were Dr. John Blaxland, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn, Assistant Editor at the Nation Media Group Thailand, Mr. Hernán Longo, Program Officer (Counter Terrorism) at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and Professor Yang Baoyun, Lecturer at Thammasat University and the School of International Studies at Peking University. The full-day event was commenced by a keynote address delivered by H.E. Mr. Lutfi Rauf, the Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to the Kingdom of Thailand.

The forum gathered 39 attendees consisting of officials from, among others, Embassies of Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, officers from Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children, Thai Mine Action Center, World Vision, U.S. Peace Corps, and United Nations offices in Thailand, as well as representatives from the private sectors. The Chairman of the HDFF General (ret.) Bunchon Chawansin was also in attendance and delivered opening remarks on behalf of HDFF and TAF. The forum expressed condolences on the passing of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

 Highlights

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For Indonesia, H.E. Ambassador Lutfi Rauf mentioned that security is of paramount importance and that ASEAN remains a priority in Indonesia’s foreign policy. He briefly touched upon Indonesia’s current focus on maritime affairs under President Joko Widodo highlighting how important the sea is for trade and transportation. Related to this, he referred to the situation in the South China Sea and reiterated Indonesia’s commitment to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). As for the future direction, he underlined that major challenges remain there, especially when it comes to ASEAN’s coherence, trust deficit, and transnational crime. During the Q&A session, H.E. Ambassador Lutfi Rauf also shared his view on the discourse of having a regional peacekeeping force that operates under an ASEAN flag – a topic that has been under consideration for quite some time.In his keynote speech, H.E. Ambassador Lutfi Rauf provided insights into the opportunities and challenges that the region is currently facing in preparing for the ASEAN Community 2015 integration. He highlighted that the APSC pillar has not been widely discussed as much as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) pillar. He mentioned that, currently, there are both pessimistic and optimistic views on ASEAN. Some people have  little confidence in the regional integration because they see that ASEAN is so diverse and has thousands of different ethnicities and religions – hence it has compelling sources for potential major conflict.

Furthermore, historically, the region was an arena of proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Consequently, suspicion still also lingers among the ASEAN members. At the same time, however, ASEAN members have also been able to manage the region well and keep it peaceful and stable, enabling ASEAN countries to have sound environment for economic development – which resulted in a cumulative GDP of USD 2.3 trillion in 2013. Furthermore, ASEAN has now seen a growing centrality that attracts a number of countries and organizations to engage more with ASEAN and be parties to its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC).

For Indonesia, H.E. Ambassador Lutfi Rauf mentioned that security is of paramount importance and that ASEAN remains a priority in Indonesia’s foreign policy. He briefly touched upon Indonesia’s current focus on maritime affairs under President Joko Widodo highlighting how important the sea is for trade and transportation. Related to this, he referred to the situation in the South China Sea and reiterated Indonesia’s commitment to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). As for the future direction, he underlined that major challenges remain there, especially when it comes to ASEAN’s coherence, trust deficit, and transnational crime. During the Q&A session, H.E. Ambassador Lutfi Rauf also shared his view on the discourse of having a regional peacekeeping force that operates under an ASEAN flag – a topic that has been under consideration for quite some time.

 Panel 1

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 Dr. John Blaxland presented on an Australian perspective on ASEAN’s security challenges in an era of increasing influence from major external countries. He started with a comprehensive elaboration on Australia’s geographical view towards ASEAN and a historical analysis on the people of ASEAN that have multiethnic backgrounds and lineages from China, Japan, India, Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal, among others. He mentioned that ASEAN is poised to be the fulcrum of Asia as it runs several overlapping forums engaging big countries in the region. He also discussed a number of political-security choke points and hot spots including the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea. Further on the South China Sea, it was noted that Indonesia has the risk of becoming one of the claimant states as the country’s Natuna Islands are located just next to one of the areas contested in the South China Sea dispute. He therefore seconded Ambassador Rauf’s previous call on the conclusion of the COC in the South China Sea at the earliest possible time.

Dr. Blaxland also highlighted each ASEAN member’s domestic political and security challenges that include political instability, border disputes, insurgencies, slow economic development, and transnational security concerns such as networked terrorism. He argued that one should not give the privilege of calling the Islamic State (IS) using its proclaimed name because the group is not a state by any means and does not represent Islamic values. Instead, people should start calling it ‘Daesh,’ the Arabic shorthand for the group’s native name. On ASEAN centrality, he underlined that Southeast Asia has become a place for great powers’ competing interests and influence. Countries such as the U.S., China, Japan, India, and Russia have been enhancing their political-security engagements with ASEAN in the past years and tried to stretch their influence to each ASEAN member state. A middle power like Australia is also very much interested in deeper collaboration with the Association. He ended his presentation by discussing Australia’s ongoing defense cooperation with individual ASEAN members as well as with other regional partners, e.g. the U.S, Japan, and South Korea.

Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn commented on Dr. Blaxland’s deliberation, particularly on the ASEAN centrality. He was very optimistic about it, highlighting the example of how Russia is now interested to have more active cooperation in Southeast Asia which previously wasn’t the case. Mr. Chongkittavorn went further mentioning that, unlike in the past, ASEAN has now also started to act collectively in dealing with external partners. This is not very effective yet but the ongoing efforts to achieve a coherent action are there. He also put forward the need for ASEAN members to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat (ASEC) and the possibility of setting up a specialized East Asia Summit (EAS) Secretariat within ASEC, especially if ASEAN wants to keep maintaining its centrality.

On another note, Mr. Chongkittavorn presented his idea on how ASEAN members could deal with the IS. His perspective on the issue was centered on the need for having a counter-narrative strategy to respond to the ways and means of communication used by the IS in spreading its ideology to the people. He highlighted some media reports suggesting that at least, 70 Malaysians, 500 Indonesians, and 200 Filipinos have joined the IS to be fighters in Iraq and Syria. It was also noted that efforts to cope with IS-related concerns are different among ASEAN member states. The Malaysian government is regarded as the most active in addressing this while countries such as Cambodia and Laos seemed to pay less attention on the issue. He also added that a low-profile Singapore, in fact, has a good program and facilities to rehabilitate returning foreign fighters.

 Panel 2

Mr. Hernán Longo discussed emerging terrorism-related threats to security in Southeast Asia from a criminal justice and practitioner perspective. He began with highlighting the UNODC’s mandate and role in Southeast Asia before further focusing his deliberations on terrorism in the region. According to him, various media reports have indicated that the total foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from ASEAN could have reached, at least, 1,000 people. This number, however, is still low in comparison with that of FTF coming from European countries. According to Mr. Longo, it is still not clear whether these fighters are solely accounted fighting for the IS as they could have been also fighting for non-IS affiliates and other political extremist groups in the Middle East. An interesting point that was touched upon by him is  the fact that Indonesia, with more than 150 million of Muslims in the country, has only around 500 fighters joining the extremist movement in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Longo also talked about the UN member states’ obligation to address FTFs as per UNSC Resolutions 2170 (August 2014) and 2178 (September 2014). The resolutions called on UN member states to, among others, take national measures to prevent fighters from travelling from their soil to join the groups, develop comprehensive policies to address the FTF related threats, improve international cooperation by sharing information on criminal investigations, interdictions and prosecutions, as well as make the most of existing UN counterterrorism bodies. Furthermore, Mr. Longo highlighted legal and judicial challenges, such as the lack of legal tools and the different level of capacity (resources and skills) between individual ASEAN member states that can hinder ASEAN’s efforts to address FTF-related threats.

Meanwhile, Professor Baoyun’s main discussion was centered on the internal challenges that are faced by ASEAN members. According to him, difficult situations taking place inside each ASEAN country is far more threatening than external challenges. Other obstacles such as transnational non-traditional security issues were also highlighted. These include, among others, human trafficking problem with Thailand as the major destination and victims mostly coming from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos; regional terrorism movement that spans from the Bali Bombing in 2002 until the recent IS activities in some ASEAN countries; and haze pollution and other trans-boundary environmental problems which affect Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

He also offered his perspective on the importance of ASEAN, mentioning that ASEAN is a high priority in China’s foreign policy. On the South China Sea issue, he argued that the tension between China and some ASEAN members have always been exaggerated by the media. He noted that cooperation between China and other claimant states such as Vietnam and Philippines are very robust but it receives fewer spotlights from the media. As for the future direction, he explained that the attitude of ASEAN and its member states would be important in determining a better integration in the political-security sectors. It is very much desirable to see ASEAN speak in one voice more often in the coming years.

Policy Recommendations

The Chairman’s Circle came up with a number of policy recommendations for ASEAN members to better deal with the current political-security challenges on several issues, as follows:

On ASEAN centrality

  • ASEAN members should maintain and enhance its centrality by addressing their trust deficit, increasing information exchanges, and promoting moderate voices, pluralism, and tolerance among its people. This is important because ASEAN centrality is still fragile, especially when it is faced with pressures and influence from major powers such as the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and India, which are all increasing their engagement in the region.

On terrorism and the Islamic State

  • ASEAN members should develop a comprehensive counter-narrative strategy to fight against the spread of IS’ extremism values in Southeast Asia. To this end, governments and civil society need to collaborate to develop a video or other form of communication using the social media to reach young people as they are mostly the target of the IS’ recruitment.
  • ASEAN members should develop common policies as well as legal tools and mechanisms to eradicate the IS and its affiliates in the region. Developing regional policies and synchronizing ASEAN members’ national policies are important so that all relevant agencies can be on the same page in facing IS’ serious threats.
  • ASEAN members need to prepare for the return of the IS foreign fighters by developing related tracking, prevention, and rehabilitation programs. In this regard, it was suggested that ASEAN make the most of Singapore’s substantial expertise and facilities in rehabilitating returning foreign fighters.

On South China Sea

  • Claimant states should refrain from taking any provocative action that could exacerbate the situation in the South China Sea. In addition, ASEAN members were urged to step up its commitment to an early conclusion of the COC so as to avoid unwanted incidents in the future.

The Chairman’s Circle brings together senior government dignitaries, UN officials, academics, and experts to explore ways and means to address issues and challenges related to the ASEAN Community 2015 integration. The Human Development Forum Foundation has collaborated with The Asia Foundation (TAF) on the arrangement of Chairman’s Circle fora since 2013. HDFF would like to express its sincere appreciation for TAF’s continued support and looks forward to continuing this valuable collaboration.