Mon, 15 Mar 2004

'Cooperative equilibrium' neded by ASEAN

Bantarto Bandoro, Editor, The Indonesian Quarterly Centre For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta,

ASEAN's commitment when it was first established in 1967 was to take care of its immediate region, Southeast Asia. It was decided that matters relating to Southeast Asia be managed through cooperative measures between ASEAN member countries. Now that ASEAN has expanded its membership and its regional activities have become more extensive, it is more exposed to myriad regional problems, stemming either from inside or outside the member countries. The hundreds of ASEAN meetings in a year and the regular summits of its leaders reflect the reality that ASEAN is out to prove to the world its cohesiveness and unity.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the region, particularly after the World Trade Center bombing in 2001, however, have forced ASEAN to redefine its regional political and security role. It is during such a process that we witnessed the emergence of dissenting opinion within ASEAN members with regard to the handling of new strategic regional issues. Terrorism is perhaps one of the most pressing issues ASEAN now faces.

This, however, reflects that only few members of ASEAN are willing to be part of the ASEAN treaty for combating terrorism. Not only this. Indonesia's proposal for an ASEAN security community was, from the outset, received with some reservation.

The idea for an ASEAN peacekeeping force was also considered unacceptable for certain member countries of ASEAN, with some arguing that each member of ASEAN had its own political and military policies and that ASEAN was the wrong entity to play a regional peacekeeping role.

All this showed that ASEAN, as it attempts to be more outward- looking, has exposed itself to a situation in which it faces even more difficulty in arriving at a collective decision. This is perhaps due to differing perceptions on how the new regional challenges should be managed. While some members see the importance of a regional rule to keep the "common garden" of Southeast Asia clean and free of turbulence, others tend to possess different priorities on how to "guard" and clean the garden.

Thus, the outcome of such action and reaction within ASEAN would be either to keep the "garden" clean anyway or that the common garden would be abandoned as a result. Here we see that even fresh regional proposals are bound to cause some members to defect from an expected common position if the proposal is considered to be in contradiction with the basic policy of those member countries. All this indicates that there is no equilibrium between ASEAN member country interests and the interests of ASEAN as a whole.

From the perspective of organization theory, a collective decision and solid organization are indeed important for an organization if it is to be seen as having the responsibility, capacity and resources to effectively approach problems. As for ASEAN, it is a political reality that there is a disequilibrium between ASEAN's need for long-term security in the region, as encapsulated in Indonesia's proposal for an ASEAN peacekeeping force, and the stability of its member countries.

Signs that ASEAN seems to have been unable to maintain, not lose, its equilibrium are particularly reflected in the way it responded to the current change in its strategic milieu. Though the proposal for an ASEAN security community has been endorsed, its implementation is likely to face many constraints as ASEAN members tend to perceive things from a different angle.

Thus, the new image of ASEAN that Indonesia is about to introduce will probably not result in an equilibrium between ASEAN's new strategies and the availability of its resources. It will, instead, result in a competitive game between ASEAN member countries.

Indonesia's proposal for an ASEAN peacekeeping force has caused a split between ASEAN member countries, at least for now, and they -- reportedly Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- are acting as if they are forming a coalition opposed to Indonesia as promoter of the proposal.

The June meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers here is likely to witness the tabling of new strategies by this coalition on how new and pressing regional security issues should be approached. What we shall see in the process is independent initiatives taken by certain members countries of ASEAN according to their best response map. There is a tendency toward individualism within the ASEAN community.

As a regional organization that has been in existence for more than 30 years, ASEAN has indeed learned a lot from the dynamic of the region and the way that turbulence has impacted on the stability and cohesiveness of ASEAN.

In spite of its many regional initiatives and sensitivity to the changed strategic milieu, many still perceive ASEAN as a political entity that lacks a clear concept on how to maintain equilibrium between its expected and actual regional security roles, between ASEAN's regional interests and the political preferences of each member country and between cooperation and competition based on cooperation benefits and costs.

Equilibrium within the ASEAN context should be dynamic in nature, so it can then be in the form of balance, stable organization and ability to match the rate of change in its immediate environment with its rate of invention of new concepts and image. ASEAN is there to provide adequate stability and security for the region, as well as to prove that its maintenance of equilibrium is to bring about better performance within the ASEAN region.

Thus, cooperative equilibrium may not only be thought of as a collective decision adopted by ASEAN than can be viewed as stable against deviations by individuals or groups of member countries, but it is also a prime prerequisite for ASEAN's sustainable cooperation. Ignoring the importance of equilibrium will only result in more deviating coalitions, which is not good for ASEAN.

The writer is also lecturer in the International Relations, Postgraduate Studies Program, Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Indonesia, Jakarta.