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In the Face of Territorial Disputes and Terrorism: Is ASEAN a Failure or Success?

By Nadia Vong , TIME

Published: 18 Mar 2019 - 06:51 AM

ASEAN solidarity against the challenges of regional security

ASEAN solidarity against the challenges of regional security

As the ASEAN Regional Forum is around the corner, issues of "Maritime Security and Cooperation" and "Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime" will be raised. These two extremely pressing issues have become profound threats that would potentially impact the security and relationships of the ASEAN countries and lead to international insecurity.

The rampant transnational organised crime in the Asia Pacific region and the competition for territorial claims in the South and East China Seas have heightened the tensions between ASEAN countries. The issues have been posing several threats to maritime security, endangering the overall geopolitical fabric, as well as disrupting trading routes.

In recent years, disputes over territorial claims have arisen between countries, including an ongoing maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over territorial waters off Tuas, Singapore. In 2019, Singapore decided to file a declaration under Article 298 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as both countries were unable to have an agreement.

Despite the objectives of achieving sustainable economic growth and regional stability, the row over airspace and maritime boundaries has given rise to jingoism on both sides. The observers have said that the bilateral relationship is currently at its worst state in two decades.

Besides internal disputes within ASEAN, the South China Sea dispute has been another pressing issue between ASEAN and China. All ASEAN members were expected to resolve the conflict as a whole. Yet, the internal disputes, unfavourable political situation in some countries and the priority of national interests have hindered them from coming to a consensus. After all, solutions to most disputes over territorial claims within ASEAN have remained unknown.

Another aspect of focus of the ARF is terrorism, which the ASEAN leaders view as "a direct challenge to the attainment of peace, progress and prosperity of ASEAN and the realization of ASEAN Vision 2020".

ASEAN's efforts to address terrorism and transnational crime include the 2001 Declaration of Joint Action to Counter Terrorism which states that "Strengthen cooperation at the bilateral, regional and international levels in combating terrorism in a comprehensive manner and affirm that at the international level the United Nations should play a major role in this regard."

Terrorism is an extremely relevant issue to ASEAN and the world. Unilateralism is the dominant modality for ASEAN counter-terrorism, as the Plan of Action dictates that the primary responsibility for countering terrorism rests with individual ASEAN member states. This disconnect and diversity of terrorist membership across Southeast Asia have resulted in ASEAN countries competing for national conceptualisations of the threat and nature of terrorism.

One example is the marginalisation of Myanmar's Rohingya population. Myanmar's unwillingness to consider Rohingya disenfranchisement in formulating their Rakhine State counter-terrorism campaign is evident in the labelling of Rohingya militants as ‘Bengali terrorists'. This is no longer an issue that purely concerns Myanmar internal affairs but a concern for all members as it has increasingly linked to rising threats of terrorism and radicalism. Myanmar government is urged by the ASEAN committee to take responsibility to settle the issue instead of staying under the comfort of non-interference.

Unlike countries’ attitudes towards the disputes over territorial claims, the issue of terrorism is more likely to bring countries together to take immediate actions because terrorism is an issue that links all countries together as when one is affected, all will be affected. On the other hand, settling territorial disputes may require countries to give in to others in certain aspects which most countries are not willing to.

Most agree that ASEAN member countries share common maritime interests, however, not all are confident that their interests can be best advanced through a collective regional approach.