Shangri La Dialogue: Southeast Asian Dynamics

25 Jun, 2012    ·   3641

Amruta Karambelkar discerns similarities and differences in expectations and perceptions on the Shangri-La Dialogue amongst Southeast Asian nations

Amruta Karambelkar
Amruta Karambelkar
Research Officer
Southeast Asian states of Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue 2012 with differing perspectives (SLD). This commentary analyses relevant speeches and media reports to understand Southeast Asian standpoint on power-play between the US and China and it’s repercussions on regional stability; and derives at likely strategic responses that Southeast Asia (SEA) can adopt.

Discerning from the terminologies used, Indonesia and Singapore mentioned the US and China, while Myanmar and Cambodia chose to refer to them as ‘major powers’. Except for Singapore, no country linked US’ focus in Southeast Asia with traditional security. The rhetoric devised constructive multilateral engagement for major powers in the areas of non-traditional security, humanitarian assistance, transnational crime, and so on.

On the other hand, Indonesia gave the concept of ‘dynamic equilibrium’ to avoid any conflict in the region and showed willingness to accommodate, stating that Asia is ‘big enough for all powers’ and Asian countries should evolve a forward looking new strategic culture- a culture of cooperation. Presence of extra-regional powers would bring more competition in areas of investment, trade, education and exchanges. But it is important that major powers in the region look at the present as a win-win situation, and not win-lose. Indonesia further suggested joint military operations involving US and China as a confidence building measure.

Conversely, Cambodia would like to see extra regional powers utilise their militaries to cooperate in disaster relief and combating transnational crimes. Singapore welcomed US’s renewed interest in the region more than anyone else. It accredited the prosperity of the region to the security umbrella provided by the US, the policies of Bretton Woods system and investments from Europe and largely US. It differentiated between the status of US and China as ‘Resident security power’ and ‘largest trading partner’, respectively. However, this dichotomy challenges ‘existing realignments’. Peace and stability in the region remained the major emphasis, but towards this goal the importance of military was reckoned with. Cambodia expressed its limitations in building deterrence on account of financial constraints that small countries face. 

Myanmar cautioned against military development turning into arms race, but recognised deterrence potential of ‘appropriate military balance’. For Myanmar, military can only be a supportive deterrence tool to deal with major powers, other being “Mutuality of Assured Destruction’ factor, where ASEAN as a block can retaliate using economic means against any agitator attempting to destabilize the region. Indonesia justified its military modernisation as a logical consequence of increased budget allocation, thanks to their economic growth. The renewed strength from military modernisation would be used for border protection, peace-keeping operations and to counter transnational threats. Pragmatic Vietnam would concentrate on achieving self-reliance in its defence.

The representatives had agreement on the legitimacy of UNCLOS to deal with any maritime issues. Safety and security of sea lanes was expressed as matter of interest by majority.  The Indonesian position wished for a comprehensive maritime security, without any threats from violence, navigational hazards and threats of transgression of law. Though not directly involved, Indonesia made a detailed commentary on the SCS dispute, as a stakeholder with ‘unswerving interest’. It described UNCLOS as ‘an international constitution for maritime domain’ and called for eliminating any notion of misinterpreting maritime freedoms as internationalisation of the straits. Likewise, Vietnam rejected to misinterpretation of international laws. Cambodia recognised the potential of SCS to affect regional stability.

At SLD states of SEA articulated their interests, threats and hopes. More or less, there seemed uniformity in SEA’s perception of geo-political reality. The expressions were varied, some being direct while others were discreet. Security and stability of the region was important to all members, there was however difference in their threat perceptions. They gave immense importance and preference to ASEAN as reference point of their actions. Attention was drawn to maintaining the spirit, identity and progress of ASEAN as an organisation, and any regressive step, that undermines the achievements of ASEAN so far, will have to be avoided.

With respect to the US-China power dynamics, no country would want to see a cold-war like division in the region. Thus majority of participants are striving to strike a balance amongst major powers. By and large, they would not accept domination by any power. US’s presence seems necessary as a balancing factor against China but it is a matter of debate whether the US can impose itself (its idea of security, its interests) on ASEAN as a whole. Singapore clearly justified US policy towards the region as guarantor of security and prosperity. Indonesian position addressed insecurity in the region but it would prefer to evolve an independent regional position than towing US.

At the same time, SEA would want more involvement from other extra regional powers to eliminate polarisation. They would also want to maintain strategic autonomy. States are aware of their geographical reality, of their neighbours, so policies would be primarily shaped by this pragmatism.  Some members saw it essential to maintain security in traditional sense but largely hoped that interplay of major powers would lead to cooperation. Through the rhetoric, they (Indonesia in particular) tried to underplay tensions between the US and China. Almost every country on the panel called for confidence building measures amongst all stakeholders in the region.