Generational change in Southeast Asia will reshape the way in which diplomacy and international cooperation is conducted in the region. Paul Pongphisoot analyses this phenomenon, arguing that the IISS Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme is a step on the path to a new style of security community.

Photo by IISS

By Paul Pongphisoot, Lecturer at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

This year the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pioneered a new initiative, the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme (SEAYLP), inviting young strategists from Southeast Asian nations to participate in the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2016.

Over the last 15 years the Shangri-La Dialogue has become an important global forum, helping to address security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region. Though an exclusive club for policymakers in its early stages, the Dialogue has gradually involved different stakeholders, including academics, the private sector, media, and civil society organisations. This reflects the shifting nature of Asia-Pacific security affairs since the Cold War, from security being narrowly defined as state-centred to becoming more human-centred, this requiring multiple actors to achieve. The Shangri-La Dialogue has been successful in including such actors, and the SEAYLP now adds to the mix.

The SEAYLP is also the IISS's move to address another important issue in the region since the turn of the century – namely, generational change. As a new generation has grown up in the twenty-first century, they have been exposed to different socio-economic and political environments, ideas, and cultures. This fundamental but subtle transformation has shaped the new generation's worldview to be distinct from that of their parents, teachers and leaders, and has increasingly influenced the way in which the politico-security realm is perceived and handled.

One result of the process of generational change is that political space is more open to individuals outside of traditional elites, within each society and across countries. For this reason, it is hard to find connections between today's leaders of the sorts that the founding fathers of ASEAN had – through education, family ties, or anti-colonial experience. These backgrounds helped them to mediate or settle regional disputes in a personal, closed-door manner. This level of personal connection undeniably laid a foundation for an 'ASEAN way' of non-confrontational consensus making.

An example of this type of old elite can be seen in Tunku Abdul Rahman, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. He had a family connection with Thailand through his Thai mother, spent part of his childhood education in Bangkok, and moved through his political career with Malaysian and Singaporean leaders in the early post-colonial era. The success of ASEAN in its early stages may partly be attributed to these kinds of connections between leaders across the region.

The expansion of the social groups involved in policymaking circles in modern Asia has widened the social gaps amongst the new leadership generation. This new generation's emergence means a fresh platform on which to build networks of coordination and facilitate their involvement in regional affairs is necessary. Certainly, we may want to depart from the personalisation of security affairs that the prior generation of Southeast Asian leaders experienced, towards a more formalised and rules-based regional order. But the idea of having good relationships amongst the new generation of leaders has merit, helping to enable honest consultations and hopefully prevent misunderstandings and reduce mistrust and tensions.

With the SEAYLP, the IISS has acted in a timely manner to address this generational change, one that will impact upon future security, cooperation, and conflicts in the region. I can speak on behalf of the SEAYLP delegates, therefore, in saying that this initiative is important and of great benefit to young strategists like us.

Certainly, a core benefit of the SEAYLP is that young professionals are given the opportunity to expose themselves directly to issues of regional concern, such as the disputes in the South China Sea, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal and terrorism. Some of the SEAYLP delegates expressed their opinions and put questions directly to policy practitioners, which may have been impossible without this initiative. For me as an academic, teaching and researching on the international relations of Southeast Asia, attending the Shangri-La Dialogue benefitted my research tremendously in terms of learning and observing how each party in the region thinks about themselves and about each other in relation to regional conflict and cooperation.

Importantly, however, with the SEAYLP the IISS has started forming a regional network of young professionals across different fields, from security authorities to academia, journalism, and civil society organisations. I believe that, over time, SEAYLP delegates will help to promote the construction of a new security community starting within Southeast Asia. The Asia-Pacific region has been experiencing several security challenges, mostly dominated by competition between great powers, but the SEAYLP is a step towards keeping Southeast Asia in the driver's seat, steering regional security architecture towards peace and prosperity.

Paul Pongphisoot attended the 15th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue as part of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme.

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