By Nurul Izzah Anwar, Member, Parliament of Malaysia; Vice President and Co-election Director, People's Justice Party (KEADILAN)
The 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue maintained its stature as the premium gathering of defence policymakers in the Asia-Pacific – amid an unfolding insurgency in Marawi and a more emboldened China in the South China Sea. As always, the Dialogue and the Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP) in which I participated, provided unparalleled platforms for critical discussions and observations on many pressing concerns. In its second year running, SEAYLP brought together young minds eager to discuss key strategic and security issues. As an opposition party lawmaker from a member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the key themes that stood out for me this year related to the impact of our regional alliance and the role of our respective governments.
ASEAN: many teeth, still no bite
Notably, conference proceedings often included mentions of the mushrooming bilateral exchanges between ASEAN nations, including Malaysian Defense Minister Dato' Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein's announcement of the trilateral joint patrols between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to fight militants in the Sulu Sea, off of Mindanao.
In the face of geopolitical challenges from superpower states to terrorists, I saw and heard ample evidence of unilateral efforts, some bilateral and trilateral coordination, but definitely no central thesis as to a coordinated ASEAN response to China or the threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL – problems that directly affect nearly every ASEAN citizen. The fact that larger pan-ASEAN groupings are still not the default norm for these initiatives should raise more questions among ASEAN citizens than they do currently.
In fact, in many ways, rather than progress to ‘institutionalise defence diplomacy’, across larger groupings like the ASEAN alliance, the conference revealed a thirst for bilateral engagements as leaders of smaller nations raced to meet with main superpowers. The challenge, of course, seen clearly by Malaysians watching our own government, is that these asymmetric dialogues will rarely end well for the individual ASEAN member relative to a power like China.
What is most worrying is that there is not even an articulated recognition of this gap at the leadership and structural level of ASEAN. Perhaps it is a higher degree of integration than ASEAN founders originally envisioned, but for the next generation of ASEAN leaders the necessity to move forward on this trajectory should be viewed as an inevitable group objective. This theme was reinforced by Dr James Boutilier, Special Policy Advisor at the Maritime Forces Pacific of Canada, who, during one of our SEAYLP seminars, reminded us of the adage: ‘If [ASEAN states] don't hang together, we'll hang separately.’
ASEAN united on human rights
At SEAYLP and the Dialogue, crucial decision makers, not least defence ministers, were frequently placed in the hot seat. I had the opportunity to pose a question to the Russian Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin on Russia's ongoing military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. I highlighted the importance of shifting Russia’s role to a non-partisan peace maker rather than supporting a regime that seemed to be perpetuating the Syrian civil war. Lasting peace can only be built upon concrete support for humanitarian and peacekeeping measures.
The Dialogue, although primarily developed as a platform to facilitate the exchange of ideas, has now, in my view, also become a platform for accountability. This is a welcome start, and again something that should be emulated in the formal context of ASEAN.
The voice of an opposition parliamentarian from one ASEAN member country might not thwart Russia's foreign policy and military machinations, but our nations can make an impact if we stand together as a trading bloc or common market, and present ourselves on the world stage with our principles against human rights violations. This stance is informed by our very own experiences with genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Taking ASEAN to the next level
My interactions with fellow delegates at SEAYLP strengthened my conviction that we are ready, willing, and able to start forging the essential structures and bonds that will take ASEAN to the next level.
The summit and the numerous discussions on the sidelines, including SEAYLP, reflect the great potential for individual Southeast Asian nations to leverage ASEAN as a group to punch far above its weight. My experience underscored my own developing initiative to formalise an inter-parliamentary working group across our nations to pursue enhanced dialogue and share best practices in key development areas. The criticality of improved coordination on defence and security issues, particularly the neutralisation of non-state threats while also protecting essential civil liberties, may be the low-hanging fruit in realising the first steps of this vision for ASEAN’s evolution.
The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue is an invaluable platform to work towards these goals. SEAYLP provided an environment for young Southeast Asian strategists and parliamentarians such as myself to sow the seeds for a radically improved global role for ASEAN.
This article is part of a series of blogs by delegates at the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme reflecting on the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017.