Aspiration alone is not enough for Southeast Asian states to defend the regional rules-based order, which is under threat. As SEAYLP delegate Angelica Mangahas discovered, breaking big challenges down into smaller bites is a good place to start.

Spratly islands in South China Sea. Credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

By Angelica Mangahas, Deputy Executive Director for Research, Stratbase ADR Institute

The Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP), which ran alongside the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, offered a unique opportunity for delegates to engage in vigorous discussions on security issues and to meet senior leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Commander of United States Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris, and Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman.

A model for future collaboration: Sulu Sea and Malacca Straits patrols

From my seat in the room, the discussions that took place – whether in the plenaries or in our SEAYLP meetings – tended to reflect regional states’ aspirations for Southeast Asia rather than the path to achieving them. One encompassing goal had been to defend the rules-based international order, a concept upheld by a number of Asia-Pacific states as a cornerstone of their relations. The number of initiatives by Western friends and allies to uphold the regional order highlighted to me ways in which Southeast Asian states could step up to the plate.

Despite uncertainty over the future of the rules-based international order – for example, China’s intentions and the robustness of the region’s commitment to sustaining this order – there were signs of progress on cooperative and competitive developments in the region. The Sulu Sea patrols of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, together with the more established Malacca Straits patrol, were repeatedly cited as both a good step forward and a promising model for future collaboration. This option, sometimes called a ‘coalition of the relevant’, could be a way through which smaller states join efforts to meet a clear need without being over-burdened by the processes of the multilateral institutions of which they are a part (e.g. Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Even then, while we talk about these initiatives as ‘building blocks’, does the region yet have a picture of what we are building? This was my question to Dr Maliki during one SEAYLP seminar. For now, perhaps not, but it appears that ASEAN member states are content to trust in the wisdom of incremental improvements, which has been part and parcel of the ‘ASEAN Way’.

Pragmatic approaches to big challenges

Away from the grand strategic themes of major powers, there was no shortage in desire to get important work done even in the smallest areas of cooperation. In the South China Sea, Singapore’s plan to prioritise the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and promote confidence-building between ASEAN navies and China is one example of a pragmatic way to reduce the odds of miscalculation. At this level, you could sense the greatest amount of interest from leaders and delegates in thinking about new approaches to, and options for, avoiding conflict. As another young delegate pointed out, as big as our region’s challenges are, by breaking them down into smaller problems and ‘running rings around them’, we have a better chance of keeping cooperation going and producing greater strategic effects over time. The alternative –waiting for a grand political bargain – would not only be less likely, but such a bargain would have less buy-in from all the regional states.

The SEAYLP seminars helped underline how the processes of developing a vision for the region and of having all our countries on board work hand in hand. In one of our sessions, the Australian ambassador to ASEAN, Jane Duke, pointed out that to these particular ends, ASEAN was still ‘fit for purpose’. By viewing ASEAN less as a way for members to speak or act in concert to influence a specific end, and more as a common platform for member states and their dialogue partners to air their views, we can be more constructive in evaluating its successes, failures, and potential. Finally, while there are still blind spots to overcome even among cooperating states (e.g. differing intelligence assessments on the number of ISIS-inspired foreign fighters in the southern Philippines), the best course will still be for countries to coalesce around their efforts to mitigate risk and to trust in that process.

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.

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IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018

The 17th Asia Security Summit will be held in Singapore on 1–3 June 2018.


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