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Cooperation: The Key to Strengthening ASEAN Security
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By Anushka Kapahi

In 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created to develop strong economies, curb the rise of regional communist expansion, and encourage social progress. In this political context, nations put aside their differences to commit to principles of regional compromise, consensus, personal diplomacy, and solidarity; commonly referred to as the “ASEAN Way.” ASEAN’s political stability and commitment to free trade has made the bloc an economic powerhouse. However, ASEAN’s very strengths make it exceptionally vulnerable to security breaches. Noticeably visible through ASEAN conducting multiple defense forums, the growing regional bloc has expanded to play a key role in maintaining stability beyond its borders.

In the run-up to the ASEAN regional summit, the ASEAN heads of state were pondering and deliberating in each of their respective countries on what should be tackled in the summit. The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, had stressed the need to promote regional cooperation to battle IS militancy as a response to the recent terrorist insurgencies in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. According to the Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte will be putting a priority on the discussion over the fight against terrorism. The Philippines, as the chairman for the ASEAN summit this year, should utilize its position to enhance its national intelligence mechanisms and implement concrete intelligence-sharing to better address security threats posed within the region. To this end, a potential system to emulate is that of the European Union (EU).

The recently resolved Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Marawi caused death, disruption, and destruction. However, the liberation of Marawi does not mean the end of IS in Asia. This insurgency was one of the largest security crises the Philippines has ever faced. This has led to consternation over the expansion of terrorism within the country and the region. Similarly, with the terrorist attacks that have recently hit countries in the EU, the ASEAN region has been confronted with an unprecedented challenge in terms of collective security. The nature of the terrorist threats took on a new dimension in the region.

Challenges to ASEAN security have increased as a result of the influx of international and homegrown terrorist attacks. These incursions have put ASEAN governments on extreme alert and prompted them to ponder long-term defense strategies. The most pressing priority for ASEAN countries in their changing security environment is improving and enhancing intelligence-gathering capabilities regionally. The modernizing world demands that the region enhance its ability to analyze and respond decisively in addressing situations of critical importance. Although the region has been steadfast in modernizing military equipment, this must be backed up through an effective and efficient regional defense system. In the EU, member states find its legitimate extension and full efficacy in the strength of a united region that will at last assert itself as an area of advanced security, effective protection of its citizens and sovereignty.

ASEAN states are simultaneously driving to ensure safety and security within their borders. Alongside the acquisition of modern military weapons and equipment, military exercises between and among ASEAN countries have increased as well. These exercises should further be used to improve and develop the exchange as well as to draw lessons from fellow regional partners. Similar to the ASEAN, the EU is vulnerable to terrorist threats. However, with the EU’s united front, they have been able to establish concrete counter-terrorist strategies.

The EU prioritizes collective action, as solidarity is indispensable to combat terrorism. They have adopted a four-pillared Counter-Terrorism Strategy [prevent, protect, pursue, and respond] that constitutes a comprehensive response to the terrorist threat requiring national and regional collaboration. The EU's law enforcement coordination agency, Europol, has pushed for increased cooperation between member states in a bid to curb the rising threat of terrorism on European soil. They have successfully coordinated an operation assessing online extremist content.

The Philippines as the chairperson should promote the collaboration between ASEAN member states to create a regional defense research and development mechanism. The Philippines should urge for the need of a close, structured ASEAN cooperation to make the member states' action effective in the fight against terrorism. Although security is a vital national responsibility, in the foreseeable future, counter-terrorism measures will only be increasingly effective via a structured and systematic regional cooperation.  A more unified front among ASEAN states would further develop the effectiveness of information sharing regarding the convictions they make. An area that can be enhanced would be the interconnection of data and reports. This would result in an increased effective regional response to terrorist insurgencies having one approach to such issues. Throughout all this, it is vital that ASEAN focus on consultation, coordination, cooperation, and collaborate on among respective government to build on the region’s defense and security capabilities.

The ASEAN states should continuously urge each other to provide support to step up their security response. They should focus on restricting the influx of terrorists and their affiliates into the region through enhancing intelligence measures. They should promote the positive outcomes of strengthening regional responses in countering such crises. ASEAN defense should shape or reshape itself to meet the challenges in new security concerns. After all, ASEAN is embodied over the convergence in cooperation in conflict.

Anushka Kapahi is a graduate student in the International Affairs program at the George Washington University-Elliott School of International Affairs. Her academic focus is on International Security Studies and Asian Politics, particularly Southeast Asia. She completed her undergraduate studies in International Relations and Diplomacy at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila, Philippines.  

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