NATO-ASEAN relations: let’s get serious for a moment

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero during his recent visit to Australia. At its essence, his presentation “NATO in a Globalised World” at ANU (podcast here) was an opportunity to present NATO’s new Strategic Concept (PDF) and elaborate its components to an audience of strategic and foreign policy scholars and students.

With the next day’s headline “NATO wants closer links with Asia-Pacific”, one could be forgiven for thinking that in the course of his speech, he had heralded a new relationship with Asian states. And yet, in the course of articulating NATO’s perception of the 21st century security terrain and its response, his Excellency made only fleeting references to Southeast Asia as one of several “hotbeds for organised crime, … trafficking of people, weapons and narcotics” and also terrorist threats from groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Why should this matter? Because the Ambassador’s repeated mentions of not only the interconnectedness of security threats and the related requirement for “cooperative security” but also the current context of severe constraints to NATO member states’ defence spending places it squarely within the purview of NATO’s articulated strategic interests. The dual emphasis on closer cooperation and spending pragmatism served as suitable grounds for opening greater partnerships with Southeast Asian states. The degree to which NATO engages Southeast Asia is another matter; one that should be determined by the extent to which common security issues between the groupings are of strategic priority.

If Southeast Asia is a region of fragile states and, in NATO’s assessment, susceptible to be a hotbed for terrorist threats, it follows that preventive measures such as engaging ASEAN more actively are warranted. Under article 30 of the new Strategic Concept, NATO will enhance partnerships through political dialogue, practical cooperation, and consultation on issues of common concern. Albeit an extreme example, given the quandary in which NATO has found itself  in Afghanistan on the grounds of denying international terrorists safe havens, it may be prudent to foster a framework of cooperation with ASEAN now.

While relations with NATO could potentially develop bilaterally, on transnational issues such as terrorism and piracy that concern more sensitive issues like sovereignty, it would be best to encourage a ‘softly softly’ consensus approach in line with the so-called ‘ASEAN way’. There are a number of other security issues on which NATO and ASEAN could find common ground; for one, whither the changing geo-strategic environment in light of China’s rise?

I argue that NATO-ASEAN meetings are a more appropriate forum for handling security threats than the more established Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEM is a 45-member forum that handles political matters, security and the economy, and education and culture; such a broad agenda between so many members is unlikely to reach substantial progress on more difficult questions of security cooperation. Although there were sessions on piracy at sea and counter-terrorism at the 2010 ASEM summit, it is doubtful that practical outcomes and progress on substantive issues were achieved (for interested readers, you can find the respective piracy and counter-terrorism concept papers (PDF) here and here).

Lastly, my friend Raoul Heinrichs suggested to me that perhaps historical ambivalence between NATO and SEATO (ASEAN’s de facto predecessor) could play into the reluctance of NATO to engage the grouping. However, it seems to me that, whatever the case, historical ambivalence or not, if NATO is serious not only about putting the rhetoric of cooperative security into practice but also achieving its goals in the context of fiscal restraint, it should be thinking about ASEAN in a much more explicit manner.

Readers, over to you.

3 thoughts on “NATO-ASEAN relations: let’s get serious for a moment

  1. Great post Nat, I see where you are going with this, but can one really expect there to be that much of a comparison or some sort of symmetry between NATO and ASEAN?

    Given that ASEAN has been criticised for not doing enough to promote human rights and democracy, esp in Myanmar, despite previous outrages of brutal crackdowns by the Junta, ASEAN could not even barely consider the use of sanctions, let alone kicking Myanmar our of its organisation. This is crucial as the EU has expressed concern about this and thus has been a barrier to potential free trade negotiations on a regional level. While this might not be NATO’s concern, but it does show that in some instances, country by country engagement might be more productive than taking a blanket approach with an organisation that, in my opinion, has been as toothless as the Arab League.

    I’m generally in support of multilateral diplomacy, but ASEAN is the tiger with not much teeth, it has been been labelled a “talk-shop” over the years, and with good reason.

    Over to you!

  2. There are signs that ASEAN is not merely the toothless tiger many label it in the past; the recent example of the ASEAN-backed Indonesian observer team sent to the Thai-Cambodian border demonstrates a proactive stance on regional security matters. And while there may continue to be sticking points such as human rights and Myanmar, I think pragmatism on both sides will ensure, in times of need, greater cooperation on matters of common security will follow.

  3. Nathalie, great post!

    I have to agree with AA. I am not convinced that ASEAN is seen as a proactive player by most NATO members (this includes big and small ones). The question is what ASEAN can actually offer to NATO that bilateral dialogues with some of the more important members of ASEAN would not.

    Plus: NATO has no history of cooperating with multilateral groupings – and given ASEAN’s membership and track record, I am very doubtful that ASEAN would be NATO’s first choice in changing that history.

    I agree that NATO needs to cooperate with states in Asia-Pacific, but I think its best to avoid ASEAN in that process.

    Greetings from Bonn!

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