Never before in its 45 years of existence has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) received so much public attention in Thailand.
Until recently, Asean was merely an inaccessible acronym, confined to the stifling corridors of officialdom, notorious for its several hundred meetings per year. It was a platform for officials and bureaucracies of member states, otherwise known as "Track I", complemented by contributions and engagements from "Track II" of academics and regional think-tanks.
Such distance and deficit between Asia's most durable regional organisation at the top and its "Track III" inhabitants and stakeholders down below have been markedly reduced. Asean has belatedly become a household word, included in everyday parlance and featured in seminars and workshops almost on a daily basis. Yet most references to Asean in Thailand are centred on the Asean Economic Community (AEC), one of three so-called "pillars" of the much-vaunted Asean Community (AC), along with the Asean Political-Security Community (APSC) and Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
The AEC has captured the Thai popular imagination of Asean as a regional organisation at the expense of the APSC and ASCC pillars. This article homes in on the APSC as the neglected pillar of the AC. Without sufficient focus and effectiveness on political and security dimensions at a time of rising tension in the region, the AC project may well come to naught.
Unsurprisingly, the AEC attracts most of the public spotlight mainly because of the fear and concern that Thai businesses will face stiffer competition and that Thai society will be adversely affected by freer flows of labour, capital and technology.
The Thai bureaucracy, particularly the Ministry of Commerce, was tasked and funded to promote awareness and preparations for the AC by Jan 1, 2015. Even when Asean leaders agreed to delay the AC promulgation by one year to Dec 31, 2015, which practically means 1 Jan 2016, the Thai public hardly took notice and still stuck with "AC 2015". Nor did it matter to the Thais that the awareness and public campaigns about the AC and its pillars and blueprints have been much less prominent in other Asean capitals such as Yangon, Hanoi, Manila and Phnom Penh. Once Thais get into a sloganeering and bandwagoning frenzy, they tend to go overboard.
To be sure, the current Thai obsession with the AEC is a fruitful undertaking, lacking in perspective. As the AEC has posed a "threat" of sorts, Thai firms, traders and entrepreneurs are making adjustments, restructuring, investment and trade plans they would not countenance otherwise. Thai officials have also gone through skills-improvement courses, awareness programmes, and exposure to regional and international affairs more than ever, mostly with the AEC in mind. To this extent, the AEC is a godsend for informing, enticing and forcing Thai firms, businesspeople, bureaucrats and laymen to make adjustments that will lead to overall efficiency gains and skills upgrading for the Thai economy and workforce.
Whatever the real prospects and outcomes of the regional build-up towards the AC by end-2015, Thailand's AEC-fixated trends and patterns are likely to continue with growing intensity. But while the AEC involves hard rice-and-curry issues that constitute the lifeblood and lifelines of Asean's regional economies and businesses, with far-reaching ramifications for societies across the region (and hence the ASCC), the APSC has virtually been ignored in the Thai collective imagination.
It is a strange and alarming phenomenon. Although Asean's economic prospects are robust and promising, its thorny and contentious political and security issues and dynamics could undermine, reverse and forestall the gains from regional economic interdependence.
Chief among Asean's security concerns is the Thai-Cambodian border conflict over the Preah Vihear temple, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded to Cambodia in 1962. The United Nations Education, Social, and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) subsequently accepted the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site in 2008. The 4.6 square kilometres of land on which the temple is situated has been a source of controversy but has been used by both sides over the years. Owing to bilateral tension that included military skirmishes in 2011 _ Asean's first serious post-Cold War interstate military conflict _ Cambodia has petitioned the ICJ for clarification of its 1962 landmark ruling. A decision in favour of Cambodia could reignite the flames of domestic conflict in Thailand, with the potential for another bilateral military clash between the two countries in the contested border area.
The South China Sea is another issue area that could make the AC project futile. China's growing assertiveness has divided Asean's cohesiveness and challenged Asean's centrality in dealing with regional conflicts. The Philippines and Vietnam are stacked up against China, with support from Malaysia and Brunei. Yet the mainland Asean members, particularly Cambodia, have stood by Beijing. This Asean rift over the South China Sea is likely to widen unless China backs away from unilateral action and submits itself to regional rules of conduct in accordance with international law. Asean is also beset by persistent and deadly internal ethno-nationalist conflicts in southern Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia's Papua, notwithstanding the recently concluded peace agreement in Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
These internal conflicts may widen or germinate with jihadist elements from outside. If exacerbated, the conflicts could lead to violence and mayhem on a regional scale and subvert Asean's aspired regional integration.
In addition, a broad array of non-traditional security (NTS) challenges stand in the way of the AC project, ranging from natural disasters and transnational crimes to human and drug trafficking.
These NTS are regional borderless in their detrimental effects, demanding a collective regional response, handling, and enforcement. Asean has too often come up short on meeting NTS challenges. Integrating Asean in a community will require a more effective regional framework to tackle NTS threats that transcend Asean's cardinal non-interference principle.
The broader geopolitical and geo-economic regional canvass also will put the AC project to the test. Asean is the new battleground in the superpower rivalry and competition between China and the United States.
The United States' "pivot" to Asia has sounded alarm bells in Beijing in fear of containment and encirclement, as much as China's perceived and real aggressiveness in the South China Sea territorial disputes is nudging certain Asean states to lean on and invite a greater American role in the region. The China-US tension may intensify into bipolar spheres of influence between maritime and mainland Asean states, thereby further dividing the organisation and eroding its regional centrality.
Just as the ASCC cannot be neglected because the societies and peoples of Asean must be connected, pooled and socialised into a common regional identity and regard for the Asean Charter and its community objectives, the APSC is paramount. Without an Asean that is at peace among member states and within each of them in a stable regional environment where the external major powers are kept in check and on balance, the AEC will be meaningless.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
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