Preventive Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: Redefining the ASEAN Way
Preventive Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: Redefining the ASEAN Way
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
Op-Ed / Asia

Preventive Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: Redefining the ASEAN Way

Preventive diplomacy in Southeast Asia has traditionally been characterized by much talk and little collective action. While the region is riddled with lingering conflicts, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been proud that, since its formation in 1967, no two members have had a "large-scale" war. Prior to the recent Thai-Cambodian border conflict, the consensus based nature of the "ASEAN way" lulled the region into a false sense of security in which interstate violent conflict was considered unthinkable. Yet, with many disputes remaining unresolved, including conflicting claims between various countries in the region and China, the potential for clashes remain. While these bilateral disputes are still the subject of various ongoing bilateral negotiations, fora, workshops, dialogues, and talks, ASEAN as an institution has little active role in resolving them.

The fighting in February 2011 on the Thai-Cambodian border demanded that ASEAN's abstract talk of preventive diplomacy be quickly converted into the real thing. While the association's intervention was hailed as groundbreaking when the initial shooting stopped, conflict soon flared in a new area of the border less than three months later. Rather than an institutional effort, the preventive diplomacy was ad hoc in nature and dependent on the activism of a single country.

This case set precedents, but it also exposed the limits of the region's approach and highlighted some old challenges. First, ASEAN still feels the need to define its role in relation to a mandate given to it by the UN Security Council and later the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It has not been able to independently carve out space for itself as a preventive-diplomacy actor. Second, while described as a group initiative, it is in reality based upon the energy and dynamism of one member, Indonesia, the organization's chair in 2011. Third, the speed at which a more than forty-year-old border dispute turned into a deadly exchange between "friends" was worrying. Finally, ASEAN was engaged in managing the dispute for more than two years before the 2011 clashes, but it still could not stop them. This has exposed some of the limits to the role the organization can play alone.

The more active postures of ASEAN and some of its members after the recent Thai-Cambodian conflict are welcome. The incident reinforced the importance of preventive diplomacy, the need to strengthen institutions, and the need for all countries in the region to make better efforts to conclusively solve old disputes. It also revealed that there is no ASEAN consensus on a new and more activist role in peace and security for the region's premier grouping.

In the last decade, there has been much talk about preventive diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Some argue ASEAN is the region's most powerful conflict-prevention mechanism. It has been praised for easing confrontation between its founding members since the 1960s and, until recently, for having prevented conflict between its member states. This praise has been tempered by the internal strife among its members that occasionally spills across frontiers. The region has many unresolved border disputes.The Thai -Cambodia border dash has highlighted the challenge such disputes present, as each one has the potential to quickly turn violent, particularly when stoked by domestic politics. The South China Sea is also an area of concern, for the region's efforts at conflict mitigation and confidence building have seen little progress here in the last decade.

Preventive diplomacy in Southeast Asia has been defined narrowly to minimize the role for those outside the region and to reinforce ASEAN's strong doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries. It marginalizes other multilateral institutions and excludes nongovernmental organizations. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) defines preventive diplomacy as any diplomatic or political action taken by states to prevent disputes or conflicts that could threaten regional peace and stability, to prevent such disputes from escalating into armed confrontation, or to minimize the impact of such conflicts on the region. The eight key principles of preventive diplomacy are that it (i) uses peaceful methods such as negotiation, enquiry, mediation, and conciliation; (ii) is noncoercive; (iii) is timely; (iv) requires trust and confidence; (v) involves consultation and consensus; (vi) is voluntary; (vii) applies to direct conflict between states; and (viii) is conducted in accordance with international law. 

In the past twenty years, the region has witnessed some seminal moments of diplomatic activity including the key role ASEAN played in resolving the long aftermath of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and in ending Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. The UN was also a key player, particularly when these conflicts moved beyond preventive diplomacy into the realm of complex peace operations. There is much active peacemaking going on in Southeast Asia involving internal conflicts. In Indonesia's Aceh and Papua, Myanmar, southern Philippines, and southern Thailand, bilateral actors and NGOs have taken the lead. However, by the ARF's definition, NGOs can not engage in preventive diplomacy. This is a problem and an illustration of ASEAN's noninterference principle, embedded in its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, at work.


The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and the African Union are often cited as being institutions of a different character to those found in Asia. When compared with their global peer group, Asian organizations look weak. Despite the existence of several regional institutions, there is no single norm that is widely accepted across the region other than the much vaunted "ASEAN way" which is synonymous with non-interference. Thus, while it is often blamed as the cause of inaction, ASEAN has equally been cited as the most successful Asian regional organization because it has been able to export its strong norm of non-interference to the broader Asian region through the ARF, ASEAN Plus 3, and the East Asian Summit.

Like many multilateral organizations, ASEAN resembles a convoy that moves at the speed of its slowest ship. Its diversity is a brake on concerted action, including preventive diplomacy. Within its ranks there are vibrant democracies, controlled democracies, communist one-party states, military regimes, and feudal kingdoms. ASEAN's consensus-based decision making gives each member an effective veto over decisions regarding the organization's agenda, interventions, reforms,and decision-making powers. Quite deliberately, authority to make collective policy still rests within the governments or foreign ministries of each member state. Members have no desire to cultivate an independent and activist ASEAN secretariat. Its primary task remains to organize the grouping's more than 600 annual meetings involving working level officials on highly technical cooperation and to plan for summits with heads of state. The ASEAN Secretary-General has a very limited role, and, to an even greater extent than his UN counterpart, he has been regarded as more "secretary" than "general."

While adherence to the principle of non-interference is not exclusively an ASEAN trait, ASEAN puts a higher premium on it than other regional groupings. Each member has its own internal problems that make it feel potentially vulnerable to outside pressure. Myanmar, which has faced the greatest international condemnation and Western sanctions, has been blamed most for holding back a more enhanced role for ASEAN in peacemaking in order to keep others out of its internal affairs .But each country has its own issues that they would prefer to keep out of the regional and global spotlight.

There are some roles ASEAN is better equipped to play than others. For example, it was well-suited to playing a coordinating role in the delivery of humanitarian aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. But when violence broke out in Myanmar's Kokang special region in August 2009, it was Beijing, with its direct interest in stopping the flow of refugees, who intervened to stop it. Most fighting in Myanmar that leads to refugees spilling into Thailand goes unnoticed by ASEAN. Despite the organization's most recent role on the Thai-Cambodian border, there is not even a limited agreement among the parties-least of which from Myanmar itself-that there is a role for ASEAN in this issue. This leaves the organization on the sidelines as a spectator. China's size gives it more leverage over Myanmar than ASEAN, as does its other large neighbor: India. While less powerful, ASEAN members have important economic relationships, but this is rarely applied to influence political matters.


The 2007 ASEAN Charter defines the key "institutions" for preventive diplomacy as the organization's current chair and its Secretary-General. Article 25 of the charter goes further and calls for the establishment of dispute-resolution procedures.The follow-up 2009 ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) Blueprint also calls for the establishment of an ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. In 2011, the office that mattered and made a difference was that of the chair. Under Article 32 (c) of the charter, the chairman shall "ensure an effective and timely response to urgent issues or crisis situations affecting ASEAN,including providing its good offices and such other arrangements to immediately address these concerns."

The legal basis for Indonesia's preventive diplomacy role in 2011 comes from the provision of good offices (Article 32) rather than those outlining dispute-resolution procedures (Article 25), although Indonesian diplomats themselves talk about following the spirit of the charter more than any particular section. Even with this authority, Indonesia, in its capacity as the ASEAN chair during the clash between Thailand and Cambodia, still had to build a consensus. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa started with shuttle diplomacy between the disputing parties and other member states. The matter then went to the UN Security Council for an informal meeting, where the matter was then handed back to ASEAN to act as facilitator in the conflict. Indonesia sought this job as it sees a larger role for itself in international diplomacy, and it was given the role as others regard it as having enough experience, weight, and maturity to perhaps succeed.

Back in the region, a very conscious diplomatic sleight of hand was taking place to make the charter work politically rather than legally. Despite the language of the UN Security Council statement, as far as the group's ten members were concerned, the role was given to Indonesia, "as the current ASEAN chair," rather than to the organization. This was to acknowledge the structural weakness built into the organization's charter with is rotating chairmanship. From January 2012, one of the parties to the conflict, Cambodia, would take over ASEAN's leadership. Yet, the role for Indonesia was custom-made and conceived as a long-term one. Thailand would not have agreed on any other terms. Indonesia has been coy about saying this, but in the region, it is the country rather than the organization that is seen as playing the key role. As early as March 2011, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said: "Indonesia now plays a significant role in the region, and therefore Indonesia should continue this role."


While some of the UN's peacemaking, peace-enforcement, and peacekeeping efforts have been central to several Asian conflicts in recent decades, including Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Myanmar, and Nepal, overall the UN has never been a Significant player in the Asian region, and this is particularly true in Southeast Asia. The UN Charter forms one of the key bases of ASEAN's preventive diplomacy, but the United Nations itself is deliberately written out of the concept by ASEAN members. This leaves the UN and key institutions such as the Security Council cheerleading from the sidelines.

Some ASEAN members were active in resolving the Timor-Leste conflict independently from the regional body, through their membership on the UN Security Council and participation in peace-enforcement and peacekeeping efforts. There are also other instances in which the institution has participated in resolving conflicts in the region that have not had significant cross-border or interstate dimensions, such as in Aceh or the southern Philippines. Yet, even in such cases, there has been a reluctance to set a precedent against the noninterference principle by involving ASEAN itself in a non-international conflict. While the region as a whole has weak institutions, many Southeast Asian states have strong national identities forged in part by their individual histories of anticolonial struggle or revolution. Relative to other parts of the world, these states have strong capacities and internal legitimacy that lead them to subscribe to a robust doctrine of national sovereignty. With active diplomacy in the UN and elsewhere, China, India, and Thailand can ensure that efforts by outsiders to help resolve internal problems are never made in the first place. They view all possible UN interventions through the lens of their domestic interests and guard carefully against setting any dangerous precedents.


The best example of recent preventive diplomacy and its regional dynamics is the Thai-Cambodian border conflict. The ingredients for this conflict were first mixed decades ago, creating a deadly brew that been simmering since 2008. Only when it boiled over in early 2011 did it create sufficient pressure to demand a new response from ASEAN. In a 1962 decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the cliff-top Preah Vihear temple was determined to be in Cambodian territory. The decision did not rule on the border around this cultural property, and by 2011 it had not yet been properly delineated under a 2000 memorandum of understanding on the demarcation of the border. UNESCO added the temple to the World Heritage List in 2008, and while this had initially been supported by Thailand, the details of the management of this site were never subsequently agreed. Fueled by Thai nationalist opinion and used as a weapon against governments allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the temple became a domestic political battleground. After years of low-level tension follOWing the listing, in February 2011 serious fighting broke out between Cambodian and Thai soldiers near the temple. After the hostilities calmed down, there were new clashes in April of that year at other disputed temples 150 kilometers to the west. Together, these battles left twenty-four dead, dozens wounded, and tens of thousands temporarily displaced on both sides of the border.

While there had been minor clashes since 2008, the fighting in 2011 was on a much larger scale than before and thus drew more attention. In the interim, there had been some half-hearted efforts at preventive diplomacy by ASEAN. In 2008, Singapore, the then ASEAN chair, had argued for the matter to be treated in-house after Cambodia asked for UN Security Council intervention. This request was granted; the Security Council did not formally take up the issue, and regional talks continued. Soon after, the ASEAN chairmanship passed to Thailand for eighteen months, and the organization went mute regarding this conflict as its head was a party to the dispute. Tension and heated rhetoric between the two neighbors continued and, in a precursor of things to come, Indonesia quietly took up a role on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November 2009. Cambodia again requested ASEAN intervention in 2010 when Vietnam was the regional chairman, without effect. 

Frustrated by earlier attempts to resolve this in-house, Cambodia bypassed ASEAN and went to the UN Security Council when fighting broke out in February 2011. Thailand responded that the conflict should be solved bilaterally, but it was too late. While not declaring the conflict a war of aggression, the council did regard it as a serious matter within its remit. On February 141h it held an informal meeting with the two parties and Indonesia as the ASEAN chair.The Security Council called for a permanent ceasefire and, in a remarkable gesture, referred the conflict back to ASEAN. The foreign ministers informally met in Jakarta on February 22nd and called for a ceasefire and negotiations. In addition they requested that both parties accept Indonesian monitors. The ASEAN Secretary-General hailed the precedent-setting Jakarta meetings as historic events."

Some have argued that ASEAN's response to the recent clashes on the Thai-Cambodian border are a "victory" for the grouping, a "historic" moment in diplomacy, and an "unprecedented case" where its members used their own mechanism to resolve a conflict among themselves! By November 2011, at the time of writing, such euphoria looked premature as the conflict had not ended, observers were yet to be deployed, and bilateral border negotiations had not yet restarted.

While there may now be a better-defined "ASEAN option" for regional peacemaking, there is still good reason to be circumspect. The centerpieces of ASEAN's security infrastructure (its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and its charter) first had to fail before they were patched up with an unusual ad hoc intervention led by a diplomatically activist Indonesia and supported by the current ASEAN Secretary-General. The situation might have been different had another country been in the chairmanship at the time; indeed, ASEAN was lucky that it was Indonesia and not a less confident member in the post. A weaker chairman may have put a higher premium on non-interference rather than on stressing the need for good offices or trying to make preventive diplomacy work. The result would have probably looked like the inaction of the previous chairs between 2008 and 2010.

At the same time, what has occurred does have the feel of a "typical" ASEAN intervention: all process and no result. Indonesia still has a place as a facilitator, but there is no agreement on the deployment of observers, even after these were ordered by the ICJ in a July 2011 ruling on temporary measures in the revived Preah Vihear case. Cambodia has signed on and says it is ready to deploy them; Indonesia says they can be deployed within five days; but Thailand has a myriad of excuses as to why this cannot be done, from offending its sovereignty to waiting for parliamentary approval for the deployment. After the Thai capital was swept by floods in October 2011, international policymaking in that country ground to a halt. This also means that plans for ongoing bilateral negotiations have been postponed. 

Indonesia says ASEAN's efforts in 2011 to find a solution should be measured in two ways: first, by a cessation of hostilities and, second, by a resumption of negotiations. By these measures, Indonesia has not yet succeeded.

First,while there may not have been fighting on the border since May 2011, the frontier is still militarized, there has been no verified withdrawal,and there is no signed ceasefire. Given the stop-start nature of the border conflict since 2008, observers need to be deployed to prove that the sides have complied with their obligations to withdraw under the ASEAN agreement from February as well as the ICJ ruling from July. 

Second, even before the floods in Thailand stopped bilateral negotiations (possibly for months), there was only incremental progress in restarting negotiations. The new government elected in Thailand in July had not made this issue a priority, and the military still resists outside intervention. Beyond fresh talks or diplomatic meetings, the real measure of the resumption of border negotiations will be active cooperation, such as in the deployment of survey teams to the field. Such a development would tum back the clock on this conflict to July 2008-a time before the UNESCO listing when both sides were working together to demarcate their border. Such surveys cannot be done on a militarized frontier,and this would further demonstrate that hostilities had ended.

Indonesia is set to continue with its facilitation role and may well still succeed in its efforts to have an observer-verified end to hostilities as well as a concrete resumption of bilateral negotiations. But even if this does not happen, ASEAN will take away from 2011 an Indonesian drawn roadmap about how to conduct preventive diplomacy next time there are tensions between neighbors. They must recognize the problem sooner, put less emphasis on non-interference, and act politically with much greater haste. To wage peace successfully, ASEAN must have less of a fear of failure and more of a hope that they might succeed.


Reflecting on these efforts and conflict dynamics in the region, the following conclusions might be drawn.

  • Preventive diplomacy is an urgent issue in Southeast Asia.

    The ease with which Cambodia and Thailand's festering border dispute turned into war demonstrates both the need for better preventive diplomacy in the region and the inadequacy of ASEAN as a bulwark against future conflict. ASEAN needs to give life to the preventivediplomacy proviSions in its charter and build the mechanisms and permanent bodies envisaged by the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint as playing a conflict-resolution role. It needs to act politically sooner, at the first signs of tensions among member states, rather than wait for a border to become militarized and conflict to breakout.
  • • Preventive diplomacy can involve more than just states.

    Nongovernmental expertise and facilitation is widely used in internal conflicts throughout the region, such as in Aceh, Papua, the southern Philippines, and southern Thailand. To draw upon this expertise, the concept of preventive diplomacy needs to be loosened and expanded beyond being thought of as just between states. While the focus is often on international NGOs, recent efforts by the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (LIPI) and its Papua Roadmap have highlighted the need and potential for track II initiatives from within the region, especially for those most sensitive cases where the involvement of outsiders is shunned.
  • ASEAN countries need to make renewed efforts to permanently resolve lingering disputes.

    Indonesia has border disputes with all of its neighbors except Australia. The often heated rhetoric between Indonesia and Malaysia and the constant tension between their armed forces and other border agencies should be now seen in a new and threatening light. Indonesian enforcement agencies' use of weapons against Chinese fishing fleets should not be treated lightly. The need to resolve border disputes-that all have technical solutions-through political means should be treated with great urgency.
  • Despite its own weaknesses, the UN still has a role to play in promoting norms and the exchange of ideas.

    The recent Thai-Cambodian conflict has made ASEAN and its secretariat newly alert to the need for preventive diplomacy. How could the UN help ASEAN better define preventive diplomacy? How could ASEAN as an institution be encouraged to be more active in addressing known hotspots? How could the region's view of state sovereignty be transformed to allow for a more active ASEAN role? What role should the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation play? These are questions that the UN and ASEAN need to reflect on.
  • The UN's lack of a physical presence in the region and its lack of Southeast Asian specialists constrains its actions.

The UN cannot be taken seriously or be seen as a serious player in Southeast Asian preventive diplomacy when the same senior officials responsible for Fiji also cover Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Given the recent Thai-Cambodian flare-up and even fighting on the Korean Peninsula, the case for a UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Asia is strong. While this idea is not new and faces challenges from within the UN system due to a lack of resources, among other reasons, and opposition from without, it should remain on the agenda if the UN is to seek to maintain political relevance in Southeast Asia.

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