In addition to economic woes and the climate crisis, the possibility of war has been weighing on the minds of many Southeast Asians, according to a 2023 report on the state of the region by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Recent reports of growing defense budgets, increased procurement of arms and buzzing military activity in major sea lanes around the region have added to the concerns, as well as the war in Ukraine, which has sent ripples around the globe. International relations analysts believe ASEAN and its member states would be far from ready to respond effectively if an open conflict were to break out in the Indo-Pacific today. Red tape, a lack of coordination and minimal experience in joint operations would hamper the 10-nations of the bloc, which are currently walking a tightrope amid the great powers rivalry in the region, the analysts said. And while they felt the chances of actual war in the region remained slim, the experts warned against miscalculating and underestimating existing threats.
In recent years, the increasing military assertiveness of China has prompted counteractions from the West, translating into heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific, the focus of the struggle for influence between Beijing and Washington. Border disputes in the region, such as in the South China Sea, have worsened amid increased territorial prodding. Amid this polarization, ASEAN has struggled to safeguard regional security and stability.
Last month, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi warned of the danger of “open conflict” in the region, while her Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan separately noted the increasingly “destabilized” nature of ASEAN. “Dialogues about security or defense cooperation in the region are relatively taboo, threatening, even. They are associated with conflict and war, which are not things ASEAN is necessarily comfortable with,” I Made Andi Arsana, an expert on the South China Sea dispute at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), told The Jakarta Post. “It comes from a positive place, that ASEAN should be a peaceful region, [that] there is no need to talk about arms. So a formal alliance in defense is not a feasible option. We are not ready for conflicts,” Andi said. Divided loyalties Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior international relations expert from the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said China attempting to seize Taiwan would be the “most likely” cause of an open conflict.
The South China Sea dispute, the analyst said, had predominantly involved coast guard vessels so far, with little to no military contact. “In the Taiwan case, the United States is also involved. Depending on the treaties in place, Washington may also draw in Japan and South Korea,” Dewi said. If that were to occur, she added, ASEAN would likely attempt to seal Southeast Asia off from the conflict to avoid escalation. “We would definitely be affected since China and Japan are among our top trade partners. […] If it were to spread to the Malacca Strait, then it would be even more disastrous,” Dewi said.
Trillions of dollars’ worth of goods pass through sea lanes in the South China Sea every year, meaning a disruption to the body of water would have far-reaching consequences. US-China tensions have been high since the US shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon over its territory last month, prompting US President Joe Biden to cancel a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Some US intelligence officials have also claimed that China could attempt to invade Taiwan before 2027. UGM’s Andi said the security measures in place, such as the hotline mechanism for the South China Sea, left much to be desired, with bureaucratic obstacles likely to slow response times. “I think the hotline mechanism specifically would not be translated swiftly enough in any real emergencies.
There needs to be serious streamlining in the process,” he said. In 2015, the defense ministers of the ASEAN member states agreed to establish a hotline enabling them to communicate quickly and securely in a crisis situation. They have since introduced more “confidence-building measures”, such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI). Then there is the issue of loyalties. Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst at Jenderal Achmad Yani University (UNJANI) said some countries in ASEAN that were economically dependent on China could quickly renounce their claims of neutrality to side with Beijing in the event of open conflict. “It is not impossible that some countries may not side with ASEAN in such cases,” he said. And even if ASEAN were to remain united, there was still the problem of leadership. “The most important aspect in any open conflict is leadership. Who will call the shots? Singapore may not necessarily abide by Malaysian or Indonesian orders.
Indonesia will also likely hesitate if expected to receive commands from a Malaysian general,” he said. Treading carefully For the next couple of years at least, experts said, increasing tensions would not likely break out into war. With the current level of international economic interdependence, it would be foolish for any state to escalate the rivalry to the point of physical conflict, Dewi said. Both Andi and Yohanes agreed, though they warned that the relative safety might not extend indefinitely. “I’m one of the optimists who think that war will not happen. But if we look at history, all large-scale conflicts were caused by miscalculation and the downplaying of threats,” said Andi. “And these miscalculations almost always turn deadly.”