Unlike other political issues that have caused ruptures among members, nations so far seem to be in unison on terrorism, as indicated by the ASEAN summit in Laos this week.
"If ASEAN cannot unite on this issue, then its raison d'être and future will be called into question once again," said Colin Chapman, founder and editor-in-chief at think-tank Australian and South East Asian Strategies.
On Wednesday, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that members must work more closely together on intelligence sharing and counter extremist doctrines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he intended to use the summit to seek better support for regional counter-terror efforts. Japan meanwhile promised $440 million on Wednesday to help Asian countries strengthen anti-extremist measures for the next three years, but it was not clear who the recipients would be. Australia also expressed its desire to expand counter-terror arrangements with Indonesia and Malaysia.
Not only would a unified response to counter-terrorism give the bloc credibility, it would also create a mechanism for responses to other threats, such as epidemic diseases and climate change, explained Jonah Blank, senior political scientist at RAND Corporation
But the biggest hurdle to a coordinated regional crackdown on militant networks may be ASEAN itself. Even optimists can't ignore the organization's long history of internal divisions.
"ASEAN has never been unified about anything. There are few mechanisms in place for genuine cooperation by all—or even most— ASEAN nations on any issue," explained Jonah Blank, senior political scientist at RAND Corporation.
Among the stumbling blocks are:
- The South China Sea dispute: A March statement failed to address The Hague's rejection of Beijing's territorial claims.
- Progress towards the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) remains stalled.
- Human rights: ASEAN has so far failed to address government repression in Cambodia or Myanmar's Rohingya refugee crisis.