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Is fighting terrorism key to ASEAN unity and credibility?

Among the many criticisms leveled against the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), disunity is perhaps the direst. From the South China Sea dispute to free trade, the 10-member bloc's legitimacy has been called into question as it remains unable to offer a coordinated response on the region's most pressing issues.

Now, it's hoped that counterterrorism can encourage ASEAN unity amid a spate of recent attacks. Last week alone saw two separate bombings, one at a night market in the Philippine city of Davao and the other at a school in Thailand's southern Narathiwat province.

Participant leaders pose for a photograph during the closing ceremony at the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits at the National Congress Center in Vientiane, Laos on September 8, 2016.
Recep Sakar | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Participant leaders pose for a photograph during the closing ceremony at the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and Related Summits at the National Congress Center in Vientiane, Laos on September 8, 2016.

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.

Much of the group's discord can be attributed to its philosophy, dubbed the ASEAN Way, which promotes non-interference in domestic affairs. In an April paper, Mark Beeson, professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia, noted that while the principle is admirable, it's an obstacle to effective cooperation.

"The emphasis on consensus, not losing face and voluntarism has meant that the politics of the lowest common denominator has tended to prevail and difficult problems have been avoided rather than confronted," he summed up.

Differences in the economic, political and social systems of member nations are also a key reason, he warned, adding that "such diversity means that full agreement on any single issue can seem insurmountable."

For Chapman however, the problem is plain and simple: "Leadership is lacking self-confidence."

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Disrupting the cycle of radicalization is a key element of anti-terrorism cooperation, Adam Greer and Zachary Watson, fellows at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote in an August 10 note.

"ASEAN needs to develop local, data-driven restorative approaches to prevent and rehabilitate radicalization," Greer and Watson said, noting the example of Singapore's Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Originally created to reform Singaporean detainees of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesia-based militant network, the RRG now offers a range of social engagement on extremism.

Leaders can't forget about closing geopolitical gaps either.

Disputed territories, such as Indonesia's Sulu-Sulawesi region, often lack administrative control and tend to become a hotbed for rogue groups, Greer and Watson explained.

"If ASEAN nations are serious about addressing terrorist threats, serious effort need to put toward restoring governance and providing basic social services to populations in [these] poorly-governed regions," they wrote.

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