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When “National” is Not Enough: Non-Traditional Security Issues in Southeast Asia

The concept of security has undergone an organic yet dramatic evolution after the Cold War. “Security” moved from the definitional confinement of the military domain to the more expansive human sphere. Issues of security became focused on the welfare of peoples and states, which are by nature political, economic, social, or a combination of these (Caballero-Anthony, 2016). As a regional bloc, the ASEAN is founded and bound together by the following fundamental principles (TAC, 1976):

  1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;

  2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;

  3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;

  4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;

  5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and

  6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

These principles are both a boon and a bane to the Association in terms of how it has been addressing non-traditional threats to the region. To elaborate on this tension, I will be discussing the Southeast Asian context in the following sections.

Non-Traditional Security in Southeast Asia

Traditional security focuses on keeping the state safe from military aggression. On the other hand, non-traditional security (NTS) is based on threats to “the survival and well-being of peoples and states that arise primarily out of nonmilitary sources” (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 128). NTS are non-military, transnational, short-notice, and rapidly transmitted, not fully preventable but mitigable, often requiring regional and multi-lateral cooperation, people-oriented and people-centered (Caballero-Anthony, 2010). They have an impact on regional and international security and stability. Examples of NTS are: transnational crime, “trafficking in illegal drugs, people-smuggling […], sea piracy, terrorism, arms-smuggling, money-laundering, international economic crime, cybercrime” (ASEAN, 2002), “failures in governance, health crises, and environmental degradation” (Stanley Foundation, 2003, p. 1), “climate change, resources scarcity, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, [and] food shortages”(Caballero-Anthony, 2016, p. 6). A security perspective that goes beyond the either/or distinction is comprehensive security, which embraces “the political, economic, and sociocultural dimensions,” but does not leave out the military dimension (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 123, based on Alagapa, 1998). The increasing interconnectedness between states in the world is directly proportional to the probability of insecurity. Thus, national efforts alone are incapable of curing debilities in security, and regional initiatives are needed.

From a comprehensive security perspective, regional resilience is the key to success. Regional resilience, in turn, is founded on national resilience, or “the ability of a nation to cope with, endure and survive any kind of challenges or threats in the course of a struggle to achieve national goals” (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 126). In the Southeast Asian context, comprehensive security is the “organizing concept” of security” (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 126). As Caballero-Anthony succinctly expressed, “the ASEAN security framework can be understood as follows: for regional security to be maintained, the region must be resilient and this resilience starts with each ASEAN Member State being domestically resilient by having a strong economic foundation and a foreign policy that is not aligned with any major powers” (2017, p. 127).

Addressing Threats to NTS

Non-traditional security is bigger than the state through its focus on people. Issues of NTS, then, must be addressed with solutions that are “people-based, multilateral, and multisectoral/holistic” (Stanley Foundation, 2003, p. 2). “People-based” solutions refer to those focused on issues rather than threats, which shifts focus from “state-based security to people-based security and recognize[s] that successfully addressing individual issues such as health could potentially have lasting, multiple effects” (Stanley Foundation, 2003, p. 2). By “multilateral,” what is entailed is communication and cooperation between and among governments and other lateral development institutions, setting aside territorial borders (Stanley Foundation, 2003,p. 3); finally, the “multisectoral/holistic” component calls for the active involvement of government, business, and civil society actors. Government action alone is inadequate to solve issues that pertain to human security, as the social, economic, and political spheres of states and societies are integrated.

The consequences of human security issues can be mitigated, if not avoided, if the ASEAN consistently builds capacity in all of these sectors. The shift to a comprehensive security orientation does not necessitate the rejection of traditional security measures (Stanley Foundation, 2003). In fact, it advocates for the concurrent resolution of both traditional and non-traditional security challenges (Caballero-Anthony, 2017), given their inarguable connection to each other.

ASEAN: Steps Forward, Steps Back?

The NTS challenges that beset the ASEAN are multifarious. To discuss how the Association has fared so far, I shall discuss its official Declaration drafted to address NTS issues. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Joint Declaration on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues (6th ASEAN-China Summit, 4 November 2002), citing the “…need to address [NTS issues] with an integrated approach that combines political, economic, diplomatic, legal, scientific and technological, and other means.” The Declaration details ways in which NTS issued can be addressed: strengthening information exchange, personnel exchange and training and enhancing capacity building, practical cooperation on NTS issues, joint research on NTS issues, and explore other areas and modalities of cooperation (ASEAN, 2002). This was followed up with the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding between the ASEAN and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues. In this MOU, the parties identified fields of common interest for cooperation (which retained most of those in the 2002 Declaration): information exchange, personnel exchange and training, law enforcement cooperation, and other activities such as research.

The 2002 Declaration is indicative of the ASEAN’s commitment to address NTS issues on a regional level, but it is still doubtful as to whether the Association has been successful in employing regional resilience to achieve comprehensive security. One illustration of the failure of the ASEAN to deal with NTS challenges thus far is the case of the Rohingya, the stateless people of Rakhine state. The complexity of the issue cannot be contained here, but for the purpose of this article, I will only dwell on one segment: that of the Philippines voting against the protection of human rights of the stateless people in order to maintain relations with Myanmar. In 2017, the Philippines rejected the UN resolution asking the Myanmar government to grant full citizenship rights to the Rohingya and ensure the safe return of refugees. Then again, in 2018, the country rejected another UN resolution on the fact-finding mission and on the one year extension of the mandate of the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar. The Philippines’ representative deemed the “domestic investigative processes” of Myanmar to be impartial and credible; thus, he forwarded a non-interference stance (Aben, 2018). However, also in 2018, President Duterte offered the refugees shelter in the Philippines. Earlier in 2016, he offered, too, to provide refuge to refugees as the countries in the global North refused to do so (Chao, 2016). In 2019, the Philippines again voted against a UN resolution on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, which included a call on the government to put an end to the human rights violations (Marquez, 2019). The reason cited by Filipino diplomats was that voting against Myanmar would undermine the regional cooperation among Southeast Asian nations.

This situation sparked controversy, especially as the Philippines was the first in Southeast Asia to sign the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. It was also one of the first in Asia-Pacific to have “acceded to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in 1981” (UNHCR Periodic Review: 3rd Cycle, 27th Session). In light of the Rohingya issue, it can be said that the fundamental principles, or one of the fundamental principles, upon which the ASEAN is founded are the very same reasons why certain NTS issues - like issues on human rights violations - unsettled. However, in total fairness, the ASEAN “has not been short on policies and initiatives” that deal with NTS threats (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 135). In the pursuit of building an ASEAN Political-Security Community, the Association established the following platforms, among others, that relate to non-traditional security:

  • ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM)

  • ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM)

  • ASEAN Law Ministers’ Meeting (ALAWmm)

  • ASEAN Ministers/Attorneys-General Meeting of the Central Authorities on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters (AMAG-MLAT)

  • ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC)

  • ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Drug Matters (AMMD)

  • ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)

  • ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)

The experiences of recent years in the field of security as well as development have made it apparent that development is more than just increases in the Gross National Product (GNP), Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and Gross National Income (GNI). Development is also human and ecological; in the same manner, security is no longer only militaristic and state-centered. What is required is “multi-level security governance that recognizes the role of other actors in the management of regional security” (Caballero-Anthony, 2017, p. 142). The establishment of these fora and platforms to attain what was laid out in the ASEAN Political-Security Blueprint begs the question: has the Association gone beyond the rhetorical stride, or are these platforms still awaiting realization?



Aben, Ellie (March 28, 2017). Philippines Criticized over UN Resolution on Myanmar. Arab News.

ASEAN (2002). Joint Declaration on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues (6th ASEAN-Chuna Summit, Pnomh Penh, 4 November 2002).

Caballero-Anthony, M. (2010). Non-traditional security challenges, regional governance, and the ASEAN political-security community (APSC). Asia Security Initiative Policy Series, 7, 1-14.

Caballero–Anthony, M. (2016). An Introduction to Non-Traditional Security: A Transnational Approach. London: SAGE Publications.

Caballero–Anthony, M. (2017). From Comprehensive Security to Regional Resilience: Coping with Nontraditional Security Challenges. Building ASEAN Community, 123.

Chao, Steve (November 17, 2016). Duterte Offers Refugees a Home in the Philippines. Al Jazeera.

Marquez, C. (September 29, 2019). PH, China Oppose UN Resolution on Abuses vs Rohingya Muslims.

MOU (2017) Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the ASEAN and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues.

Stanley Foundation (2003). Nontraditional Security Threats in Southeast Asia.

TAC. (1976). Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report Universal Periodic Review: 3rd Cycle, 27th Session.

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