Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR4 - Re-Examining Preventive Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

May 31, 2018

A Workshop on Preventive Diplomacy Feb. 25-27, 2018 was held in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Hosted by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and co-chaired by the Pacific Forum and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the workshop brought together some 35 foreign policy specialists, subject-matter experts and government officials from around the region, all attending in their private capacities. Together, they re-examined preventive diplomacy as a concept, debated its evolution, meaning and practice, and provided policy prescriptions for ASEAN vis-à-vis the region’s inter-state, intra-state and trans-state security challenges. Key findings from the workshop’s six sessions include:

The concept of preventive diplomacy (PD) remains contested. Dating back to the early 1990s, the fundamental disagreement among scholars has been about the scope of PD. For some, PD is limited to proximate actions taken by diplomats to prevent the escalation of conflict and is specifically distinguished from “crisis prevention,” which entails action that “broadly address root causes to build conditions for stability and peace.” For others, PD is a much broader framework that entails both structural developments such as norm and institution building as well as operational activities including confidence building, early warning, crisis management, and preventive deployment.  Some participants perceived preventive diplomacy as exclusively for inter-state dispute/conflict, while others maintained that it encompasses both inter-state and intra-state issues.

The ARF evolutionary three-stage approach to peacebuilding in which PD is sandwiched between confidence-building measures (CBMs) and conflict resolution was challenged as being an impediment that prevents the ARF from becoming the PD mechanism described in the ARF Concept Paper. When PD is narrowly defined as proximate action taken to prevent violent conflict the concept is easily conflated with unwanted intervention or interference in the internal affairs of the country or countries involved. The alternative is to characterize PD as an overarching concept that includes both CBMs and conflict resolution mechanisms as an approach to promoting peaceful resolution to conflict.

The ASEAN approach to PD has avoided a formalized definition. Instead, it has engaged in functional cooperation on non-traditional security threats that lend themselves to collective action and involve activities included in the broader definition of PD. There is a concern that identifying these activities as PD would hinder progress on addressing the threats.

ASEAN has built up an extensive list of norms and institutions that actually contain many elements of preventive diplomacy. These include the ASEAN Charter, the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation, the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and the ASEAN Counter Terrorism Convention, ASEAN Vision 2025, among many others. These norms and institutions provide the basis for preventive diplomacy as they include confidence building, early warning, preventive response, and even conflict resolution mechanisms.

A wide range of PD-related institutions have been established in Southeast Asia that are related to maritime security.  Links to human security concerns and demand for rule of law or norms provide the biggest impetus for PD in the maritime realm. These norms and institutions include the quadrilateral Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP), the Sulu-Celebes Sea Trilateral Cooperation Agreement, and the ASEAN Coast Guard Summit, among others.

Practical security cooperation activities under the auspices of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM+ have established early warning and preventive deployment capabilities in Southeast Asia. While couched in terms of “regional responsibility … to provide for their imperiled neighbors,” these capabilities form the basis for a robust PD program.

There is a widely shared perception that the ARF has been ineffective in institutionalizing PD. The failure can be attributed to the inflexible principles of PD as outlined in the 2001 ARF Concept Paper on PD. The implication of recognizing the ARF’s failure is to delink the PD agenda from the ARF. The ARF should not be held hostage to the lack of progress in moving toward PD and the regional PD agenda should not be held hostage to the ARF’s inability to pursue it. One solution is formal recognition that ARF activities associated with what is currently termed confidence building related to non-traditional security issues in Southeast Asia actually supports the institutionalization of ASEAN-based PD.

The application of a normative framework is helpful in understanding the institutionalization of PD in Southeast Asia. The interplay between entrenched norms like non-interference, protection of sovereignty, and quiet diplomacy and emerging norms like institutionalization of early warning mechanisms and conflict resolution mechanisms that ultimately challenge the entrenched norms is an important dynamic that drives the PD institutionalization process. 

Two emerging norms in Southeast Asia that have an impact on the evolution of PD are a growing sense of regional responsibility for vulnerable populations and a recognition that despite the diversity of political systems in the region, there is a vaguely defined sense of good governance that underpins regional peace and stability. These norms have played an important part in the development of PD institutions and in resolving several intra-state and inter-state crises in the region.

The issue of great power rivalries in the region is of considerable concern in Southeast Asia. Great powers’ interest in a security issue reduces the success of any PD initiative crafted to address it. To navigate strategic competition, it is important for ASEAN to foster a regional order that maintains its centrality in defining and responding to regional security threats.

Given that ASEAN states have pursued the elements of a broadly defined concept of PD, it should be recognized that PD is a fundamental part of the ASEAN community building process. The difference between a narrow versus broad definition of PD is one of ends versus means. Either way, there is a need to develop confidence with members of the community through collective action to address commonly perceived threats. More efforts are needed to bridge the gap between conceptual and operational issues. While conceptual debates about PD continue, ASEAN member states have been instituting functional PD mechanisms, with or without the PD label. Strengthening the links between track I and track II meetings would help reduce the gap.

Download the PDF file of "Issues & Insights Vol. 18, CR4" to view the full conference report.