The Achilles Heel: Disputes Between ASEAN Member State

By Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

This essay will discuss intra-ASEAN regional disputes and their impact on more significant economic and political integration in the region. Since ASEAN was built in 1967 by the first five countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (and then joined Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Myanmar and Laos in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999), ASEAN has to face the challenges of political security and economic instability. ASEAN came to aim at promoting economic growth, social and cultural development, and strengthening security in the Southeast Asian region. This condition led to the formation of ASEAN by signing an Amity and Cooperation Agreement, which involved principles and norms upheld by every ASEAN member to date, including respecting any sovereignty, not interfering in other members’ domestic matters, and consensus agreements. In fact, until the late 1990s, ASEAN was recognized as a successful organization in hiding problems such as territorial disputes between ASEAN members and conflicts in Cambodia (although not yet members) through informal and formal means or the so-called “ASEAN Way.”

Nevertheless, a dispute in disguise is still a dispute, and states could not just abandon it altogether. Unlike the dispute between ASEAN member states and the People’s Republic of China, this dispute has a little airing time on the mass media. However, the minimum coverage that it got was not proportional to the effect that it imposes towards the unity of ASEAN. These disputes create distrust and malign intentions between member states, which leads towards an emerging security dilemma to compel each state in arming themselves against the possibility of aggression from the others. This intra-ASEAN security dilemma, in return, hinders a cohesive and united response towards external security challenges, such as the South China Sea dispute.

The foundation of the emerging security dilemma could be traced to the suspicion that each contending states have suspicion over one other. Ever since the European states colonized Southeast Asia, the modern-day state border was established based upon the lines that the colonizers made of them. In other words, the ethnic and religious groups that live in a particular area would be separated by the border without their considerations or opinion.  For instance, the current separatist movement in the Pattani region of Southern Thailand is rebelling since the majority of people that live in that area are predominantly Muslims and Malays, whereas the majority that live in Thailand were Buddhist and Thais.  Moreover, the region used to be a sovereign nation called “The Sultanate of Patani” until Thailand invade and annex the region under the Burney Treaty. Hence, tension still exists between Thailand and Malaysia over the insurgency in Southern Thailand, and ASEAN prefers to keep the issue of the discussion in its meetings or summits.

Similarly, the issue of North Borneo is also contested by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia are conflicting to determine the sovereignty of Ambalat island, and several incidents have erupted where the armed forces of both nations are involved in a military confrontation.  On the other hand, the Philippines and Malaysia are still disputing the status over the State of Sabah, as Manila claims that the province was leased towards the British North Borneo Company while Malaysian believes that the 1878 Agreement was a transfer of sovereignty.  In 2013, a military conflict occurred between the Malaysian Royal Armed Forces and the militants loyal to King Jamalul Kiram III of the Sultanate of Sulu, based in the southern Philippines. As a result, these developments raise a sense of insecurity between the three nations and force them to restraint themselves in the ASEAN to preserve order and stability in the region. Even then, the Southeast Asian states still have to deal with the Chinese onslaught in the South China Sea. With China building military bases in the Spratlys and Paracels, Beijing is directly confronting Southeast Asian claimant states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Even though the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is present and active, its implementation by signatories states could be seen as a deviation from its original purposes, such as the recent standoff between the Chinese oil survey ships and the Vietnamese coastguard. With the tension boiling in the region, the United States intervene under the pretext of ‘maintaining the freedom of navigation’ as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. By sailing its Carrier Battle Group through the South China Sea and conducting naval exercises with ASEAN member states, America has challenged the Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea by conducting a show of force of its military might. In other words, the U.S. can attack Chinese installation in the South China Sea and increase suspicion in Beijing about the real U.S. intention.  Therefore, all stakeholders in the South China Sea issue have suspicion towards each other. If this situation is not addressed, then the region would face a similar fate that it endures in the Colonial era: chaotic, divided, and conquered.

Fadhil Haidar Sulaeman is an International Undergraduate Program student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in International Relations with a concentration on Global Politics and Security (GPS). Currently, he serves as a Research Division Intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. He could be contacted through email:

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