By Truston Yu (Photo: White House, Pete Souza)
On 17 June, the United Nations General Assembly elected the new class of non-permanent members to the United Nations Security Council. India was among four countries to be elected, signaling the end to a period with two Southeast Asian countries holding UNSC membership at the same time. With an ASEAN Day looming this month, this article advocates for the greater involvement of Southeast Asia in international security. The “7+7+7” proposal by Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, in particular, will be explored in this article.
It certainly is intriguing that India’s election came at a time of heightened tensions with China, with the battles between the Himalaya borders. This election was also a reminder that Indonesia’s tenure is coming to an end – India is Indonesia’s successor and will be taking over the seat on New Year’s day in 2021.
The UNSC is arguably the most powerful international organ in the world. There are five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The P5 are joined with ten non-permanent members, elected in batches of five every two years. There are two seats for the Asian constituencies, with one up for election every year.
Two years ago, in June 2018, Indonesia was elected to the UNSC for the fourth time with the support of 144 out of 193 UN member states. As the only G20 member coming from Southeast Asia, Indonesia is commonly seen as a leading power of the region; They are a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, having housed the Secretariat before it had its own building.
A year after Indonesia, Vietnam was elected to the UNSC with a near-unanimous 192 votes out of 193 in 2019. Vietnam was admitted to the ASEAN in 1995 and has been rapidly climbing up the ladder of economic development since then. They have been described as the biggest winner of the US-China trade war over the last few years, and in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam was one of the best-performing countries in Asia.
UNSC membership coincided with the year of ASEAN chairmanship – it was Vietnam’s turn after Thailand in the rotational system. The pairing of Indonesia and Vietnam, a founding member of the ASEAN and an impressive rising regional power, is an ideal one.
Spanning from Afghanistan to Samoa, Japan to Timor-Leste, the Asia constituency is a huge one. It is rare to have a Southeast Asian country on the Council at any given time, not to mention having two of them at the same time. Interestingly, the last time this happened was with the same pair of countries: Indonesia served between 2007-2008 and Vietnam, 2008-2009. At that time, ASEAN was celebrating its fortieth anniversary with the new ASEAN Charter. With the ASEAN Community in place now, Southeast Asia is and should be much more committed in the international arena.
Recently, there has been a push to call the non-permanent member states the “E10”, recognizing the mandate they were given. Indeed, people have challenged the P5’s legitimacy, claiming the fact that they won World War II does not mean that they could hold onto the permanent seats indefinitely. There have been significant changes in the world as well as the countries in question: the original seats were in fact, held by the Republic of China and the USSR, which were replaced by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation respectively.
Amb. Kishore Mahbubani, prominent Singaporean diplomat and former UNSC president, famously proposed the 7+7+7 model, which is outlined in his book The Great Convergence. This is by far the most significant UNSC reform proposal coming from a Southeast Asian scholar. The first “7” are permanent members, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, and a single European Union seat.
For every Brazil, there is Argentina, which is antagonistic to its quest for permanent membership: Japan has South Korea, India has Pakistan, and Germany has its European neighbors. The way to circumvent this would be to give them a slice of it such that these countries, too, could benefit from the reforms. Thus, the second “7” comes from a pool of semi-permanent members that would rotate. Mahbubani named 28 countries on the basis of “share of global population and share of global power”, including 3 Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The final “7” are for elections among the rest of the world. While the number of elected seats shrunk from 10 to 7, Mahbubani claims that this new arrangement helps small states like Singapore, as they no longer need to compete for seats with the middle powers.
It is worth noting. However, that much has changed since Mahbubani’s book was published in 2013. Brexit showed that the European Union is not as homogeneous as perceived back then. The ASEAN Community took off in 2015, creating a more united region which has a stronger voice in the international community. Mahbubani himself acknowledged the ASEAN as a “Catalyst for Peace” in his 2017 co-authored book The ASEAN Miracle.
It is apparent now that Southeast Asia in the future. ASEAN should have a permanent seat, either represented by the Secretariat or a member state. There is no evidence that a UNSC reform will take place anytime soon, but it is not too early for Southeast Asia to build a track record and entrench itself in the highest level of international security discourse.
The world is an increasingly polarized and volatile place; there are 5 months left for the Indonesia-Vietnam duo to make a case for Southeast Asia. Even then, Southeast Asia’s quest for greater involvement in international security affairs would not end here. We must continue to prove our worth as a Catalyst for Peace in the years and even decades to come.
Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and the external relations of Southeast Asia.
He could be reached at his e-mail: email@example.com