The Southeast Asian Identity – A Modern Construct?

By Truston Yu (Picture: ASEAN Twitter)

Today, one could easily come up with the universally accepted definition of Southeast Asia – the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members plus Timor-Leste. However, it could be said that the notion of Southeast Asia is an imaginary which has taken its form only in the previous decades. On the occasion of ASEAN Day in the Year of ASEAN Identity, this article looks into the evolution of the concept of “Southeast Asia” as well as a regional identity.

In his book The Spectre of Comparisons, Benedict Anderson stated that “Southeast Asia” as a politically significant term only came about in 1943 with the Louise Mountbatten Southeast Asia Command. An interesting feature is that the notion of “Southeast Asia” at that time included Ceylon and the Northeastern part of India, but not present-day Indonesia or the Philippines. This was a response to the fact that all of present-day Southeast Asia, from Burma to New Guinea, were brought under the same flag of Imperial Japan.

Though none survived in the end, various regional organizations have consolidated the concept of this Southeast Asian subcontinent: the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), and Maphilindo. The ASEAN, by rejecting Sri Lanka’s membership application, further consolidated today’s conception of Southeast Asia that this article began with.

Southeast Asia has been a victim of the Cold War. The annexation of Timor-Leste, Singapore’s Operation Coldstore, and other significant incidents in Southeast Asia’s recent history have all taken place against the backdrop of the struggle for hegemony between the Soviet and the Western blocs. The study of this region became a point of interest as the Americans sought to exert their influence here. Southeast Asian Studies, as an institutionalized field, emerged in 1947 with Yale University’s pioneering academic program. Very soon, Cornell and other institutions followed, and this Studies became a burgeoning subject which would consolidate the picture of a “Southeast Asia”.

The above historical incidents show that the current notion of “Southeast Asia” is a recent construct, under much influence from powers outside of this region. These have led to skepticism within and beyond Southeast Asia. Why view a constructed identity with such great importance?

Southeast Asia is by far the most diverse region the world has seen, most significantly in the aspects of politics, language, and religion. Southeast Asia has seen military governments, dictatorships, monarchies, democracies, sultanates, and systems in between. Singapore’s parliamentary system is based on Westminster, though they have devised and introduced unique elements into the polity; the Philippines has adopted an American system, with a House of Representative and Senate making up the Congress.

In a small region like ours, it may be unexpected that we have an abundance of languages drastically different and mutually intelligible: Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, and the varieties of Bahasa. Under the colonial influence, English and Portuguese are official languages used in Singapore and Timor-Leste, respectively. There are also various indigenous languages and dialects scattered across the subcontinent, as well as languages used by immigrant communities.

Both Thailand and Myanmar have a Buddhist majority; Timor-Leste and the Philippines are predominantly Catholic; Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia are largely Islamic, and there are folk religions in Vietnam and Laos. In between all these, there are still minorities who practice Hinduism, Protestantism, and other faiths.

Instead of becoming a line that divides us, our diversity is a treasure that we cherish; Despite the many differences, there are still many common denominators across all of Southeast Asia. The cuisine is one of such examples – we all have a taste for rice, spices, and perhaps sweets as well.

Historically, we might not be that different either. The boundaries of Southeast Asia were somewhat ambiguous and dynamic until the European colonizers imposed on us their form of sovereignty, carving out borders in which the modern Southeast Asian states have emerged from. However, territories hoisting different national flags today might have been under the same banner of Srivijaya, Majapahit, and other ancient kingdoms. Boundaries have never stopped the interaction of peoples across them.

It is undeniable that the ASEAN’s establishment has had much to do with anti-communism rhetoric in the era of the Cold War, as a joint project by its founding fathers Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. However, it has grown into a vibrant community encompassing the political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of this subcontinent.

If one is to challenge the Southeast Asian identity based on the grounds that it is imagined and constructed recently, the same can be applied to the states in Southeast Asia too. The Philippines was not one monolithic nation prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, which grouped them into the Spanish East Indies. Some Indonesian nationalists like to invoke the story of Majapahit to prove that we were once the state encompassing all of Nusantara before. Yet, on the other hand, we did not actually have a uniting native language before the founding of our state – Malay was more of a lingua franca for the purposes of trade and commerce, up until a variant of it was declared the national language known as Bahasa Indonesia. In this sense, like the Philippines, the Indonesian identity as we know it today is also largely a modern construct. This does not mean we should not celebrate, and certainly has not stopped us from celebrating our own national identity.

Like many of its modern nations, the idea of a Southeast Asian identity is an imagined community and a recent construct. And as we strive to preserve our own identities and appreciate each other’s heritage, let us also come together to celebrate the Southeast Asian region, culture, and community.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail:

Challenges and Prospects for Korea’s New Southern Policy

By Truston Yu (Picture: The Republic of Korea Cheong Wa Dae)

On 9 November 2017, President Moon Jae-in announced the New Southern Policy (NSP), a new “core diplomatic initiative” aimed at building closer ties between the Republic of Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states as well as India. Three years after the formulation of this policy, there remain certain obstacles for Korea’s agenda. On the flip side, Korea has great potential in deepening its ties with Southeast Asia.

There is a long history of interactions between Korea and the Southeast Asian region. The 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-ROK Dialogue Relations was celebrated in 2019 with a Commemorative Summit in Busan. Korea has participated in the ASEAN+3 grouping since 1997, and the ASEAN-Korea Centre was subsequently inaugurated in 2009. Despite such a track record, Korea’s role in Southeast Asia is often overshadowed by its two larger neighbors.

Southeast Asia is an emerging market with a combined population greater than the European Union and a gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$3 trillion in 2018. ASEAN is the fifth-largest economy in the world and will continue to grow. For these reasons, many countries have been eager to foster relations with the region. Japan is one of the earliest to do so, playing a significant role in the modernization of Southeast Asian countries; China has its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative; even Taiwan has a New Southbound Policy since 2016.

The traditional focus of Korea’s foreign policy has been the participants of the Six-Party Talks: China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Since his election, Moon Jae-in has shown great interest in Korea’s neighbors to the south: “For the first time as a sitting president of the Republic of Korea, I visited all 10 ASEAN member states in just over two years.” The NSP was announced within months after Moon’s inauguration, and its current brochure states that they intend to elevate Korea-ASEAN relations to the “same level Korea maintains with the four major powers”.

However, Korea is rather “late in the game”; and unlike Belt and Road or the Asian Development Bank, Korea’s NSP still has not become a household name yet. Japan has established a long presence in the region, assisting with railroads and other infrastructure; the influential and wealthy Chinese diaspora network has acted as a bridge between their countries and Chinese corporations. The policy sector in Korea lacks people who are rooted in Southeast Asian expertise.

As one of the four Asian Tigers, Korea’s rapid economic growth is a role model that Southeast Asian countries are eager to emulate. The Mekong-Han River Declaration for Establishing Partnership for People, Prosperity and Peace was signed at the 1st Mekong-ROK Summit, featuring the Mainland Southeast Asian states: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – a region which Korea has a bigger presence in as compared to Maritime Southeast Asia. It is as if the title of this Declaration alludes to Korea’s “Miracle on the Han”, hinting that collaboration with Korea could facilitate a “Miracle on the Mekong”.

The Korean Wave, also known as Hallyu, has taken root in the Southeast Asian region. In Thailand and Vietnam, the influences of Hallyu are evident in the styles of actors and singers. Southeast Asian e-commerce giant Shopee featured Korean girl group BLACKPINK in its birthday advertisement in Indonesia, which became controversial following complaints about the “failure to adhere to decency norms”. Immediately, this resulted in a huge backlash from Indonesian K-pop fans, again reflecting the popularity of Korean pop culture. As such, Korea could be said to have the highest cultural capital in Asia. This soft power leads to greater awareness of Korea among Southeast Asians, which is advantageous for its New Southern Policy.

On the other hand, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is also a unique opportunity for Korea to distinguish itself as a reliable partner. Korea is one of the most successful Asian countries in the fight against the virus. They once had the highest number of confirmed cases outside China, with the Southeastern city of Daegu referred to by some as “the Second Wuhan”. Through high transparency and aggressive testing, Korea has been able to squash the curve effectively. Seoul, the capital city, was never in a lockdown; Korea even managed to hold the National Assembly elections on 15 April as originally scheduled. Korea’s success has won international applause, and they are sharing technical expertise and resources to Southeast Asian countries. A webinar co-organized by the Korea Foundation and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for example, featured the Korean Ambassador to Indonesia and a health expert from the Seoul National University College of Medicine. The private sector has also been lending a hand – the LG group donated some 50,000 PCR COVID-19 test kits to Indonesia. Though some may claim that there is a political factor, support from Korea for this pandemic could only be beneficial to Southeast Asia.

Korea expects to start its New Southern Policy 2.0 in 2021; the successful continuation and enhancement of the policy would require more connections built between Korea and Southeast Asia. It is imperative that both sides work together to nurture a new generation that is well-versed in both regions. Fortunately, the wave of Hallyu has already drawn many Southeast Asian youngsters to Korea, a proportion of which are scholarship recipients. As this generation enters the workforce, the NSP could be perpetuated by a new class of transnational leaders.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. His primary research interest is Southeast Asian Studies, including the concept of regional identity. He could be reached at their e-mail:


By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: Council on Foreign Relations)

In April 2020, the Rohingyas were denied entry to Malaysia due to the country’s fear over Covid-19 transmission. Recently, around a hundred people of the Rohingyas reached Indonesian soil and are locally received by Indonesian citizens while the government has not yet decided any further legal nor diplomatic action aside from having them (the Rohingyas) in Aceh.

The Rohingyas, for the past few years, have become quite a concern of the international community. They were first labeled as “boat people,” signifying phenomena of hundreds of people struggling to reach the nearest shores outside of their home country, Myanmar, which later were identified as the “Rohingyas.” Geographically, the Southeast Asian neighboring countries such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia are the nearest runaways for them.

But it is miserable to learn that the phenomena of the ‘running away Rohingyas’—which have been discovered by international media for more than ten years ago—are still happening today as efforts on diplomatic progress to end oppressions toward the Rohingyas are running sluggish. At the regional level, ASEAN focuses to repatriate hundreds of the Rohingyas. But this effort would never be enough to resolve the case. This article would provide a different approach in helping out the Rohingyas under the ambit of international criminal law.

Roots of the Problem

There are many facets to explain the oppressions to Rohingyas. But all might agree that the oppressions toward them are rooted in the long-time dispute over Myanmar’s historical records that delivers a contestation over the Rohingyas’ legal status whether they are considered as an indigenous group of Myanmar or a group of foreign settlers coming to reside in the country throughout the nineteenth century (Irish Center for Human Rights, 2010).

Myanmar’s government and citizens refer to the Rohingyas as “Bengalis”. For them, the “Bengalis” are groups of Indian laborers and merchants migrating from India hundreds of years ago during the British colonial rule and making them (the Rohingyas) considered as “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018) who take advantages to reside in Myanmar. The Rohingyas are thus known to be the most persecuted minority group in the world (Mohajan, 2018).

In its early days, the oppression toward the Rohingyas was led by an operation in May 1978. The government of Myanmar—having the military backup—launched a fatal operation called “Naga-Min” or translated as “Dragon-Min” Operation whose order was to dispel as many illegal immigrants as possible found residing in Myanmar, which by all means, included the Rohingyas. Arguably, the operation had the Rohingyas as their primary targets (Khairi, 2019). The operation has since then always led and developed the oppressions to the Rohingyas until today.

On the other hand, it is unfortunate to learn that the oppressions to the Rohingyas are driven and fueled by ‘Buddhist nationalism.’ Buddhist nationalism first emerged in Myanmar as a response to fight against the British colonial rule in the region. Back then, Buddhist nationalism significantly contributed to the country’s fight by mobilizing the people of Myanmar—who were referred as the Burmese—through identifying and embracing their Burmese culture whose majority were—and still are—Buddhists. Today, Buddhist nationalism is arguably no longer a pack of cultural values nor historical memories associated with Buddhism. Buddhist nationalism has been brought into contestation over ‘life and death’ matter in which the country’s economics and politics are taking significant parts in. It has now changed the cultural-historical records into narratives of an unbalanced local economic growth and security issues between Myanmar’s citizens in general and the Rohingyas. It is also learned that Buddhist nationalism, in a way, provokes the fear of Islamophobia that Moslem people in Myanmar—which fundamentally signifies the presence of the Rohingyas—would one day take over the country and thus people have to prevent this from happening.

As result, the Rohingyas have been suffering from many kinds of discrimination and a wide range of abuses for so many years. They are denied citizenship rights, limited access to education, healthcare, freedom of mobility, and even giving births (Khairi, 2019). In other cases, they are also suffering from deportation and forced transfer and displacement, rapes, and sexual violence. But, among these all, one form of oppression is less identified than the rest: forced labor that indicates enslavement. As a side note, both forced labor and enslavement are identified as crimes, international crimes, and forms of modern slavery (Siller, 2016).

Forced Labor: Enslavement as A Crime Against Humanity and A Form of Modern Slavery

Enslavement to the Rohingyas is carried out in the form of forced labor. According to the Rome Statute, enslavement is as a crime against humanity which is widely and systematically committed against civilians—which in the case of the Rohingyas is. As enslavement, ‘forced labor’ here is understood as a form oppression that does not target a particular person nor group of people, rather people in general as “civilian population.” The ‘forced labor’ here distinguishes itself from a ‘mere’ forced labor which purely targets workers based on exploitation for profit orientation (money and pleasure) of the employers that takes place in common workplaces.

The legal framework of forced labor as enslavement could be found in Article 7(2)(c) of the Rome Statute. In the Rome Statute, enslavement is explained as “the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children.” Historically—prior to having the International Criminal Court (ICC) established—enslavement was included as a crime against humanity in the Article 6(c) of the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Nuremberg Principles (Principle VI), Control Council Law No. 10, Article 5 of the statute of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Article 3 of the statute of the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It is known that in the ICTY, the judgment of the Krnojelac case decided that “enslavement constituted a crime under customary international law.” The Chamber reiterated that “forced labor, when operating outside of the permissible exceptions under international humanitarian and human rights law, is an established indicator of enslavement.”

In the Rakhine State, the enslavement of the Rohingyas is committed by NaSaKa, a security force formed by the Myanmar government (Southwick, 2018). The enslavement is carried out in the forms of labors that could be conducted seasonal or perennial, including (but not limited to) construction of roads, bridges, model villages and military facilities, camp maintenance, guard and security functions, forced cultivation and agricultural laboring, and even arbitrary taxation. The labors do not distinguish gender roles nor ages—a male or a female and a child or an adult—each of the Rohingyas has to endure the misconduct, difficulties, and mistreatment in their workplace (Farzana, 2017) which the government officials claim are done voluntarily. Consequently, this form of oppression situates the Myanmar authorities namely government officials and military apparatus as the alleged perpetrators (Lee, 2019). This situation seemingly answers questions upon why and how oppressions to the Rohingyas have been so legit to be carried out for long.

Furthermore, forced labor as enslavement is articulating a practice or form of “slavery.” According to Article 1(a) of the 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, slavery is defined as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Forced labor delivers a particular realm of modern slavery, slavery-like practices, or contemporary forms of slavery (Allain, 2012). Forced labor becomes the root to identify enslavement as a form of modern slavery, which in the ambit of international law, is customary and strictly prohibited. Having laws forbidding forced labor began along with the commitment of ending slavery as well as practices similar to it.

At the end of the day, even though Myanmar is a non-state party to the Rome Statute, the path to serve justice to the Rohingyas does not end just yet. International law—specifically, international criminal law—provides other options and mechanism to still hold these perpetrators responsible, through the ICC or other courts having international legal personality. As efforts to try the perpetrators from a non-state party at the ICC might sound difficult (but is not impossible), perhaps ASEAN needs to utilize its own body and commitment first. Because apparently, its very own regional mechanism is not able to take enough part in solving the problem, let alone addressing the roots of it, since everything seems to be blocked by the non-interference principle ASEAN is very proud to perform.

As part of the community, the Rohingyas should have had ASEAN as their utmost sanctuary following Myanmar’s failure in providing the protection needed. It has been a common sense in international law that even the non-intervention principle should never be applicable to exceptional circumstances as in humanitarian crises such as what happens to the Rohingyas. The forced labor of the Rohingyas—as a crime against humanity and a portrayal of modern slavery—is among exceptional circumstances needing immediate responses to overcome the emergencies. Therefore, ASEAN does need another approach in resolving the case.


The forced labor here is understood as enslavement. As enslavement, it requires perpetrators to have the crime widely and systematically committed to civilian population rather than to a particular person or group of people, as well as the emphasis on power as an oppression rather an exploitation—and that it targets the Rohingyas—making it categorized as a crime against humanity. At the same time, forced labor is included in slavery-like practices. Moreover, having enslavement as a form of modern slavery could also strengthen the legal framework of international criminal law to prosecute the perpetrators, end the oppression to the Rohingyas, and ‘serve justice to the table.’ Despites the diversities ASEAN has in carrying out the technicalities, forced labor as enslavement articulates modern slavery, common senses, and universalities which international community—including ASEAN—should admit and uphold.

Alifa Salsabila, SH is an American Studies graduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Currently, Alifa is a research intern in Research Division, ASEAN Studies Center UGM. Alifa could be reached at her email:


Allain, Jean. (2012). The International Legal Regime of Slavery and Human Exploitation and its Obfuscation by the Term of Art: “Slavery-like Practice”. Civilian Research Development Foundation, 27-42.

Farzana, Kahzi Fahmida. (2017). Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees, Contested Identity and Belonging. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Irish Centre for Human Rights. (2010). Crimes against Humanity in Western Burma: The Situation of the Rohingyas.

Khairi, Aizat. (2019). Supply Chain and Human Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia. International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering 9, 4561-4565.

Lee, Ronan. (2019). Myanmar’s Citizenship Law as State Crime: A Case for the International Criminal Court. State Crime Journal 8(2), 241-279.

Mohajan, Haradhan Kumar. (2018). History of Rakhine State and the Origin of the Rohingya Muslims”. IKAT: The Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 2(1), 19-46.

Siller, Nicole. (2016). Does International Law Distinguish between Slavery, Enslavement and Trafficking?”. Journal of International Criminal Justice 14, 405-427.

Southwick, Katherine. (2018). Straining to Prevent the Rohingya Genocide: A Sociology of Law Perspective. Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 12, 119-142.

Rejection to the Rohingyas: Reimagining the Law, With or Without A Pandemic

By Alifa Salsabila, SH (Picture: The Diplomat)

“Unaccepted where they are, unable to return whence they came” by Leon Gordenker (1987, p. 213) is articulating what had just happened in Malaysian maritime territory on April 26, 2020. The situation depicted the Rohingyas refugees and asylum seekers feeling Myanmar trying to reach Malaysian shores were denied entry to the country and sent back to the sea, which later was “received” by Bangladesh authorities. The rejection was based on the country’s consideration of pandemic, which resulted in the “fear of Covid-19 infection,” as the Malaysian officials said. Unfortunately, the attention of a pandemic and the excuse of fear of the infection could not justify and eliminate the Malaysian international responsibility to this international humanitarian issue and justify its indecorous and inappropriate action to the Rohingyas.

Arguably, refugees and asylum seekers are the living individuals whom the international community is committed to safeguarding, for the sustain of “jus cogens.” In international law, jus cogens is often interpreted as a compelling norm and is considered to have the highest position or primary source of norms governing international relations. This concept gives rise to the view that there are norms in international law that cannot be excluded under any circumstances (Brownlie, 1998, p. 515) so that in the event of conflict whereas jus cogens and other norms meet, the norm that has the degree of jus cogens must be the first and foremost prioritized one without questioning other stances such as whether different norms are more specific than the jus cogens ones (Saraswati, 2017, p. 166).

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

On the very basis, asylum seekers are individuals who seek international protection based on particular reasons, consideration, and have not yet been granted any statuses of asylum. Meanwhile, refugees are people who, by and under international (refugee) law, are granted the status of “refugee” after being forced to flee their home country due to safety and life-threatening persecutions that endanger their lives and well-being based on specific reasons limited only to persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion which transform “them” into becoming the international community’s responsibility and put them monitored under the international legal regime. The status of “refugee” articulates a failure that the home country performs: the inability or unwillingness to provide a good, decent living environment and protection for people who once were their national responsibility. Hence, refugees are struggling to find other kinds of protections just to survive the harsh life they have been experienced. And morally speaking, this kind of protection is what the international legal regime creates to provide and is being demanded by the international community: international protection to the refugees and the asylum seekers. But, the cases of refugees and asylum seekers like Rohingyas are being rejected due to a fear of infection, another failure then evidently arises in the realm of the international community.

“The Rejection Over Fear” and “Obligation to Proper Responses”

An expert explains, “pandemics of infectious disease are not just events in which some infectious ‘bug’ spreads throughout the world. Pandemics are events in which the population’s psychological reactions to infection play an essential role in both the spreading, containment of the disease, and influence the extent to which widespread emotional distress and social disorder occur” (Taylor, 2019, p. 2). In other words, it is very natural for people to worry about their health, safety, and well-being in the face of a pandemic and perform different behavior from the normal standards which are driven by their psychological forces in a pandemic. But critically speaking, with or without a pandemic, are not these things the small parts of human nature that refugees and asylum seekers perform? They are solely struggling to survive the life itself.

Many people outline domestic problems such as security, economies, and cultures when taking in refugees and asylum seekers. But not many have outlined its international framework and how it is supposed to be under the international legal regime. International law is demanding the international community to provide international protection as its global responsibility.

But theoretically speaking, the failure to respond fleeing refugees coming to territories of other sovereigns is, most of the time, determined by “the political and international nature of the problem” (Haddad, 2008, p. 3). Consequently, this situation is adding another failure to the existing one with the country’s inability and unwillingness to protect the refugees and the asylum seekers at the very first place. International protection, hence, becomes the most needed response to fill in the absence of national protection, for at the very least, until a new nationality is obtained.

International Responsibility

In international law, responsibility is divided into “liability” and “answerability.” As liability, responsibility is understood as an entity that has violated its obligations and becomes liable to be held responsible by receiving “negative response” such as “punishment, censure, or enforced compensation,” and as answerability, responsibility is explained as “not necessarily imply that a wrong has been done since a person may respond to a charge by offering a valid justification for their conduct, thereby deflecting any imputation of wrongdoing” (Janmyr, 2013, p. 105).

International Protection

International protection can be understood through various interpretations and standards. But generally speaking, as being defined by the UN Security Council, “protection” can mean physical protection, legal protection, general assistance, or “protection by publicity” which at the end of the day, it makes international protection can be understood as a protection that sets out a common ground of protection to the well-being of the protected.

The Rohingyas, Malaysia, International, and ASEAN Community

The Rohingyas are a Muslim, ethnic, minority group residing in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar (Mohajan, 2018, p. 19) bordering Bangladesh. Not only the life of the Rohingyas are put at stake, but it is also learned that the term “the Rohingyas” alone, which refers to this particular minority group sharing the same identity, has been disputable since the very beginning of the Rohingyas presence in the country. For Myanmar’s government and most of the citizens, the Rohingyas are referred as “Bengalis,” which identifies the origins of Rohingyas as laborers and merchants who were migrating from India to Myanmar in the nineteenth century under the British colonial rule and making them, the Rohingyas, is then believed to be “illegal immigrants” (Southwick, 2018, p. 119) residing in Myanmar.

Malaysia, as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is also tied to the burden and responsibility to respect the ASEAN Community. By rejecting entry to the Rohingyas, who were not able to choose where they were heading to only to seek sanctuary, arguably, Malaysia is also neglecting the ASEAN Community itself.

As a matter of fact, the refugee movements of the Rohingyas in the ASEAN region are not a “new problem” in ASEAN Community. Yet, none of the focuses of the ASEAN Community has ever really touched the urgency to solve this “problem” of persecutions to the Rohingyas. On the other hand, Myanmar, as the home country of the Rohingyas as well as a member of ASEAN, insists on keeping the matters of the Rohingyas as domestic and internal, which implies the manner of “non-intervention” that ASEAN long keeps and preserves.

The absence of a regional human rights mechanism in ASEAN itself is, directly and indirectly, driving and keeping the lack of human rights issues addressing within the region. ASEAN is “geographically, politically, and culturally too diverse for human rights to be managed effectively by a single overarching mechanism”—adding another obstacle in solving the Rohingyas “problem” through ASEAN way as well as in ASEAN Community—which is quite contradictory to human rights values that are based on and demand universality.

As a part of the international community, even though Malaysia is a non-state party to the 1951 Convention and thereby is not, by treaty, legally bound to the Convention, Malaysia is still bound to the principle of non-refoulment that is embedded in the Convention. The principle functions as a (customary international) law that puts Malaysia to still be obligated to respect the law, as Malaysia is a part of the international community and also the ASEAN Community.

Media coverage, in fact, has recorded that many Rohingyas who fled their home country, Myanmar, were already “thrown here and there” by neighboring countries due to rejection against them long before the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Even though on the surface, it seems that the fear over pandemic is understandable, in its foundation, the response of rejection is not to be carried out. Therefore, the rejection of the Rohingyas due to fear of infection is utterly unjustified.


Malaysia is bound to the international responsibility to provide international protection to refugees and asylum seekers to extent and degree that are relevant for a non-state party to the 1951 Convention in commitment and accordance to the international legal regime. With or without a pandemic, it can never efface the trait of “refugees” and “asylum seekers” in an international landscape that they become the living reminder of international responsibility to a failed system of a country that takes place in modern society as well as a reminder to us as parts of the international community that we are not going to fail our shared system too.

Alifa Salsabila, SH is an American Studies graduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Currently, Alifa is a research intern in Research Division, ASEAN Studies Center UGM. Alifa could be reached at her email:

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:

Sustainable Fisheries in Southeast Asia: A Long Way to Go

By Fadilah Rahma (Picture: Blue Growth)

The fisheries industry plays a vital role in the ASEAN economy. The region has been a significant producer of fish and other fish products, where it accounted for a quarter of fish production globally. It has also served as a vital source and a key contributor to rural livelihood, export revenue for several billion dollars in GDP, and even the food security for the region. However, its significance does not always result in a good cause. The hurdle insists, such as the problem of Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing that still happens region-wide. More than that, the human rights issue that has been lingering among the workers in the fishing industry, especially migrant workers, is another issue that subsists in the region for decades. Still, there is very little progress in addressing them despite the demand and supply in the industry that is growing substantially.


A windy, and rocky road to sustainability

IUU is a notable threat to the exploitation of the world’s fisheries resources, which attributes to many problems that lie within in achieving sustainable fishers. As one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, ASEAN is in a vulnerable state. Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing, the data shows that 64 percent of the fisheries’ resource base in the region is at a medium to high risk, affecting Cambodia and the Philippines the most.

The  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Index, as an index that benchmark countries according to both of their exposure and response to the problem of IUU, showing that four of the ASEAN member states include in the ten worst performing countries for coastal state responsibility, with Vietnam as the worst. While the maps, ranking tables, and country profiles on the IUU Fishing Index in 2019 provide indicator scores for all individual countries for different combinations of indicator groups, Indonesia and Cambodia are in the particular concern on all features. Both are part of the ten worst-performing countries in regards to two out of three indicator types.

Some ASEAN member states were also facing trouble because of its pervasive problem to the extent of external trade. Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines have been given yellow cards from the European Commission in the past related to its poor fishing industry standards. It was revoked in January 2019 for Thailand and the Philippines, with Vietnam is at the pre-identification phase measure.

However, the problem does not end there. The lack of supervision, law enforcement, and management in the industry causes another major problem: the human rights violations that happened almost for years, and IUU is inextricably associated with the mater. Just about this year, in May 2020, the fishing industry has again raised concern about its working standard and conditions as a video allegedly showing Chinese sailors throwing a body overboard, which went viral. The victim was later found as an Indonesian migrant fishery worker. It is, of course, not only the problem of the affected countries, because historically speaking, ASEAN member states have a similar case that has not been settled thoroughly. For example, Thailand has been heavily criticized following reports of human and labor rights abuses in the fishing industry that happened in the region. The 2015 Benjina case also proved that there is still a failure of the regional mechanism, in combating the challenges.


An urgent need: regional collective action in the fishing industry

Achieving sustainable fisheries is not easy, of course. As it involves a major trans-boundary crime such as IUU and human rights abuses, ASEAN definitely needs a collective action done by its all member states. The weak law enforcement of fishing regulations, the lack of supervision among the regions, and the poor coordination on collective management fisheries are some of the homework that needs to be addressed.

So far, the actions that have been done by ASEAN are not yet enough, with very little progress has been made. The member states have pledged to enhance sustainable fishing through the ASEAN-Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) on regional cooperation forum in Thailand in 2016. But the implementation does not come with no challenge. From the violators that range from small scale actors to large-scale enterprises in the region, the excessive demands on the sectors have helped to sustain the practice of IUU, and maritime jurisdiction becomes tricky to address the problem. A further step has to be made, such as a synchronization of the national plans among the member states regarding the fisheries policies.

Other than that, the commitment among the member states to ensure the safety of the migrant fisheries worker also has not been declared collectively. For example, the convention of ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention C18, that addresses the major issues affecting workers on board fishing vessels, such as occupational safety and health, rest periods, written contracts, and social security protection is not yet ratified by most of ASEAN member states. Only Thailand is set to become the first country in ASEAN to ratify the convention.

To achieve the sustainable fisheries that are set to accomplish by at least in 2025, ASEAN can do better by adopting more science-based knowledge of the region’s marine ecosystem to help them having a strategic regional marine policy. Together, the member states can work side by side to combat IUU and human rights abuse as the problems can not be done unilaterally. Delaying the matters is the same as putting the life of migrant fisheries workers and our biodiversity in jeopardy, and we do not need any more victims to be sacrificed for the sake of fulfilling the demands in the industry.

Fadilah Rahma Nur R is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada, and currently is an intern under the program division at ASEAN Studies Center UGM. She is interested in environmental, animal welfare, and sustainability issues, mainly in Southeast Asia.

Indonesian “Total People’s Defense” Against Coronavirus

By Rafyoga Jehan Pratama Irsadanar and Muhammad Aziz Irfanuddin (Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Defense)

Unlike some other countries which utilize military measures to push the people to stay home under the social distancing plan, the Indonesian Minister of Defense, Prabowo Subianto makes a minimalist appearance in public. As others are deploying troops to prevent riots or to shoot lockdown offenders down, many have questioned the absence of Prabowo in the battle against coronavirus. The critics are asserted by the notion that COVID-19 is considered as a non-military threat against national security, in which people assume that it is within the Ministry of Defense domain to deal with. However, earlier in his administration, Minister Prabowo highlighted a concept of Total People’s Defense (Pertahanan Rakyat Semesta) as the central tenet for the national security. That military doctrine could be a sidekick to lead the people battling the outbreak.

Total People’s Defense and Coronavirus

The core idea of Indonesian Total People’s Defense was initially introduced in article 27 of the Indonesian 1945 Constitution, stating that every citizen has the right and obligation to defend the country. The principle was advanced in Indonesian Constitution no.3 of 2002 as it the article 2 states “the national defense system is a total defense system involving all citizens, territories and other national resources, and is prepared by the government and is carried out in a total, integrated, directed, and continuous manner to protect state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and nation’s security from all kind of threats.” In the sense of traditional war, it will require all layers of Indonesian citizens to be part of the battle.

Even though it was criticized for being outdated when Prabowo planned to amplify the concept through country defense program (program bela negara), Total’s People Defense could be a good deal in combatting the outbreak. Through Regulation no. 23 of 2019, the concept explains that Indonesia’s total defense system is divided into three components; the main component, secondary component, and the supporting component. The classification works as an inclusive parameter easing citizens to participate in the defense system based on their roles and occupations. So even when the citizens are not incorporated in the military forces, they will still be able to fulfill their obligations based on their specialty among the three clusters.

Contextualized with COVID-19, the main component would be carried out by the Ministry of Health as the frontline to stop the virus spreading through its leadership, expertise, and authority. The secondary component will be the Indonesian army as well as relevant stakeholders and related ministries to support the logistic distribution. Indonesian citizen will be the supporting components to stop the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing the physical distancing and to follow the government regulations.

In a pandemic, the Total People’s Defense is accurate to execute the concept where the ‘enemy’ is literally in front of everyone. It also requires collective practical participation from all layers of society to combat it, ranging from essential key workers in the frontline to corporate workers working from home. Regardless of the invisibility of the virus, everyone’s life is as stake without the collective actions.

Supporting Central Government Leadership Crisis

In the current crisis, the manifestation of the defense doctrine could support the lacking central government leadership in facing the outbreak. The mismanagement of the outbreak and controversial statements made by the Indonesian Health Minister has revealed the flaws of government leadership. Even though Prabowo admitted that he was not trained to face the ‘unseen’ such as to cure a pandemic, but the retired general was prepared in leading people to face the worse situation in crisis. This military trait should be able to back the government, regaining the people’s trust.

The military doctrine has the potential to mobilize people to stay at home. As characterized earlier, the Total People’s Defense could make everyone feels significantly involved in defending the country. It fits the context of Indonesian society where the people are more likely to be swayed by a personal approach, as many campaign strategists are making the candidate personally attached to voters during elections. This trait could be taken advantage of in dealing with coronavirus, as the current measures are making the society as the object by forcing them to stay home, sometimes against their will. The Total People’s Defense will make Indonesians the subject against coronavirus as they feel personally involved in flattening the curve.

Despite the aptitudes, raising the awareness to battle the virus is difficult when the vulnerable are not protected yet. As what is happening around the world, many are not able to stay home as they worked daily jobs, forcing them to break the rules for social distancing. However, many are not self-quarantining themselves due to the lack of information. The latter group could be the initial target of the Total People’s Defense narratives in flattening the curves. As the most significant active internet user in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government should massively campaign the military doctrine to increase its people’s awareness and reaffirm its leadership amidst this health crisis.

From the government standpoint itself, the government must be transparent and establish effective coordination among its ministries, preventing contradictive policies in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic. Unified policies by related ministries and agencies should be made harmoniously under the Ministry of Health and COVID-19 Task Force strategy, with the President Office taking the command. Rather than focusing on resource-wise, as the central government has proven to be able to pay influencers to boost tourism amidst coronavirus, they could readjust the focus to campaign the Total People’s Defense against coronavirus. Such a budget could be allocated to support the frontline workers as the main component of the national defense and to subsidize the vulnerable actors.

Rafyoga is Monbukagakusho Scholar in Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University. Prior joining GSCIS, he was a research intern and research assistant at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada.

Muhammad Aziz is scholarship grantee in Indonesia Defense University. He is a post-graduate student in the Faculty of National Security, Department of Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in the Pandemic

By Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman (picture: Flickr/ILO)

Southeast Asia is arguably the region with the heaviest implications of the coronavirus pandemic. With one the most populous region and one of the biggest economic regions in the world, the impact of the health crisis that have led submerged into other sectors will be hard felt by all layers of the society. Notwithstanding the grievances and difficulties faced by other members of the workforce, some of the impact of the crisis are exacerbated in the case of migrant workers. Southeast Asia is home to 9.9 million international migrants with 6.9 million have moved in between the region. With the differences in policies in response to the pandemic taken by governments in the region, migrant workers face varying degrees of threats towards their livelihoods, healthcare, and jobs.

The crisis has led to a restriction in the workforce having to stay at home, strict traveling and border measures, and a host of policies that stretches the thin safety nets migrant workers have. Several concerns of migrants include but not limited to wages, job security, social security, healthcare and insurance, and housing.

First, migrant workers face a rising trend of extreme wage cuts in almost all sectors. This concerns all workers but would hit migrant workers the most as the majority are recipients to barely living wages. Some face wage cuts up to 50% in the manufacturing industry. Employers of workers have been affected severely by the pandemic, while some sectors, including manufacturers, are unable to shift their work into work-from-home arrangements. Migrant workers would also be impacted, noting that a proportion of them are daily wage earners, informal workers, and low-income workers.

Second, workers are faced with job losses as some employers would be unable to continue businesses or could only survive at the expense of cutting workers. Third, the concerns over healthcare, insurance, and social security is also a question towards the citizenship status of these migrant workers. Even more worrisome is the case of undocumented workers as having to visit a hospital should they contract the virus will lead to a series of legal repercussions.

Governments have had different approaches to migrant workers. Following a border closing, Singapore is left to deal with 300,000 Malaysian migrant workers unable to return home. The government has resorted to public housing that led to a new cluster of transmissions. The public dorm for migrant workers is home to 85% of Singapore’s positive cases. Notwithstanding the setback, Singapore has been at the forefront of the outbreak as the policies have allowed for free masks and hand sanitizers, mass tests and contact tracing, and strict border rules.

However, Singapore has had restrictions over testing foreigners over fears that recently arrived individuals purposefully visited the country for a test while the country is short on supplies. With the ASEAN Economic community’s aim to ease the transfer of jobs between countries, there is a necessity to focus on migrant workers, and the impact of COVID-19 brought to them. ASEAN has only had a limited focus on labor rights and a national government response equally sub-optimal.

In the regional level, ASEAN members have been late to promote the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) measures on labor rights towards its members, let alone migrant workers. Despite the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus on the Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2017, governments have been less than adept in handling migrants, especially in times of crisis.

Mobility and social security of migrant workers should be the concern for ASEAN during the crisis as borders close and works are depleting. Public health, as a matter of national security and the economy, has been the talking point for most of ASEAN meetings following the summit. These topics have come with a limitation over what can be done. The case of migrant workers should be promoted further as the more profound question of globalization, freedom of movement, and the grand project of the ASEAN Economic Community is looming.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an abruptly changed world. The pre-COVID 19 worlds held its grievances for migrant workers in Southeast Asia. The impact of this pandemic has only added salt to the wounds. The policies taken by governments at the national and regional level will be detrimental to the fate of the migrant workers.

Muhammad Fakhri Abdurahman is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. Fakhri is currently an intern at ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

A Growing Stigma: The Danger of Discriminating Against the Rights of Healthcare Workers

By Muhammad Diaz Kurniawan (Photo by: Lemparbatu)

Whether doctors, nurses, administrative officers, kitchen staff or janitors at quarantine centers, all are at the frontline of handling the COVID-19 pandemic that willing to take risks to save patients’ lives. Many out there play the ultimate role of fighting for the safety of those who are still healthy as those who recover will develop herd immunity once the recovered have been discharged from the hospital.

The success of those at the frontline of the COVID-19 is paramount in the handling of the pandemic, which was first reported at the end of 2019. Therefore, sustenance for them should be made priority by the government and private sectors with social support from the general public, as each party has a role to play in further preventing the spread of this virus.

However, instead of receiving this critical support which they require, health care workers face various difficulties in carrying out their duties. The situation is further complicated by the scarcity of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks and hazmat clothing which is causing an increase of exposure to healthcare workers. The Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) has announced that 24 doctors and 12 nurses have died so far during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily because they did not use adequate PPE due to the scarcity caused by hoarding of the supplies and also panic buying by society despite the WHO regulations giving the right to PPE for health workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Additionally, healthcare workers are not able to exercise the freedom to carry out their duties. For example in Jakarta, doctors and nurses are not being allowed to enter houses because the community is worried that they will spread the virus. It has also been reported that communities have banned health workers who have died due to exposure from the coronavirus to be buried in the local cemeteries despite receiving guarantee that the condition of the bodies comply with health regulations. It is very clear that, at this point, even the right to be buried humanely has been deprived from those who have fought against this pandemic. An underlying cause of this is stigma.

Stigma in handling the COVID-19 pandemic could have implications for the decline in the performance of the healthcare system. Limiting the movement of healthcare workers, their rejection by the community and community selfishness in the form of hoarding and panic buying of PPE will adversely impact the availability of health facilities and the performance of healthcare workers in treating patients.

This situation almost resembles the social stigma which has been reported in the cases of HIV/AIDS. Stigmatization and discrimination not only occur from the surrounding community with which they intersect, but also from the healthcare workers who intensively interact with them.

From research conducted by the ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada in collaboration with SHAPE-SEA in 2018 on discrimination against the community living with HIV/AIDS, the stigma primarily arises from incomplete dissemination of information on what it means to be HIV/AIDS positive. Further this misinformation has encouraged assumptions-based understanding and a misjudgment of this health condition. The two are also present across cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paranoia is stoked by misleading news and media that highlights the numbers of infections, deaths and recoveries like some sort of competition. The panic created encourages people to resist restrictions and reject the healthcare workers, leading to the discrimination against them.

The key to this situation is to respond. More needs to be done to educate the community in order for this growing social stigma to be avoided. A social campaign such as #ClapForOurCarers, that brings people to appreciate the work of healthcare workers could be an example of alternative way to educate communities about the important role of healthcare worker and as well as maintaining a positive social psychology for everyone. By responding to this growing stigmatization, we are effectively addressing the discrimination against the rights of our healthcare workers, which is a much-needed form of support at the moment. It is time that the community work hand in hand and focus on playing their respective roles in battling the COVID-19 pandemic as it is the only way to bring it to an end and see the community out of the dark.

This Op-ed also appears under the COVID-19 Op-ed section of the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in ASEAN/Southeast Asia (SHAPE-SEA) site.


ASEAN, the Quad, and China: A Security Contestation for the Indo-Pacific Region

By Fadhil Haedar Sulaeman (Photo: The National Interest)

In June 2019, ASEAN leaders successfully adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific” (AOIP) at the 34th ASEAN Summit. The outlook, formulated by the Republic of Indonesia, emphasizes the importance of ASEAN centrality, inclusivity, and complementarity in the Indo-Pacific region as its main principles (Singh and Henrick, 2020). These principles gave ASEAN much flexibility to utilizes its method of interaction, which is consultation and inclusive cooperation, to advance their prosperity in strategic sectors such as maritime, economics, cultural, and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Besides, the outlook also gave ASEAN a prominent role in shaping the discourses and development regarding the Indo-Pacific issue, which become increasingly more prominent throughout the years to come (He and Mingjiang, 2020). However, ASEAN was not the only major actor in the Indo-Pacific region, as other power with diverse motives also lurks to shape the region towards their interests. Currently, two great powers are reported to expand their power and influence in the region. The first great power, the United States of America, have increasingly increased their presence by devising their strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and implements it by empowering the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) that includes lesser power such as India, Japan, and Australia (Misra, 2020). The other great power, the People’s Republic of China, has been courting Indo-Pacific states with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects while maintaining a hostile policy in the South China Sea (Cronin, 2020). With these two great powers implementing their policy in the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN is caught in the middle of a geopolitical contestation. Therefore, this essay believes that ASEAN should maintain the AOIP foreign policy and not to bandwagon with either power, as choosing sides between the two great powers and their blocs would be a disadvantageous policy for the security architecture of Southeast Asia.

On the one hand, ASEAN should also be critical of Chinese foreign policy in regards to the Indo-Pacific region. Even though Beijing has not yet to adopt the term “Indo-Pacific” due to its suspicion, several foreign policy such as the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, the so-called “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, and the Belt and Road Initiative shows that China is an assertive player in the Indo-Pacific region (He and Li, 2020). In regards to the militarization of the South China Sea, China has been developing an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) as a part of its national defense strategy to deter foreign aggression, in accordance to the Island Chain Theory (Liu, 2020). So far, the Chinese approach to the South China Sea dispute is based upon the strategy of bilateralism, and thus the international call to multilateralism dialogue has been deferred and not to mention their persistence in violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Gong, 2020). Therefore, Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea contradicts the AOIP, in which the principle of inclusivity and international law is cast aside. Likewise, if ASEAN chose to align their Indo-Pacific policy with those of Beijing’s, the United States would not contend with accepting such adjustment. Reassessing previous American foreign policy in the region, the United States would not sit still to see that its adversaries were gaining such power to the extent of regional domination, such as the rollback or the regime change foreign policy doctrine (Litwak, 2007). In addition, the world has currently seen an increasing trend in the utilization of proxy warfare, and the United States’ support of the Kurdish rebellion in Syria is one of them (Thornton, 2015). At the same time, several intra-state conflicts still occur in Southeast Asia, such as the Myanmar Civil War and the Moro conflict. In the end, the United States would have more incentive to support armed rebellion or opposition in Southeast Asia if the region is to fall within the Chinese sphere of influence (Valencia, 2018). This outcome would be the opposite of what the AOIP envisioned, which is the principle of “complementarity” that could find a peaceful and diplomatic solution instead of armed hostilities.

On the other hand, the United States-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and their Free and Open Indo-Pacific is not a suitable policy to be taken by ASEAN either. First of all, The Quad was allegedly a bandwagon of states that seeks to curb China’s influence in the international community, and indeed, these countries possess a geopolitical obstacle for China (Liu, 2020). India would check Chinese power expansion in the Indian Ocean, while a concerted approach by Australia, Japan, and the United States would try to suppress Beijing’s influence in the Pacific Ocean following the Island Chain Theory (White, 2019). Hence, antagonizing China is not indeed a policy to be taken by ASEAN as it excludes the AOIP principle of “inclusiveness” by alienating Beijing as a significant power in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, it would increase the pressure for Chinese policymakers to militarize the South China Sea further. If ASEAN decides to bandwagon with the Quad, it will prompt Beijing to increase its military capabilities in the South China Sea, as it would further envelop their geopolitical encirclement (Okuda, 2016). If the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea intensifies, then the United States and ASEAN member states would have the incentive to increase their military power in the region as a means to protect their national interests, and thus a security dilemma would arise in the region (Wuthnow, 2019). More importantly, the danger of a security dilemma in the region was not compartmented only to the ASEAN-China model or the U.S.-China model, but also a security dilemma between the ASEAN member itself (Casarini, 2018). It should be noted that Vietnam, the 2020 ASEAN Chairman, currently possesses the second most extensive Exclusive Economic Zones claims in the South China Sea and have multiple maritime disputes with ASEAN member states, such as Indonesia and Malaysia (Puspitawati and Rusli, 2020). Also, the tension between Singapore and Malaysia has had its ups and downs throughout history, and the former military power still poses some threat in the minds of Kuala Lumpur policymakers (Singh, 2015). If ASEAN did bandwagon with the United States and the Quad, then the threat of conflict in Southeast Asia was not limited to outside intervention, but also amongst ASEAN member states themselves. In comparison to the FOIP, the AOIP is a better alternative, in which a neutral regional organization that promotes state sovereignty, dialogue, and consensus decision-making is a better-suited mediator and facilitator in the Indo-Pacific region, rather than its superpower-led counterpart which allegedly involves a containment strategy aimed at another great power and could lead to a further escalation in the region.

Indeed, as an implementation of the AOIP, ASEAN should be engaged with both the U.S.-led the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and China (Leong, 2020). At a glance, the FOIP documents contains many similarities with the AOIP and there were several prospects for a merge (Tan, 2020). However, ASEAN would be forced into an asymmetrical relationship with the U.S.,  and thus it would erase the “ASEAN Centrality” principle and replaced by a Washington-centric Indo-Pacific (Saha, 2018). Additionally, even as ASEAN has welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative by signing the ASEAN-China Joint Statement, ASEAN member states should not compromise its sovereignty at the expense of foreign investment and geo-economics strategy (Li, 2020). In other words, investment projects should be transparent, and none shall be a potential or imminent threat to national security. For instance, there were reports that Chinese-owned ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan would be developed into a naval base, and such development would potentially incur negative feedbacks from India and the United States (Kanwal, 2018). In order to avoid such a scenario, it would be wise if the public maintains and improve their check and balances towards the government.

Even if the current situation still poses little security threat to ASEAN, the status quo would be changed if the two opposing great powers, the United States and China, increased their exchange of hostilities and escalate the situation. By 2025, the People Liberation Army Navy would be much more potent than it is today, and the United States would be induced to redeploy more of its forces into the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, the United States and the Quad policy of containing China would make the latter feels like a cornered dragon, and nothing is more dangerous than a cornered animal. Similarly, Chinese economic expansion is followed by its naval build-up, and as a result, skepticism is arising among Southeast Asian states that China intends to make the region as its traditional sphere of influence. More than ever, the world needs ASEAN to be the leader in the Indo-Pacific discourses and seeks more influence in the international community.

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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