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Minilateralism in Southeast Asia

Chheang Vannarith / Share:
A Malaysian marine police boat approaches a Japanese oil tanker in the Malacca Straits. In 2004, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore conducted the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol to ensure security along the crucial waterway. Reuters

If they are managed effectively, minilaterals can well complement the Asean community building process, argues Chheang Vannarith.

Minilateralism refers to functional or practical cooperation on specific issues at the sub-regional level between countries or localities in a geographically defined areas or regions. Due to the nature and characteristics of minilateralism, which is rather informal and flexible, it is more appealing to countries that are sceptical of multilateralism.

There are two types of minilateralism: security minilateralism and economic minilateralism.

Economic minilateralism is the cooperation among three countries and more on economic issues to promote cross-border trade and investment, tourism, and infrastructure development and connectivity. It is widely believed that through regional economic cooperation and integration, peace and development can be sustained and further enhanced. Economic minililateralism has proven to be more effective than multilateralism, especially with regards to the process of decision making and actual implementation.

Economic minilateralism is driven by both state and market forces, with the aim to promote cross-border trade and investment cooperation between member countries and localities. The local governments also play important role in facilitating cross-border cooperation. Mininlateral mechanism has proven to be relatively effective in facilitating cooperation among the parties concerned and helps reduce poverty and narrow the development at the sub-regional level, especially at the border region.

Security minilateralism is the security cooperation and defence coalition among few like-minded countries to address and deal with common non-traditional security threats and issues such as terrorism, transnational crimes, natural disasters, and water resources management. Due to the complexity of regional security environment, some countries have opted for minilateral cooperation. Some countries believe that minilateral cooperation in the security and defence sector is more flexible and more effective.

In Southeast Asia, miniliteralism has expanded since the early 1990s with a focus on economic cooperation and practical cooperation on non-traditional security issues.

In 1971, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) was founded. It is the first “minilateral defence coalition” with a focus on specific security issues and needs of the member countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom). The FPDA remains relevant in addressing common security threats such as terrorism and maritime security and it is an integral part of the regional security architecture.

In 2004, the literal states in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) conducted the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol to ensure the security of straits, which are critical and strategic waterways in the regional and global trading system. A year later, “Eyes-in-the-Sky” combined maritime air patrols was launched.

In 2006, the Malacca Straits Patrol Joint-Coordinating Committee Terms of Reference and Standard Operating Procedures was signed. In 2008, Thailand became the member of the Malacca Straits Patrol. The first Malacca Straits Patrol Exercise launched in 2011. The Malacca Straits Patrol consists of the Malacca Straits Sea Patrol, the “Eyes-in-the-Sky” (EiS) Combined Maritime Air Patrols, and the Intelligence Exchange Group (IEG).

In 2016, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to set up trilateral patrols in the Sulu-Celebes Seas, followed by maritime attacks by the Abu Sayyaf Group in early 2016. In 2017, the three countries launched coordinated naval patrols in the affected areas. Singapore has offered to join patrols, particularly in information sharing. Capacity-building support from extra-regional countries have helped regional states deal with maritime security issues.

The riparian states of the Mekong River (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) signed the Mekong Agreement that led to the establishment of the Mekong River Commission in 1995 with the collective aim to address water resource security. Notably, compounded with climate change, population growth and urbanization, the construction of a series of hydropower dams along the mainstream of the Mekong River has been a controversial issue and potential a source of conflict between the riparian countries.

In 2011, China together with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand started conducting joint patrols along the Mekong River to safeguard the safety of navigation and build capacity of the riparian countries to address emerging security threats such as search and rescue, terrorism, drug trafficking, and other transboundary crimes.

The Mekong is the most dynamic region in terms of the number of minilateral mechanisms. Currently, there are about ten minilateral mechanisms working on similar areas such as cross-border trade and investment facilitation, infrastructure development and connectivity. These minilaterals include Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, Mekong-Korea Cooperation, Mekong-Japan Cooperation, US’s Lower Mekong Initiative, Mekong-Lancang Cooperation, and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sector Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

If they are managed effectively, minilaterals can well complement the Asean community building process. But Asean needs to be more proactive in engaging minilateral mechanisms and build synergies between Asean with those minilaterals. The risks of minilateralism in Southeast Asia relate to the intention of some major powers that initiate and lead some minilateral mechanisms for their own power projection and expansion.

Chheang Vannarith is President of Asian Vision Institute, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh.


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