PartnershipsSoutheast Asia

Southeast Asian nations strengthen regional unity


Southeast Asian nations are increasingly willing to act on issues requiring collective defense and cooperation, as evidenced by the mid-January 2024 talks in Hanoi between Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo on strengthening joint maritime security and commerce. The leaders “reaffirmed the importance of peace, stability … and freedom of navigation” in the contested South China Sea, Benar News reported.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made sweeping claims to the sea and continues to ignore an international tribunal’s 2016 ruling that the claims have no legal basis. Widodo was in Hanoi as part of a trip that also included Brunei and the Philippines — countries that, like Vietnam, have experienced maritime territorial intrusions by Chinese vessels.

The Indonesia-Vietnam talks continue progress made in 2022 when the nations agreed to delimit — or define the boundaries of — their respective exclusive economic zones after 12 years of negotiations. That agreement is significant, analysts said, because it eases maritime disputes between members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and shows a willingness to uphold maritime norms enshrined in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. At the recent meeting, Indonesia and Vietnam also signed memorandums of understanding on fisheries cooperation and in areas such as energy and communications, The Associated Press reported.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also met with Thuong in Hanoi in late January. The leaders were expected to sign an agreement upgrading cooperation between their nations’ coast guards, according to CNN Philippines.

Such agreements are a foundation for ASEAN to not only present a united front in territorial disputes with Beijing but also to resolve differences among member states, analysts said. ASEAN promotes economic and security cooperation among its 10 members.

Marcos and Widodo met in early January 2024 to discuss energy and defense cooperation, including South China Sea developments, and strengthening ties among Southeast Asian countries. Southeast Asian nations must “seize the initiative and collectively assert their role in shaping the regional order at a time of flux,” Vietnamese academic Vu Le Thai Hoang and researcher Ngo Di Lan wrote for The Diplomat magazine in mid-2023.

ASEAN and its members have been bolstering their efforts. In July 2023, for example, ASEAN opened a regional headquarters for cybersecurity research and cooperation in Singapore. “Threats from the cyber domain do not respect geographical boundaries and will require transnational coordination and collaboration for effective responses,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at the opening ceremony, The Japan Times newspaper reported.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, meanwhile, are strengthening collaboration to ensure South China Sea security, such as the Malacca Straits Patrol created in 2004 to tackle maritime transnational crime.

Such cooperative efforts “will go a long way in providing reassurance, preventing misunderstanding and then be able to positively contribute to the security of the region,” Singapore Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How said in 2023.

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