Towards a neutral Asean region

NST, June 14, 2013
By Datuk Dr Ananda Kumaraseri

UNFULFILLED PROPOSAL: Southeast Asia as a zone in which countries would be non-aligned with in respect to relations with major powers ALONG with the emphasis on regionalism and regional economic co-operation through the reinforcement of Asean as a regional grouping, the country's foreign policy shift saw the advocacy of a regional détente through the concept of the Neutralisation of Southeast Asia. This foreign policy initiative was first articulated in 1968 by Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman in Parliament when he was a backbencher.

The proposal to "neutralise" Southeast Asia was very much in sync with the policy shift to abandon the country's staunch anti-communist, pro-western stance in preference of non-alignment and peaceful co-existence with all major powers, regardless of their political hue. It must be stated here that in all fairness to Tun Dr Ismail, he had no illusion whatsoever that the goal of "neutralising" Southeast Asia he propounded was highly complex and most certainly entailed a politically hazardous journey.

He was mindful that, to begin with, member countries had to perceive the "neutralisation" of Southeast Asia as being in their best national interest from all perspectives. Otherwise, individual member-states could be enticed to compromise on the envisaged "regional neutrality" framework by providing opportunities to external powers to violate it by giving them causes and justifications for external intervention. This prerequisite by no means was easy to achieve. In any case, this precondition was not likely to be in place in the immediate timeframe.

In recognising the onerous task of promoting the concept of "regional neutralisation", a separate division was set up in earnest in Wisma Putra under Albert Talalla who was tasked to move forward the agenda for the "neutralisation" of Southeast Asia. More specifically, the Neutralisation Division was to fine-tune the nitty-gritties of the Malaysian proposal for ensuring the region's security, stability and durable peace. Another of its key tasks was to chart a detailed action plan towards actualising the "regional neutralisation" goal.

The political concept of "neutralisation" was not altogether new. It was born out of the principle of neutrality in international relations as observed by Switzerland. As a matter of fact, the Swiss experience was presented as testimony of a tried and tested successful model of a "neutralised" nation state against the backdrop of a highly turbulent European theatre. Significantly, varying forms of neutrality had been adopted by countries in Southeast as evidenced in the case of Thailand vis-à-vis the Anglo-French rivalry and conflict in the Indo-China Peninsula during the colonial period, and also later in the 20th century, in respect to Japan's conduct of the Pacific War.

Briefly, the Malaysian "neutralisation" proposal envisaged Southeast Asia as a zone in which countries in the zone would be neutral and non-aligned in respect to relations with major powers. The zone would be free from outside interference from external powers. In return, states within the zone pledged not to take sides in any conflict or rivalry in the region, between and among outside powers. Further, in order to ensure the political and security integrity of the "neutralised zone", it was to be guaranteed by all major powers.

The concept of the "neutralisation" of Southeast Asia was formally adopted by Asean countries with the signing of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration in 1971, by the five foreign ministers of Asean. They jointly acknowledged that 'neutralization' of Southeast Asia is a desirable objective in the context of the security, stability and durable peace in the region. However, the Declaration per se merely stated that the five Asean members will, "exert the initial necessary steps to secure the recognition of and respect for Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers."

This belied the view held particularly by Indonesia and Singapore that the two concepts, "neutralisation" and ZOPFAN were separate. It also meant that not all member states were on the same wavelength as regards the Neutralisation of Southeast Asia goal. Neither was there substantive agreement among Asean member states that "neutralisation" was the best way to achieve ZOPFAN. In addition, individual member states harboured reservations on the mechanics of the "neutralisation" of Southeast Asia.

Over and above these concerns, the issue of the guarantee of "neutralisation" by outside major powers was laden with imponderables that spawned conflicting perspectives among Asean member states. Despite these nagging issues, Malaysia pursued the concept of "regional neutralisation" at the level of senior officials. A detailed roadmap of the steps necessary to achieve "neutralisation" along with a draft treaty was deliberated upon in 1972.

Disagreement over a number of details, including the definition and modalities of the proposal and serious doubts about the wisdom and feasibility of obtaining guarantees from major foreign powers to underwrite the "neutralisation" of Southeast Asia persisted. Thus, the Malaysian initiative to "neutralise" Southeast Asia remained unconsummated.