MAY 12, 2020

[REFSA DISCUSS #5] The “Strategic New Normal” Post-COVID-19: How should Southeast Asia respond?

Panel of experts detailed out the building blocks towards a holistic COVID-19 response at REFSA’s Webinar.


Southeast Asian countries, and ASEAN can and must do more in navigating the risks of intensifying great power relations, and managing an increasingly complex security environment with potentially less resources in the “Strategic New Normal” Post-COVID-19, said security experts.

REFSA’s Research Director, Ivy Kwek said that even though COVID-19 began as a global pandemic it is becoming one that might change the game of the already complicated geopolitical landscape in the region. The uneasy great power relations remain under the spotlight as Washington and Beijing respectively blame each other for the origin and spread of COVID-19, and the slowdown of global trade and economy further complicates the US-China trade war. Globally, COVID-19 threatens to heighten the risks in managing refugee crises and protracted conflicts in fragile states. Concurrently, developments in the South China Sea continue to pose a challenge to Maritime Southeast Asia.

 At the REFSA Discuss webinar #5 held on 12 May, three renowned security experts, who dialled in from Singapore, United States and Switzerland respectively, weighed in on the topic:   

Dr. Tim Huxley, Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia (IISS-Asia) in Singapore said that while it is still early to say with certainty what the knock-on effect will be, Southeast Asia was already facing a difficult geopolitical predicament at the start of 2020. Two crucial dimensions are at place: On one hand, escalating Great Power Competition between the United States and China has made a great impact in the last decade. While Southeast Asia wants positive relations, Beijing and Washington make it increasingly difficult. On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries seem to be unable to forge consensus, even though there is the existing ASEAN-centric Regional Security Architecture. Southeast Asian countries are becoming increasingly under stress as they try to maintain a semblance of balance between the two powers. “COVID-19 will accentuate the regional predicament, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed it. Any expectation that there will be a respite for strategic competition is misplaced.” 

In responding to the “Strategic New Normal”, Southeast Asian countries must inject new life into ASEAN to make it a more effective vehicle in promoting the strategic autonomy of ASEAN Member States, for example, to consider an ASEAN minus 1 or minus 2 mechanism in the negotiations of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Secondly, Southeast Asian countries need to think more seriously about defense and security cooperation among themselves, particularly in threat assessment, contingency plans, joint procurement of defense equipment, multilateral military exercises, as well as establishing a Southeast Asia Defence Staff College to foster common thinking and cooperation. 

Finally, Southeast Asian governments could continue to widen the mix of powers involved in sub-regional security as a way of mitigating the dangers of Southeast Asia of being caught up in a binary competition between the United States and China, and  wherever practical, further development of security relations, with partners such as India, Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, and perhaps some key European countries. 

Even though these steps, such as strengthening cooperation on security and defense within ASEAN, as well as strengthening cooperation with medium powers in regional security may seem too ambitious, but, the alternative to these steps could further expose the region to the dangers of major power competitions.

Ms Elina Noor, Associate Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies (APCSS) in Hawaii opined that COVID-19 will see an intensification of the old status quo. “The Strategic New Normal is actually the Old Normal on steroids”. 

Before COVID-19, there were already ruptures between the relations of the two big powers, especially in trade and technology, culminating in the United States’ 2018 National Defence Strategy declaration of strategic competition as priority No.1 for the United States. Questions about the United States’ leadership in multilateral institutions and commitment to its allies under the America First policy are also of great concern to Southeast Asia and COVID-19 has exacerbated those cracks. 

Secondly, there are pronounced overlaps between conventional and non-conventional security challenges. The pandemic has highlighted how much non-traditional security can aggravate power dynamics and influence, as we see western countries calling for the investigation of the origins of COVID-19, which might only harden the geopolitical scene. Developments in the South China Sea have also seen maritime boundaries been poached with intimidation, harassment and unilateral actions. This is clearly unconstructive and puts the sincerity of resolving the dispute into question. As technology grows in importance with cyberspace becoming a key domain of engagement, we will see conventional and non-conventional security  elements intensify and mutually reinforce. 

Thirdly, in light of this period of strategic competition, ASEAN can and must continue to champion the foundations on which it is founded – multilateralism, amity, cooperation and respect for international law. “ASEAN must not only provide a platform, but also “thought leadership” and carve a position for itself amongst these giants, instead of being subsumed by the policy agenda of major powers”. In particular, as hybrid security challenges between traditional and non-traditional security increasingly intersects across domains (land, maritime, air and cyber), ASEAN must be prepared to discuss new emerging doctrinal developments such as emerging technology and the role of cyberspace, even as Southeast Asian countries are likely to have to do so under greater budgetary duress. Finally, ASEAN must not only matter to governments in the region but also to its people.

Dr. Hans Born, the Assistant Director and Head of the Policy and Research Division at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF), began by noting that as part of the new normal, security forces, particularly militaries, police units, and intelligence services will find themselves increasingly tasked with missions related to the health crisis that are normally beyond their scope of regular duties. In particular for militaries, this may have a knock-on effect in reducing their readiness, as social distancing requirements make it difficult to have large-scale exercises, trainings and recruitments. 

It is important to remember that we will be heading for the long haul with COVID-19, where the emerging security challenge will be transnational in nature as the virus respects no borders. These security challenges however do not necessarily require a military response, even though the security sector will be expected to play a role. As such, governments must review its National Security Strategy to ensure that it has sufficiently addressed these emerging security challenges, and to ensure that its security forces are sufficiently equipped and trained to deal with the crisis, including protective gears for the personnel.  

In nations which already have authoritarian tendencies, the COVID-19 crisis will only serve as a magnifier for the use/abuse of such powers. In a similar vein, as the world moves into the second phase of the crisis, it will be important to have tracing and tracking abilities that hitherto have been unprecedented, raising questions regarding effective safeguards and controls against mass state surveillance. 

As such, “We need oversight more than ever, not less”, said Dr Born. The crisis has also made it difficult for many of the bodies overseeing security forces to effectively perform their duties, as legislative assemblies and other oversight bodies across the world can no longer meet as often as before. These bodies must find creative ways to ensure that their oversight functions remain uninterrupted in order to continue checking and balancing executive bodies. 

Media coverage of the webinar: 

China Press, 中国报, read here
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