There’s No Place Like Home: Southeast Asia’s Security Priorities


As the old saying goes, whether elephants fight or make love, the grass still suffers. The big story from this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was the reported rumble/romance between the United States and China. But what of the grass? Well, it’s still growing and it’s not just focused on the elephants. Southeast Asia offers a complex mix of rapid military modernization, middle class expansion, religious tensions, environmental pressures, natural disasters, and myriad political systems ranging from democracies to military dictatorships. And while many of the Southeast Asian speakers drew attention to the predictable laundry list of global security concerns (maritime disputes, North Korea’s nuclear program, cyber threats, and extremism), the subtle differences between their perceptions of security priorities bear greater attention.

Two speeches in particular stood out: the keynote address by Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha and the speech given by Gen. (ret) Ryamizard Ryacudu, the Defense Minister of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest state. What made these speeches unique was their articulation of domestic constraints, bringing to light what two relatively important states in the region , not directly involved with maritime disputes, are focused on. For Thailand and Indonesia, global security issues like extremism, maritime crime and even state fragility brought about by natural disaster matter, but they are seen through the prism of domestic political stability. As has been the case historically for both, securing the home front is paramount.

The beginning of Gen. Prayut’s speech unfolded as expected. He mapped out the interdependent nature of contemporary security challenges before calling for a security architecture that encouraged “equilibrium” (mentioned no less than 24 times) and greater cooperation. In his view, the United States, China and Japan are the most important players, followed by a second tier of India, Russia, Australia, South Korea and, in particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He also listed what he believed to be the four common goals for global security – securing peace, achieving sustainable growth, sharing prosperity and preserving the planet – and the seven security challenges he felt should be discussed at Shangri-La – tensions in the East and South China Seas, the Korean peninsula, terrorism and extremism, the stockpiling of military arms, irregular migration, cyber security, and climate change and disaster mitigation.

In the final section of his speech, Prayut surprised the audience by addressing the issue of military rule head-on. Having taken power in May 2014 after six months of political crisis, Prayut explained that “it was necessary for the military to take control of the situation to prevent the escalation of violence and conflict, and to restore the rule of law and social order only for a while.” Thailand’s stability affects ASEAN and regional stability, he noted. On top of socio-economic disparities, food insecurity caused by drought, unrest in southern border provinces and irregular migration, Prayut stated that political conflict and poor governance caused by “democracy only in form but not in function” was Thailand’s key concern. Imploring the international community to understand his country’s situation, Prayut underscored that Thailand would return to democracy in accordance with a 20-year National Strategic Plan and a Roadmap, and it would uphold democratic processes and international obligations.

In contrast, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard, speaking in the session on making defense policy in uncertain times, presented a longer list of security concerns including terrorism, separatism and armed rebellion, natural disasters, incursions in border areas, piracy and poaching of natural resources, pandemics, drug trafficking, cyber war and information warfare (save for the order, identical to the list he presented at last year’s dialogue). The bulk of his speech, however, focused on three of those: terrorism, maritime security, and natural disasters. On terrorism, Ryamizard praised military operations in the Middle East as the right approach to weakening ISIL’s centre of gravity and logistics capability. However, he stated the threat posed by radical ideology on home turf was more significant; Ryamizard cited a recent survey that around 96 percent of Indonesians rejected ISIL’s ideology (95 percent in the actual study), which might sound good at first but it means that roughly 8 million Indonesians support it. As it does for much of Southeast Asia, the prospect of more experienced foreign fighters returning from the Middle East theatre poses a challenge to Indonesia. On maritime security, he called for respect for international norms and the U.N. Charter in the South China Sea, but also focused on maritime crime, human trafficking, smuggling, and narcotics. Pointing to the recent kidnapping of Indonesian sailors by Abu Sayyaf, he called for a “synergized approach” between Southeast Asia’s maritime security and counterterrorism bodies. On natural disaster relief, Ryamizard encouraged enhanced cooperation between states, including civil-military cooperation, to help ease the pressures caused by earthquakes or typhoons.

Opportunities and challenges for Southeast Asian security

From these speeches alone, it is clear that Southeast Asian states are grappling with numerous security priorities, many of which provide opportunities for greater cooperation in maritime security and disaster relief with external partners such as the United States, Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea. Both Prayut and Ryamizard acknowledge ASEAN’s centrality to Indo-Pacific security matters, but in practical terms, Thailand’s leadership is consumed with domestic politics while Indonesia, which has traditionally been the driving force behind ASEAN diplomacy, has been less enthusiastic about the grouping under President Joko Widodo. Potential exists here for external partners to strengthen cooperation with ASEAN, though the group’s principle of consensus-based decision-making will remain a perennial constraint.

Interestingly, where Indonesia’s military leaders have feared external interference is in domestic matters. Thailand’s prime minister appeared to encourage outside actors to support the resolution of internal issues. Recently in Indonesia, there has been an odd resurgence of the threat of Communism. Timed to undermine a symposium looking into the 1965 and 1966 killings of an estimated 500,000 to 1 million suspected Communists and their sympathizers, the military and police have warned that Communist forces could cause social instability. The idea dovetails nicely with pronouncements by the military chief of staff that Indonesia should fear “proxy wars.” Therefore, it’s worth understanding better what role each military prescribes for itself and how that affects relations with foreign, particularly Western, partners. While both Thailand and Indonesia recognize the global nature of security threats, make no mistake, their security priorities remain firmly at home.


Natalie Sambhi is a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she focuses on Indonesian foreign and defense policy. She is also host of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, a podcast series by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Image: DOD