Unpacking ASEAN Neutrality: The Quest for Autonomy and Impartiality in Southeast Asia.

AuthorEmmers, Ralf
PositionZone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - Report

As a consequence of European and Japanese colonialism, most Southeast Asian states have historically been suspicious of external interference and domination by the Great Powers. A regional preference for autonomy from Great Power politics was endorsed in the early years of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the formulation of a declaratory principle for regional order. In November 1971, the five founding member states signed the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration in Kuala Lumpur. (1) The ZOPFAN Declaration is a political document that captured contrasting views within ASEAN on the role of external powers in Southeast Asia at that time. While Indonesia has traditionally favoured a regional order determined primarily by the Southeast Asian states themselves, other members have been more willing to rely on the United States and other actors to enhance their security. Although no consensus has been reached on its specific application, ZOPFAN has continually been referred to by ASEAN and its members as an ambition to keep Southeast Asia neutral and free of external interference. Significantly, the concept of neutrality has been repeatedly mentioned--together with unity and solidarity--as one of the main pillars supporting ASEAN's success story over the last 50 years. (2)

Neutrality and ZOPFAN have been referred to in the academic literature on ASEAN. Both have been discussed in a political context, separate from a legalistic reading of the concept of neutralization. This article associates neutrality and ZOPFAN to the ASEAN practice of steering clear of Great Power competition. There are variations on how neutrality has come to be defined. Its definition and application have been adapted due to changes in the geopolitical landscape and evolving ideas of what constitutes security. ZOPFAN is a political declaration calling for Southeast Asian autonomy, while ASEAN neutrality traditionally refers to the diplomatic practice of not taking sides with competing Great Powers. (3) In 1971, ZOPFAN was an attempt by ASEAN to insulate the region from being embroiled in the geopolitics of the Cold War. (4) It therefore reflects ASEAN's historic approach to the Great Powers that engages them at a distance while striving to enhance solidarity among its members to increase the organization's overall influence in regional affairs.

While referred to, the concept of neutrality has not been examined in a careful and detailed manner in the literature on ASEAN. (5) This article seeks to fill this gap by offering a history of neutrality and its shifting meaning in the context of the regional grouping. It demonstrates that the notion of ASEAN neutrality does not have a fixed content but is instead an evolving concept that changes over time. This article argues that ASEAN initially sought and operationalized neutrality to keep the Great Powers at bay during the Cold War before its meaning evolved to lock in the Great Powers in an increasingly multipolar world. However, the concept of neutrality has been greatly tested in recent years with the intensification of the South China Sea dispute. This article therefore makes a contribution to the ASEAN literature by providing an analysis of the historical evolution of neutrality and of the existing ways in which the concept has been framed by ASEAN.

This article traces the origins, nature and role of neutrality in the development of ASEAN. It demonstrates that ASEAN neutrality is defined by two key elements: impartiality, to be understood as not taking sides in Great Power dynamics; and autonomy, which refers to an attempt to limit external interference in Southeast Asia's affairs. ASEAN has sought and projected its neutrality under the bipolar structure of the Cold War by emphasizing its autonomy and the need to limit external interference by the Great Powers. Since the early 2000s, the regional body has responded to an increasingly multipolar system by stressing its impartiality when attempting to build an institutional architecture that includes all the major and middle powers in the Asia Pacific. Rather than a static concept, this article therefore demonstrates a change by which ASEAN has tried to operationalize and make use of its perceived neutrality.

To better understand how ASEAN neutrality has evolved, this article is structured around three themes. The first examines what neutrality means in International Relations (IR). This section reviews definitions of the concept, and how these definitions have evolved from a narrow legalistic understanding to a wider political reading of the term as expressed through the affiliated notions of neutralism and non-alignment. The second section discusses what neutrality meant to ASEAN at its inception and during the Cold War. Here the article examines how ASEAN localized the notion of neutrality in a bipolar structure by adopting a political declaration that called for regional autonomy without imposing constraints on its individual members and steering away from the legal obligations associated with the concept of neutralization. The third section examines how the concept of ASEAN neutrality has evolved since the advent of multipolarity in Asia in the early twenty-first century. This section highlights how the regional security environment has been transformed before examining how ASEAN neutrality remains important to the regional grouping in its emphasis on impartiality while at the same time being tested by the South China Sea dispute.

What Does Neutrality Mean in International Relations?

The concept of neutrality was first developed at the end of the Middle Ages when the notion of state sovereignty emerged. (6) Weak military states welcomed the principle of neutrality to preserve their sovereignty and balance relations among the Great Powers. The Hague Convention of 1907 on sea and land war legally codified the concept of neutrality. According to the Convention, neutral states are:

required not to participate in wars either directly or indirectly. They should not support or favour war parties with military forces. Nor should they make their territory available to them, supply them with weapons or credits, or restrict private weapon exports in a one-sided way. Neutrals are also required to defend themselves against violations of their neutrality. (7) Neutrality laws have evolved over the past 70 years to cover peacekeeping operations undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and other international institutions as well as humanitarian operations conducted by non-governmental organizations. In the case of such operations, "non-interference in the form of impartiality remains at the core". (8) Humanitarian organizations prefer the term "non-partisan" to describe their refusal to take sides in a political or military conflict. (9)

The IR literature on neutrality refers to two types of neutrality: occasional and permanent. The former means that "a state is neutral in a particular war between other states, and only for the duration of that war" while the latter means that "a state will remain neutral in all future wars". (10) States that declare themselves as permanently neutral must conduct a security and foreign policy that allows them to remain neutral in peacetime and in times of conflict. This implies that a permanently neutral state relies on its military capabilities for deterrence and is prohibited from using force except in self-defence, entering alliances and from establishing foreign military bases on its territory. Although not formally codified into international law, these four obligations define "the core content of permanent neutrality". (11)

Affiliated concepts of neutrality have been developed. Recognized under international law in the nineteenth century, neutralization is an "endeavour to remove small but strategically important territories outside the active sphere of international rivalries" and it calls for the Great Powers to respect "the independence of the neutralised state". (12) Neutralization can thus be defined as "a process of international law whereby a state assumes the status of permanent or perpetual neutrality, both in times of peace and of war; a status which is recognised as such and guaranteed by certain other states". (13) Austria in 1955 and Laos in 1962 are two historical examples of states which opted for neutralization. Neutrality, and by extension neutralization, has had a mixed record in practice. While Switzerland and Sweden are generally seen as being successful cases of neutrality (both avoided being entangled in the First and Second World Wars), other states (Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Thailand in the Second World War) still faced aggression and domination by the Axis Powers. (14)

After the Second World War, the legal view of neutrality was taken over by a more political concept of neutrality which emphasized non-participation and impartiality in international disputes. (15) With the advent of the Cold War, the term "neutralism" referred to "all those who were opposed, whatever the reasons ..., to being associated with the military alliances of either the Soviet Union or the United States". (16) The period of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of newly independent states which faced an important decision: whether to join the Western bloc, the Communist bloc or adopt some form of neutrality. In Asia, neutralism was first used to describe the foreign policies of newly independent countries and this idea quickly gained ground in the 1950s. (17) At the same time, the associated concept of non-alignment spread rapidly, most notably at the April 1955 Bandung Conference. For a state to be non-aligned, it should not be "a member of one or more of the military alliances of the superpowers". (18) In 1961, the non-aligned countries established "an independent path in world politics, one which would not result in...

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