This week Brunei is hosting a workshop on establishing a direct communications link (commonly known as a “hotline”) for ASEAN and beyond. The ASEAN hotline, first proposed by the Sultan of Brunei last year, would create a dedicated communication link among the ASEAN governments to deal with maritime and other security issues. This is intended to reduce the chances of an unintended military confrontation in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea, but could also be used to deal with other problems in the region.
The hotline is ostensibly under the ASEAN Political-Security Community, so its details are beyond the usual scope of this blog. However, as this excellent piece from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Asian “hotlines” explains, the value of such hotlines lies in (1) their utility in crisis management and/or (2) the process of their creation, e.g., as a confidence-building process. Hopefully the ASEAN defense hotline can build ASEAN member states’ confidence in ASEAN institutions, including the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).
The AEC, of course, does not involve the life-and-death issues related to potential military clashes and so does not usually need a crisis-management system in real-time (exceptions could be for product-recalls for safety or bans for health concerns, such as during a pandemic). However, if the ASEAN member states are willing to invest in a dedicated security hotline, surely they could also invest in the communications infrastructure necessary to govern the AEC effectively? As this blog has explained previously, IT issues related to authentication and reliability have adversely impacted communications among ASEAN member states on AEC issues. The inability to bridge the IT gaps within ASEAN also hold back full development of the ASEAN Single Window for goods and the roll-out of an ASEAN common visa for foreign visitors. Hence technical advances for the ASEAN security hotline can be applied to the other aspects of intra-ASEAN communication.
The ASEAN security hotline can also help mature ASEAN member states’ attitudes towards ASEAN itself. Hopefully the hotline will incorporate a role for the ASEAN Secretary-General and the ASEAN Secretariat. The ASEAN hotline should be integral to intra-ASEAN dispute resolution, and the ASEAN Secretary-General has an ex-officio role in dispute resolution under the ASEAN Charter. Let us not forget that in this decade alone we have had military action on the Cambodia-Thailand and Malaysia-Philippines frontiers. Having the ASEAN hotline, with ready access to the resources of the ASEAN Secretariat, could have helped address these disputes more rapidly. Just as importantly, ASEAN member states who develop more confidence in the ASEAN institutions for political-security matters will also develop more confidence in them for economic matters. As this blog has repeatedly recommended, stronger ASEAN institutions are necessary for the effective implementation of the single production base and single market of the AEC.
If the ASEAN security hotline can be the pathfinder for other forms of ASEAN Community development, both in technological and institutional terms, then it will be a positive development for the entire ASEAN Community, not just the political-security community. And if it can link in other regional players, namely, China, then so much the better for security in the region.