The LIMA 2023 event showcases our growing capacity in leading the region as the next frontier of defence and security hub in spearheading both defence hardware development and dialogue mechanisms in conflict management. Malaysia’s role in ASEAN and the various conflict prevention measures have been centred on expanding the platform to accommodate different perspectives and in bringing diplomacy, dialogue and confidence-building measures to the forefront as the right postures in preventing risks of conflicts and reducing tensions.
Threats remain, in the form of dwindling efficacy and effectiveness of deterrence measures in various modes. Increased overtures and power postures by external forces in the Southeast Asian region have naturally led to intensified arms race and security dilemma, both of which are in a vicious cycle of self-fuelled natural justifications in securing interests and national survival. The region, driven by decades of polarisation and fatigued by wars, both hot and cold, has struggled to maintain its yearning for security and stability through balancing and hedging which have produced little to no impact on its long-term security assurances.
The new amalgamation of the return to state-led high-intensity conflict and existing endemic challenges of non-traditional threats exposed the growing futility of past and present conflict prevention measures. Having practically little hard power prowess and deterrence to match external powers’ capability to dictate regional security architecture, especially China, regional members have to make do with forging partnerships and cosying up to balancing forces with the West in securing their national interests and territorial integrity. Knowing that such moves will mean they will face heightened retaliatory measures from Beijing, regional players continue to be trapped in the nexus of this bipolar power competition. The dilemma of economic survival versus security survival has plagued policymakers in determining the best foot forward in ensuring their regime and political survival internally, which will require a growing economy that will mainly be based on dependence on China. On the other hand, this would put them in a further quandary of securing their long-term economic and security stability and resilience.
The region has suffered from its long-held “regional model autism”, where it faces difficulties in breaking free from its determined perception and policy that it perceives to be giving it the returns that it desired. By continuing the path of staying central and aligning with no other powers, there are three most important tools that can sustain this model.
Firstly, the internal capacity to fuel self-generating growth that will be progressively self-sustaining without overreliance on external support and market.
Secondly, a robust and resilient internal capacity to deliver both powerful deterrent forces through hard power force projection and impactful conflict prevention mechanisms through economic and soft power capabilities to deter external power postures and strategic manouvres.
Thirdly, regional cohesiveness and unity in strengthening joint inter-utilisation of resources and power tools in projecting transcending economic and hard power capabilities, with robust intra-regional economic strength and a high level of mutual trust. ASEAN and the region have practically non-existing elements for all three, and thus remain trapped under the trapping of perceived “strategic ambiguity” and “resolute centrality” approaches that it has steadfastly affiliated to.
The LIMA showcase remains a growing propeller of further developing Malaysia and the region’s defence sector modernisation and in serving as the magnet to increase further high-quality investments in the security and defence industries. However, if fundamental challenges and dilemmas are not addressed through the serious and open embrace of the reality on the ground. Security dilemma will continue to worsen, and so will the prevalence of arms race and the scramble to secure one’s own immediate interests and survival priorities.
There is only so much that procuring the most suitable and powerful defence assets in safeguarding a nation’s short-term security needs, but the overarching eventual strategy and policy in maneuvering a nation’s geopolitical and security placing in the region vis a vis both China and the West remain the most critical question that will need more than short term assurances from defence asset enhancement alone. The question of what will best guarantee a nation’s long-term sense of safety in the holistic spectrum of security parameters looms large and this requires the whole of the region and all stakeholders to approach escaping this continuous cycle of ignorance and wishful thinking of gaining the returns from futile or failed approaches of the past.
Nations will need to confront the core reasons why dialogue-building efforts have failed to reduce tensions or to deter threats of escalations, and why internal capacity building to build greater trust and confidence-building measures have also failed to solve disputes and to check growing ambitions and tensions in the region. Totally pinning the blame on external forces and power play alone is an easy way out to deny the region’s own inadequate and systemic gaps and structural failures to wisely and strategically maneuver the power game and structure. It has lived under the shadow of big power adjustment and rivalry for most parts of the last century and has yet to achieve the expected wisdom and capacity to chart its own collective ventures in preparing for the long game.
The future fall-out from a potential escalation in the South China Sea, countermeasures from both Beijing and Washington to one another’s power postures and containment efforts in the region, and a potential full-blown conflict in Taiwan will be the immediate risks and threats that will engulf the current level of preparedness of regional players. In facing these risks, nations can either rely on existing measures and platforms including ASEAN and related conflict prevention architectures to provide the usual deterrence and tension-lowering tools or to court deeper external security assurances with the West. The former has yielded little impact over the years while the latter has been condemned by regional players and China for inviting even greater risks of miscalculations and heightening tensions and an arms race in the region.
The end result is a continuation of the power trap limbo that will squeeze the regional ambition to be a rising economic and political decision-maker and powerhouse that can stake its claim on the global economic stature. Solely by relying on its bright socio-economic indicators of being a young and vibrant region with immense criticality and the upper hand in supply chain, food, and energy security and being the next hub for digital and high technology frontier of the world, these would eventually produce little to no effect if unchecked security and geopolitical trap and tensions continue to persist and worsen, along with the region’s inaptitude to play its own strategic long game.
Consequences and the fear of them, along with the time trap, have been the Achilles heel for far too long for the region. Both ends of the spectrum from utopian hope for greater assured stability and trust, to the pessimist realist projection of unchecked tensions, eventually converge on the need to reevaluate and reflect on new strategies and models to ensure the safe passage and long-term peace dividends for the people and nations in the region, which will have profound ripple effects on global power and peace trajectory.
Commentary By COLLINS CHONG YEW KEAT, Foreign Affairs and Strategy Analyst UNIVERSITI MALAYA