Southeast Asian nations have been consistently moving toward the creation of a regional community where there is an ever-increasing focus on people-centered security, and moving away from a purely state-centered security focus.

The UNDP 1994 Human Development Report defines human security as a condition where there is freedom of fear and freedom of want. People-centered security is the process of guaranteeing this kind of human security.

State security may be described more simply as the absence of external threats, possession of a military and establishment of a solid political power that creates a stable national condition in which its citizens can live. In other words, state security only provides the framework within which the individual parameters of human security can be defined. Each state is likely to define human security very differently.

Taking this possible diversity into account, the summit of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), held in Jakarta from May 18 to 20, agreed to move further toward people-centered security and the new form of security cooperation that it will entail, to be in place throughout the whole of the ASEAN Security Community by 2015.

As reported by the media, the defense ministers formally agreed on five issues of cooperation, namely; maritime security, peacekeeping operations, military industry, disaster mitigation and humanitarian aid, and a three-year working program for each minister to accomplish this change. They also discussed the institutional mechanisms to bring about this increased cooperation.

First, regarding the peacekeeping operations, ASEAN member countries decided to establish an ASEAN Peacekeeping Center Network to facilitate peacekeeping collaboration to be conducted throughout the region.

Second, ASEAN also agreed to develop the ASEAN Defense Industry Collaboration (ADIC) to increase the industrial and technological aspects of defense with a non-binding and voluntary mechanism.

Third, it discussed ASEAN’s commitment to improving civil-military collaboration through mitigating natural disasters and delivering humanitarian aid. Lastly, they agreed on a three-year program of reporting that would create a set of objectives and targets that should be accomplished by 2015.

These commitments were also in line with the ASEAN Summit that was previously held in Jakarta. Among the 10 points then agreed to by the country leaders, four related to security cooperation. Those points included enhancing cooperation in food and energy security; strengthening ASEAN’s role in mediating intra-regional conflict, especially Thailand-Cambodia border disputes and also to avoid the escalation of conflict between each of the member countries; enhancing ASEAN’s positive role within regional organization in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Asia Pacific in efforts to stabilize the region; and, last but not least, to enhance the natural disaster mitigation.

In fact, the impetus for moving toward people-centered security has been noted at least since 1998 among the ASEAN ministers, and particularly after the 1997 economic crisis, when the numbers of people living in poverty in Southeast Asia grew significantly. In response, the ministers introduced the concept of human security in the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (APMC) 1998.

Moreover, this concept was becoming highly relevant, especially after 9/11 in 2001, the pandemic avian flu in 2003, and the tsunami in 2004. Those crises were not only crises, but also crises of fear from having such crises (Goh Cok Tong, 2003). The urgency of a people-centered approach was further confirmed by Surin Pitsuwan in 2004, mentioning that ASEAN needs a non-traditional approach to resolve these non-traditional security issues since all the crises that have occurred in recent years have had human security dimensions.

To see how significant this change is for ASEAN it is worth looking at why ASEAN was formed in the first place in 1967. We must not forget that at the time of establishment of ASEAN the world was in the middle of the Cold War, with Southeast Asia often used as a theater within which the two contesting superpowers at that time, the US and USSR, played out their dramas.

The idea was to create a regional order with a level of state security that enabled member countries to pay more attention to their economic development and the process of post-independence nation building. Cooperating on security was an obvious way to go. While the emphasis still lay on state sovereignty and the securing of state borders, regional cooperation on security would benefit all member states and guard against undue influence from two world powers.

In the beginning very little interference from outside each nation state was tolerated, with each member respectively resolving their own security problems. But later, as ASEAN strengthened, some outside assistance was allowed and border disputes, trade wars etc were discussed internally and amicable resolutions sought that suited all member states involved.

The term “quiet diplomacy” may have been coined for ASEAN’s preference to use informal means to settle disputes and manage conflict. In other words, ASEAN would rather play safe without interference than engender the possibility of creating further internal conflicts.

However, the main problem with focusing on state security and issues of sovereignty is that how citizens are treated within one’s own boundaries can vary widely and can conceal examples of obvious inequality. The citizens of Myanmar, the citizens of Singapore and Vietnam, to name but three countries, all live under strong state-centered governments, with none of the states at war, but human security conditions for citizens are very different indeed.

What is more, the conditions in countries can change overnight. Recent clashes between Thailand and Cambodia at their border have thrown the security of many peoples living in the area into sharp focus, as well as issues of sovereignty and state boundaries — so even state security cannot be taken for granted.

That being said the urgency of further security cooperation and a further move toward people-centered security is undeniable. ASEAN definitely needs to change its paradigm in facing off against security issues. The blueprint of the ASEAN Political and Security Cooperation (APSC) that was created in 2003 should be achieved by 2015.

Therefore, the results of the last ADMM mentioned above should be viewed as a leap toward the initiation of APSC. Joint cooperation, from this writer’s view will create further trust and closer relations among the member states.

Non-interference may hinder the speed at which this process takes place, but this agreement shows that these 10 Southeast Asian countries are committed to meeting the need for new security cooperation toward a new regional architecture. These ministers are definitely moving in the right direction to overcome both state-centered and people-centered conflicts.

State security may well be a precondition for their people’s security, but achieving state security does not guarantee human security. Therefore, solid cooperation should not only be made between countries, but also between countries and their own societies.

In ASEAN, people-centered security tends to be related to only certain issues such as food security, poverty, disasters, transnational crime, trafficking and environmental issues. On the other hand, the term human security should be expanded to include freedom from fear and the achievement of human needs in relation also to human rights and humanitarian law.

In sum, ASEAN is moving in the right direction to enhance its security cooperation. The development of a single approach within ASEAN in dealing with security issues will strengthen ASEAN’s position.

However, further attention still needs to be paid to relations between government and society, otherwise different forms of conflict will likely emerge and hinder the formulation of a solid ASEAN security community by 2015.

The writer is currently a research assistant at PT. Strategic Asia Indonesia. The opinions expressed are her own. –Maria A. Kusalasari, Jakarta Post