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Constructing a regional security architecture in the Middle East: ASEAN as inspiration

  • Yongjin Zhang

    Professor of International Politics, University of Bristol

    أستاذ السياسة الدولية بجامعة بريستول

The pressing need for a regional security architecture in the Middle East is widely acknowledged. Attempts at constructing a viable regional security dialogue mechanism in the region could, and should, draw inspiration from a number of successful regional projects such as the Helsinki process. Beyond Europe, instructive lessons can be learned from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a pivotal player in the construction of an East Asian regional security architecture.

A remarkable strategic success

When ASEAN was first established in August 1967, both East Asia and the Middle East were regional theatres of the Cold War and of strategic rivalry between the superpowers. The Vietnam War was raging and the Middle East had just witnessed the Six-Day War. In 1973 came the US withdrawal from Vietnam, coinciding with the Fourth Arab-Israeli War. The Cold War bipolarity not only permitted (and perhaps purposefully provoked) these regional conflicts causing massive death and destruction, but it also stymied the development of regional security institutions in both East Asia and the Middle East. 

Even after the Cold War, in the early 1990s, the lack of region-wide security institutions such as those in Europe was being evoked to support a dire prediction that East Asia was ‘ripe for rivalry’ – that Europe’s past would be East Asia’s future. Three other features of regional political economy were also highlighted to support this prediction and these have some resonance in the Middle East today: wide disparities in the levels of economic and military power of regional states, their divergent political systems, and their historical animosities.  

Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century. Peace and prosperity have prevailed in East Asia over the 40-odd years since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The last regional military conflict in East Asia was the border war between China and Vietnam in 1979. This situation is in sharp contrast to the region’s war-torn past between 1945 and 1979. Globally, this remarkable strategic achievement distinguishes East Asia from the Middle East, Africa and even Europe in world politics over the same period. 

This strategic success is even more remarkable when considering that the region is gripped by the security dilemma from the Korean Peninsula to the Taiwan Strait, is fraught with competing territorial and maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, and is deeply troubled by great power strategic mistrust and rivalry, particularly between China and the US, and by rising nationalism. All these combined have stoked constant tensions surrounding, for example, North Korea’s nuclear weapon programmes, and led to a number of crises, including the ongoing Fourth Taiwan Strait crisis. It is also notable that East Asian stability has developed while a global power shift and rivalry of historical significance is unfolding in the region between China and the US.

Key characteristics of the East Asian security architecture

It is true that there is still no overarching region-wide multilateral security institution in East Asia that is remotely comparable to NATO. By the European standard, East Asia remains relatively thinly institutionalized. Yet, few could deny that there is now in East Asia a functional regional security architecture defined as an institutional complex with overlay that has been purposefully designed and established principally by regional state actors to address regional security challenges, issues and risks.

This ‘complex patchwork’1 consists of in the first instance the enduring hub-and-spoke arrangements of US bilateral military alliances in the Asia-Pacific. But perhaps more importantly, it also contains the proliferation of non-US-led and non-US-dominated multilateral security forums/institutions such as the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), the APT (ASEAN Plus Three), the EAS (East Asia Summit), the SLD (the Shangri-La Dialogue), APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). These have become further overlayed by bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and other multilateral ad hoc problem-driven institutional arrangements focused mostly on a functional basis. For example, these arrangements have included the Six-Party Talks and Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (both of which are now defunct), and more recent additions, the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad, 2017) and the AUKUS (2021). 

These regional security institutions are complemented by the East Asian ‘noodle bowl’ of multiple bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which came into effect on 1 January 2022, is but one prominent example. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is another.

Taken as a whole, this ‘complex patchwork’ with its expansive institutional linkages has become an effective means of mitigating the threat perceptions and strategic uncertainties posed by regional security dilemmas in East Asia. Rather than a single overarching institution, it is a fluid network of bilaterals, trilaterals and other multilateral configurations that helps to create a dynamic and robust security architecture in East Asia for dealing with a broad range of traditional and non-traditional security challenges in the region. These multiple, often overlapping, and sometimes even competing, institutions work to promote common security interests and shared regional norms by defining standards of behaviour and best practices. They may not resolve regional conflict, but they impose institutional constraints and exert peer pressure to pursue restraint and accommodation among regional states and great powers.

Defining ASEAN-styled institutionalism

Deeply entrenched in this East Asian regional security architecture is the ASEAN-styled institutionalism that evolved after the end of the Cold War. First and foremost, this refers to the creation of ASEAN-driven security institutions and institutional processes. With 27 members, the ARF, inaugurated in 1994, remains the only official track-one security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific that has regional pretension. It also provides a forum that brings the US and North Korea regularly together. The ARF is now complemented by the ADMM (annual ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting) and the ADMM Plus (an annual Defence Ministers’ meeting of 10 ASEAN countries and ASEAN’s eight dialogue partners).2 The inauguration of the EAS in 2005 added an annual forum for regional leaders to come together to discuss regional security cooperation and to address critical security issues. The inclusion of both Russia and the US in the EAS in 2011 completed the EAS’s institutional set-up by bringing in these two extra-regional great power stakeholders. 

Second, this regional institutionalism refers to what is sometimes dubbed ‘ASEAN centrality’. This often means that ASEAN has driven the construction of regional security institutions and that the ‘ASEAN way’ of emphasizing norms such as sovereignty, non-intervention, and consensus decision-making has been broadly adopted in these institutions. Put differently, it means that ASEAN-driven security institutions and norms lie now at the core of the complex patchwork of regional security institutions and that ASEAN must continue to be a main driving force for the construction and consolidation of a regional security architecture. 

More broadly, it is related to a claim that ASEAN has played, and should continue to play, a central role in articulating strategic and political priorities, in designing institutional frameworks, in setting the parameters of security cooperation, and in being a gatekeeper over who gets invited on specified conditions to participate in regional security institutional construction as, for example, in the case of EAS. Significantly, The Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States issued by the White House in February 2022 explicitly states that ‘We endorse ASEAN centrality and support ASEAN in its efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges’ 3.

Third, ASEAN-styled institutionalism refers to the normalization of the ideal of regional security cooperation that is inclusive of both rising and status quo powers and of all regional states, big or small. This ideal is related to a set of ideas embedded in the concept of security pluralism, which embraces the core principle of ‘cooperative security’. According to that core principle, security is best achieved in an inclusive multilateral framework, but it also recognizes the importance of bilateral security alliances and arrangements to achieve the balance of power through a collective security framework.

It is worth noting that these ASEAN-driven security institutions emerged at different geopolitical and institutional moments in regional and global political economy. They have evolved pragmatically in response to changing dynamics and realities of regional and global power politics. The ARF, for example, emerged in the immediate post-Cold War period – a unipolar moment when China was weak in terms of its economic and military power and when no track record existed of regional institutions or security cooperation outside of ASEAN in East Asia. By contrast, the EAS was launched in 2005 in part to address security challenges posed by the rise of China and heightened economic and security interdependence among regional states and extra-regional stakeholders. These institutions have evolved alongside regional states’ shared commitment to capitalist economic development and have been accompanied by the rapid economic growth and prosperity that facilitated state consolidation and regime legitimation in the regional states concerned.

Lessons for the Middle East

Notwithstanding the different and sometimes contentious assessments of the successes of ASEAN, its pursuit of constructing regional security institutions offers three important lessons and some practical ideas for establishing a cooperative and inclusive multilateral regional security dialogue in the Middle East. 

First is norm creation. The ‘ASEAN way’, as a distinct set of norms privileging sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-intervention in internal affairs, consensus decision-making and informality, has been widely accepted and deeply embedded in the institutional approaches to regional security. It has played a critical role in socializing China into ASEAN-driven regional multilateral security institutions. It is central to ASEAN’s claim of ‘convening power’ – its ability to bring together a large and diverse set of actors and interests in regional forums through institutional design. This is a critical dimension of ASEAN’s centrality.  

Second is the conceptual innovation. The ARF introduced to the East Asian security policy debate for the first time an alternative security conceptualization, namely, cooperative security. This concept promotes an inclusive approach to pursuing security ‘with’ adversaries in multilateral institutional frameworks, rather than security ‘against’ potential threats through strategies such as deterrence and containment. It nevertheless does not see cooperative security and collective security as mutually exclusive. This legitimizes a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to security on a broader security agenda that addresses urgent regional concerns related to climate change, environmental security, health security, piracy, terrorism and transnational crimes.

Third is what we might call great power management. ASEAN’s role in creating a minimalist normative bargain among great powers and its track record of moderating great power security competition in the region are both well acknowledged. Beyond that, the operation of the ASEAN-led ARF and EAS clearly upsets the presumption that regional orders are created and best managed by great powers, as well as the assumption that great powers should have the privileged role in leading the construction of regional security architecture. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the US participation in the EAS in 2011, six years after the forum’s inauguration, by fulfilling the ASEAN condition of acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC).4 In this instance, the US is plainly a follower, rather than a leader. 

The Middle East and East Asia surely have region-specific security challenges and different power dynamics today, as in the past. ASEAN’s contribution to making the East Asian strategic miracle possible should nonetheless provide inspiration for those seeking to construct a regional security architecture in the Middle East. 

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


1 This characterization is from Victor Cha. See Cha, V. (2016). ‘Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia’, The National Interest, 7 September 2016, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/powerplay-the-origins-the-american-alliance-system-asia-17618?nopaging=1

2 The eight dialogue partners are Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the US.

3 The White House (2022), Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, p. 9, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf

4 Of the three conditions set out by ASEAN for participation in the EAS, the first one is that the country should be a member of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia or have the will to become a member. Key norms laid down in the TAC include sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs, peaceful settlement of disputes and the renunciation of the use of force.