MALAYSIA has revived the 2003 Indonesian proposal to establish an Asean Peacekeeping Force (APF) as one of its Asean chairmanship initiatives.
Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein affirms it as a step towards enhancing Asean unity. He said that "we need to find matters where we can unite".
Asean states are regular contributors to United Nations peacekeeping operations (PKO) and, according to UN records, as at January this year there were 3,845 personnel from seven Asean states in active service. They make up 3.68 per cent of the total peacekeepers in 16 missions around the world.
The idea of creating an APF is, at face value, novel. Corralling a multinational military force under the Asean banner would deepen confidence-building and engender strategic trust among the Asean militaries. An APF would also lift Asean's profile as a contributor to global peace and security. Mr Hishammuddin last month visited Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam to pitch the idea, and plans to meet the remaining Asean defence ministers soon.
Although details of the APF plan have not been made public, it is understood that it entails the participation of all Asean states. This would be challenging for Laos and Myanmar as they have not participated in any peacekeeping operations before.
When the idea was first mooted by Indonesia 12 years ago, it met responses ranging from non-interest to objection. Is the time now ripe for an APF?
Mr Hishammuddin's shuttle diplomacy has reaped some success in ringing up support from Cambodia and the Philippines, but the proposal is weighed down by some fundamental challenges.
First, Asean needs to agree on a set of principles to establish the legal and political bases for the APF's deployment. What are the circumstances that, in Asean's eyes, would constitute a serious breach to international peace and security that justifies UN intervention? Responsibility to Protect, which covers genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes, may be an appropriate point of reference, but Asean states are ambiguous towards the doctrine.
Second, Asean states have to consider the APF's deployment outside the UN framework. Asean states must commit to accepting it operating within their borders. It would be politically untenable if Asean was willing to support multilateral military interventions in other parts of the world but not in its own backyard.
Third, the formation of a regional peacekeeping force implies a high degree of convergence of political interests and security perceptions. Even amid efforts to build a political-security community, Asean unanimity on these two dimensions is not a given.
Fourth, Asean states would have to agree on the financing structure. Will the cost be borne equally by all states?
An APF faces an uphill task. Nevertheless, proponents could allow for the germinating of the idea by broadening cooperation on two fronts. Asean states should be encouraged to forge partnerships and team up in UN missions to foster cooperation and build strategic trust.
And the Asean Peacekeeping Centres Network could provide the institutional support to study and promote cross-national cooperation.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.