In her article published in the International Studies Quarterly, Stéphanie Martel maintains that the construction of a security community can be understood as a process of discursive performance based on constant negotiation between competing conceptions of security and community. This process, in other words, is inherently polysemic, omnidirectional, and contested. For the benefit of the Network for Strategic Analysis, whose mandate includes the mobilization of research expertise for the Canadian defense community, she develops this original approach, taking ASEAN as a case study.
On December 31, 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officially announced the establishment of its security community, despite not meeting its own criteria for forming one. Indeed, ASEAN has called itself a “security community” on numerous occasions since the start of the 21st century and remains an example often used by researchers of a “nascent” security community. However, it also departs from the way in which this concept is generally understood in International Relations, as a group of states having renounced the use of force as a legitimate means of conflict settlement.
In the Asia-Pacific, as elsewhere in the world, building a security community today encompasses much more than the mere absence of war between states. Non-military and transnational challenges are an inescapable part of the mandate of security institutions around the world, not least due to the continued “securitization” of a growing number of issues previously considered to be outside the bounds of security governance. On the other hand, non-state actors play an increasingly active role in global governance, including in security. In other words, security governance is becoming increasingly diverse, both in the scope of its mandate and in the identity of its participants. In view of this diversification, a broader definition of the concept of security community is required. A security community can in fact be conceived as a collective in which members collaborate in order to protect a common referent against one or more sources of insecurity. By the same token, I argue that the construction of a security community can be understood as a process of discursive performance based on constant negotiation between competing conceptions of security and community. This process, in other words, is inherently polysemic, omnidirectional, and contested. First, the construction of a security community is influenced by distinct interpretations of (1) what the pursuit of security means for a given community and (2) where the boundaries of the community lie, thus making it polysemic. In other words, the security community holds several meanings at the same time for actors, and they are not easily reconciled. Second, this process is omnidirectional, as these distinct interpretations also lead the security community on different paths, pursued simultaneously. This situation can result in policy inconsistency, but otherwise helps to justify the relevance of institutions that embody the community on several fronts at the same time. Third, social agents draw on these competing interpretations to question how their counterparts participate in building the security community, making it a deeply contested process, which also has effects on the policies that end up being adopted.
This contestation takes two distinct but interdependent forms, which I call “external” and “internal.” On the one hand, actors involved engage in an “external” form of contestation when proposing distinct, relatively coherent, but potentially incompatible versions of the security community as they participate in its construction. On the other hand, even when social agents converge on a single version of the security community, they still participate in an “internal” form of contestation by debating the specific meaning, limits, and political and security solutions associated with that version.
To illustrate my argument, I draw on the case of ASEAN as a prime example of an institution that defines itself as a security community “in the making,” while grappling with the diverse nature of security governance in the 21st century. A better understanding of the spectrum of competing positions on regional security and the role of ASEAN in its pursuit is necessary to understand the policies adopted by actors in the region and to ensure effective participation of ASEAN’s “dialogue partners,” including Canada, in security governance in the Asia Pacific. Furthermore, it is necessary to take seriously the fundamental role that discourse plays in the development of this security community. Indeed, discourse has real political effects on the kind of policy responses developed and implemented by actors in this region to deal with insecurity, in the South China Sea as in Myanmar, or in the context of discussions on the Indo-Pacific regional order or the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”). In this article, I am particularly interested in the effects on human security policies, but the impacts of this reality are observable across the spectrum of regional security issues.
Polysemy in the security community
ASEAN’s attempt to form a security community has several objectives, with no clear hierarchy between them. Its main components are (1) an indirect, dialogue-based approach to the management of interstate conflict among states in the region, (2) an emphasis on “non-traditional” threats to the security of its member states, and (3) a limited overture to a “human dimension” of security, as part of a broader objective to transform itself into a “people-centered” community. The delineation of these distinct – and competing – objectives results from the diverse nature of security governance in the Asia-Pacific region, characterized by, on the one hand, a sustained process of securitization of non-military and transnational issues that goes back to the organization’ formative years and, on the other hand, the increasing participation of a variety of non-state actors in regional governance – ex. experts and non-governmental organizations.
Three “discourse strands” interact in the debate on ASEAN’s security community. Each strand conveys a particular version of the security community, which consists of a relatively coherent set of positions on the main source of regional insecurity, the referent object (s) (i.e., what needs to be secured), and the role of ASEAN in the pursuit of regional security. While these versions of the security community confront each other in the same context, they also support the (re)production of ASEAN’s identity as a security community “in the making.”
In a first (non-traditional) version of the security community, regional insecurity is conceived as being mainly of transnational origin, undermining the capacity of states to exercise control over their borders. In this version, the regional community includes the ASEAN member states in accordance with its “One Southeast Asia” vision. The transnational domain from which the danger originates is located outside, but can sneak into the community, which needs to pool its resources to protect the sanctity of the common, national and regional territory against a variety of issues, mainly related to transnational crime (eg illicit trafficking, piracy, terrorism, cybercrime, etc.), but which have more recently extended to pandemics and environmental disasters. In this first version, the nature of insecurity is also presented as having fundamentally changed as a result of globalization, with the risk of interstate war being considered a thing of the past.
A second (traditional) version of the security community suggests that regional insecurity stems primarily from the re-emergence of “traditional” security concerns, in the context of new tensions in the South China Sea (and the Korean Peninsula), as well as heightened rivalry between the United States and China. ASEAN is presented as having a particular role to play in fostering the conditions for peace between regional states, by acting as an “honest broker” of major power relations, by promoting dialogue on strategic challenges that affect the region, and by supporting the development of cooperation on non-sensitive security and defense issues. It is within this framework that ASEAN has developed its own “outlook” on the Indo-Pacific, in the face of a proliferation of external initiatives that are perceived as challenging its “centrality” in the regional security architecture.
In a third (people-centered) version of the ASEAN security community, insecurity is presented as stemming from the pervasiveness of daily challenges to the survival, well-being, and dignity of the people of South East Asia. A great deal of mistrust still surrounds the notion of “human security” within ASEAN, which has, however, shown an increasing openness towards the recognition of a human dimension to security, which is notably visible in its recent adoption of the UN-led “Women, Peace and Security” agenda. This version presents human beings, collectively described as “the people,” as a referent object of regional security alongside the state. This concern manifests itself, more generally, in the extension of the group’s objective of transforming into a “people-centered” community, which informs its position on various issues, such as the protection of victims of trafficking in persons, de-radicalization or, more recently and timidly, peacekeeping, according to a truncated and less controversial version of the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle.
In what follows, I focus on this third version of the ASEAN security community to discuss how “internal” contestation operates between actors of different “tracks” of regional multilateralism (formal, informal and non-governmental).
ASEAN’s identity as a ‘people-centered’ community under challenge
Participants in the debate on ASEAN’s security community who adhere to the “people-centered” version strongly believe that the organization should strive to better address challenges that affect the security of the people of Southeast Asia on a daily basis, and that the more ASEAN does on this front, the better. However, these actors openly disagree on the extent to which ASEAN should make room for “the people” in its security approach, whether on the identity of the populations included as well as their role in developing and implementing security policies. The clearest opposition to the official discourse of ASEAN comes from regional NGOs, which increasingly engage the regional process, in part because ASEAN itself makes space for them.
NGO participation in the debate on the “people-centered community” takes place in three main ways, in which these actors face varying degrees of resistance from the government sector. First, NGOs advocate for a definition of regional security that leaves more room for a human referent object in ASEAN’s approach to security in relation to the state, while governments favor the latter. Second, NGOs are also leveraging sources of discursive power to push ASEAN towards more substantive forms of civil society participation. Third, NGOs can often participate directly in the debate on the ASEAN security community even if they remain excluded from spaces sanctioned by the organization. When they encounter too much resistance, they fall back on ”taking it outside”, by organizing demonstrations or boycotts, as well as other, more confrontational and public modes of engagement that put the reputation of the organization at risk and push it to act.
These discursive practices are observable in three specific issue areas. The first area sees NGOs advancing alternative positions on the nature of insecurity through their engagement of ASEAN on the issue of trafficking in persons. The second area concerns their promotion of a “people-driven” approach to the security community in order to reconfigure its boundaries as well as to ensure that civil society is involved in decision-making. The third area is reflected in advocacy work on the Rohingya crisis, which mainly takes part outside spaces organized or sanctioned by the organization. Together, these examples illustrate how NGOs claim the role of “meaning architects” in building a security community despite significant constraints to their participation in this process. This participation cannot be understood without taking the role that discourse plays in this story more seriously.
The construction of a security community can be understood as a polysemic, omnidirectional, and contested process, founded on meaning-making, the finality of which is always in motion. Discourse is not just rhetoric but structures the “realm of possibilities” in terms of security policies. Its mobilization in practice has concrete and real political and policy effects. Contestation plays a central part in this process. Distinguishing between external and internal forms of discursive contestation on the meaning of security and the boundaries of the community allows us to better understand how the construction of a security community takes place in practice, even when it remains a work in progress, including from the point of view of its own members.
Several conceptions of security and adequate cooperative responses to “danger” co-exist and collide in Southeast Asia and within ASEAN. This reality remains poorly understood by ASEAN’s “dialogue partners,” including Canada, which seek to enhance their participation in security multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific region while the implicit codes of regional governance continue to elude them. Effective participation in these processes requires a better understanding of the range of positions that exist in this region on the nature of insecurity, the boundaries of the regional community, and the role of ASEAN in security governance. It involves the recognition that these divergent positions, which are not reducible to “national” or coherent group positions, but sometimes co-exist within the same group or state, are legitimate, and can be reconciled. The key here is not to determine which “version” of the security community is most representative of the region’s security “reality” – they all are. These divergent positions constitute a collective but highly diversified repertoire from which the actors involved draw from when they devise, negotiate and implement security policies. Canada’s effective participation in multilateralism in this region, its ability to offer a constructive contribution to regional security, and to promote Canadian interests and positions on Asia-Pacific security issues require better taking into account the polysemic character of this aspiring security community.