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This post is co-authored by Sungtae "Jacky" Park, research associate for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Traditional security issues in the Asia-Pacific, such as tensions on the Korean Peninsula or disputes over the South China Sea, consistently attract the attention of policymakers within the region and abroad. But their consequences for ordinary people are often dwarfed by the fallout from nontraditional security (NTS) events, such as climate change, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, famine, people smuggling, drug trafficking, and maritime safety. In a new CFR discussion paper, U.S.-ASEAN-ROK Cooperation on Nontraditional Security, Jaehyon Lee, senior fellow in the ASEAN and Oceania studies program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gives an overview of how the United States, ASEAN, and South Korea could cooperate to bolster NTS security in Southeast Asia.
There have been bilateral and multilateral attempts at cooperation on NTS in the Asia-Pacific, but they have been insufficient. Between the United States, ASEAN, and South Korea, cooperation on NTS issues is currently limited to just a few exceptional circumstances. For instance, the United States and South Korea are partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise and they work together on the Lower Mekong Initiative. These efforts, however, are not trilateral among the United States, ASEAN, and South Korea, since each country joins as a member of the ARF or as one of many countries in each project.
Trilateral cooperation among the United States, ASEAN, and South Korea would benefit not just the participating parties, but also the region as a whole. Such cooperation would allow South Korea to contribute to the region and is consistent with the Moon Jae-in government’s foreign policy. It would also advance the U.S.-South Korean alliance and give South Korea experience that could be used in future NTS crises in North Korea such as famines, natural disasters, or pandemics.
The author recommends the following:
- Focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Natural disasters are the most serious concern in the region, resulting in disproportionate casualties and economic losses. Working on HADR issues will also pave the way for cooperation on issues such as climate change, the environment, public health, and pandemics.
- Fix the reverse hub-and-spoke system. Economically and technically capable ASEAN countries should be donating aid instead of receiving it. Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are candidates for this shift.
- Effectively coordinate policy among donor countries. The United States, Australia, China, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea should all join in strengthening government-to-government cooperation. These countries are already individually active in NTS cooperation with ASEAN.
- Expand the U.S.-ROK alliance to cover cooperation on regional NTS threats. The first step in this direction should be to assess the current state of knowledge and capacity on both sides. The United States and South Korea have to share what they have in order to address regional NTS threats.
- Create an institution to handle U.S.-ASEAN-ROK trilateral NTS cooperation. The ASEAN Political-Security Community Department in the ASEAN Secretariat is a promising institution that could take on this role.
In addition, Lee argues that South Korea should review its NTS ties with its neighbors in the region. Particularly for HADR, military participation is unavoidable. The South Korean military has been reluctant to take on responsibilities outside of the Korean Peninsula. Since the Moon Jae-in government is emphasizing South Korea’s regional contributions and responsibilities, this is a good time for the South Korean military to expand the scope of its operations and be more active in managing regional NTS threats.
The United States can use its political, military, and economic capabilities to deepen its involvement in the region to deal with NTS threats, filling a space between hard U.S. military power and soft cultural and developmental assistance power. In this area, U.S.-ASEAN-ROK trilateral cooperation could bolster efforts to counter NTS threats and open a new chapter for the U.S.-ROK alliance, which so far has been narrowly defined as an arrangement on Korean Peninsula issues.
Nontraditional security issues in the Asia-Pacific are as important as—or more important than—traditional security issues. More people’s lives are threatened and more economic losses are incurred by various NTS threats than by traditional security threats in the Asia-Pacific. Addressing NTS threats can enhance peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.
This post is a summary of the discussion paper, U.S.-ASEAN-ROK Cooperation on Nontraditional Security.