Security in Southeast Asia

ERIS – European Review of International Studies 1-2019: Premises, Policies and Multilateral Whitewashing of Broad Security Doctrines: A Southeast Asia-Based Critique of “Non-traditional” Security

Premises, Policies and Multilateral Whitewashing of Broad Security Doctrines: A Southeast Asia-Based Critique of “Non-traditional” Security1

Delphine Allès

ERIS – European Review of International Studies, Issue 1-2019, pp. 5-26


Abstract: This article highlights the formulation of comprehensive conceptions of security in Indonesia, Malaysia and within the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), well before their academic conceptualisation. These security doctrines have been the basis of the consolidation of state and military apparatuses in the region. They tend to be overlooked by analyses praising the recent conversion of Southeast Asian political elites to the “non-traditional security” agenda. This latter development is perceived as a source of multilateral cooperation and a substitute for the hardly operationalisable concept of human security. However, in the region, non-traditional security proves to be a semantic evolution rather than a policy transformation. At the core of ASEAN’s security narrative, it has provided a multilateral anointing of “broad” but not deepened conceptions of security, thus legitimising wide-ranging socio-political roles for the armed forces.

Keywords: Southeast Asia; Non-traditional security; ASEAN; security studies



The security concept has been among the most permeable to the conceptual and practical innovations that have renewed the practice and the study of international relations over the past two decades. Invigorated by a variety of critical approaches, the study of security has been “structured, systemized, broadened, deepened, gendered, humanized, constructed, and privatized”,2 with each new contribution inviting us to rethink its ontology, epistemology and methodology. As for the actors and reference objects of security policies, they have evolved under the combined influences of globalisation3 and the expansion of the agendas of international organisations, which have prompted the emergence of new concepts of collective security, comprehensive security, non-traditional security and human security, in addition to the conventional notion of national security. 4 Nevertheless, while the concept of security can only be fully understood in the light of its socio-historical context and the meaning actors bestow upon it, few studies provide a non-Western perspective on these developments and their theoretical implications.5 The Westphalian lens is presented as the starting point for approaches conventionally focused on the state and military protection of its borders, including in work calling for the broadening of this perspective.6

The Eurocentrism of the field has of course been widely criticised, through invitations to take into account issues specific to the Third World7 and the South, and calls to renew the conceptualisation of security by integrating the contributions of postcolonial or global perspectives.8 But the recurring calls to “provincialize Europe”,9 to include “non-Western” perspectives10 or to “globalize”11 the study of international relations, have had but a marginal effect on the core of security studies, which are essentially grounded in European and North American references. The numerous studies addressing security issues in Asia, Africa and Latin America thus tend to stick to a sequential pattern according to which the formation of the state and the territorialisation of its sovereignty determine the conceptualisation of security and precede its possible widening.

This unilinear perspective has a performative effect, including for approaches that call for a “widening” and “deepening” of security’s referent objects and actors.12 Since the mid-1990s, security studies have indeed established a distinction between “traditional” security (state and military) on the one hand, and its wider (including economic, social and environmental issues) and/or deeper (in terms of its actors and referents)13 understandings on the other. This distinction between “traditional” security and “new approaches” posits the anteriority and primacy of concepts based on national sovereignty and the separation between internal and external security, as well as the role of an originally and primarily outward-facing army. The operational translation of the wider and deeper approaches to security has nurtured the elaboration of “human security”, which was presented in 1994 by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) as an innovative concept adapted to the post-Cold War world because it placed people, rather than states, at the heart of security concerns which were then extended to the political, economic, societal or environmental spheres.14

In Southeast Asia, the notion of “non-traditional” security – which widens the range of security concerns to include non-military and transnational threats – is preferred to human security in both academic work and political discourse. While the latter agree with the need to widen the concept of security, they rarely discuss the implications of deepening it. 15 The overlap between the changing concept and the evolution of the agenda of international organisations gives a positive connotation to these wider conceptions of security, which tend to be associated with the implementation of cooperative and liberal policies.16 By designating a wider conception that is nonetheless likely to retain the state as a referent, the notion of “non-traditional” security does however confer an air of novelty upon approaches that have permeated the security doctrines of several states in the region ever since their inception.

The detour made here through Southeast Asia17 does indeed show that the conceptualisation of security in several states in this region has followed a process that is opposite to the standard sequence [sovereignty > traditional security > widening and deepening of security]. While the wider approach to security has indeed been a novelty for the disciplinary subfield of security studies after the end of the Cold War, in this region, it has been the dominant paradigm for several decades. In both Indonesia and Malaysia, socio-political and economic issues thus came to the fore as security issues well before borders and sovereignties were consolidated. These topics have undergone a securitisation process18 at the hands of emerging state apparatuses, which have formulated broad definitions of security while at the same time attempting to monopolise their implementation. At the regional level, the security approach on which ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has been based since 1967 is both an extensive conception of security and one that retains the state as a referent.

Decentralising the focus, as this article proposes to do, by studying the conceptions of security formulated in Indonesia, Malaysia and in the context of ASEAN, therefore challenges the idea that the widening of security is a recent phenomenon on both intellectual and political levels. Beyond the semantic novelty introduced by the notion of “non-traditional” security, the absence of paradigmatic change may explain the rapid adoption of this concept by the region’s political elites. The promotion of non-traditional security in a multilateral setting has contributed to its positive reception. These observations make it possible to develop a critique of the political uses of human security19 and its “non-traditional” variants.

By way of introducing a new angle to the study of security, the article first looks at the development of work on “non-traditional” security in Southeast Asia. While it does contribute to the critique of the Western-centric lens of dominant approaches, this literature has not challenged the sequence according to which a concern with state and military security is supposed to precede its widening to socio-political and economic issues. However, right from the achievement of independence in 1945 and 1957 respectively, Indonesia and Malaysia were formulating wider conceptions of security. The examination of the security doctrines of these two states, along with the authoritarian practices they have legitimised, reinforces the critique of these wider conceptions of security. Finally, the article examines the multilateral validation, within a global and regional framework, of wider-but-not-deeper approaches to security. The synthesis between calls to move beyond the so-called classical approach to security and the need to protect sovereign sensitivities has gradually eroded the distinctions between human security and non-traditional security. In so doing, it has led to the view that any widening of security issues should be seen as a step towards enhanced cooperation. Yet ASEAN has transposed onto the regional level the extensive conceptions of security that have been legitimising authoritarian regimes in the region for several decades.


Up until the 1980s, non-Western actors and contexts were occasionally studied as objects of security,  but were rarely considered as subjects by a literature that limited their roles to those of “junior partners” or “troublemakers” in the bipolar game.20 Since then, many studies have focused on denouncing the Western-centrism of security studies,21 highlighting the singularities of strategic balances in “peripheral” regions, the specific categories of insecurity experienced in these areas,22 or the forms of violence perpetrated on and by the “weak” or the “subaltern”.23 Thus, the idea has gradually taken root that security studies need a widening of the paradigm to non-military or non-state threats. The integration of non-Western cases and references indeed highlights the narrow nature of the realist perspective according to which widening security to include non-military concerns would render the concept meaningless or inoperative. A restrictive approach to security would fail to address the primary concerns of regions outside the transatlantic area. And yet, despite this observation, security studies still tend to perpetuate a state-centred paradigm by endorsing the distinction between “traditional” (restrictive) and “non-traditional” (widened and/or deepened) security. This distinction, which has been adopted by many studies on “non-traditional” security in Southeast Asia, reifies the idea of a unilinear conceptualisation of security, which does not reflect the trajectories followed in the rest of the world – and particularly in this region – as they built their security apparatuses and doctrines.

From critical reformism to the postcolonial project

The first body of literature to have prompted an unconventional approach to security studies, inspired by the growing visibility of the Third World on the international scene, had an essentially reformist agenda. The aim was to find a way out of the conceptual problems raised by the diversification of cases, in order to improve the relevance of security studies in peripheral regions. Three main needs were then highlighted: to broaden the paradigm to include non-military and domestic issues, most importantly development; to take into account the instabilities resulting from the turmoil surrounding state-building in the Third World; and to analyse systemic constraints, their consequences on the security agenda and the priorities of countries in a subaltern position.24 Amitav Acharya thus outlined three theoretical implications of taking the Third World into account: it questions the conventional “focus on the inter-state level as the point of origin of security threats”; invites us to go beyond “the exclusion of “non-military phenomena” from the security studies agenda”; and questions “the belief in the global balance of power as a legitimate and effective instrument of international order”.25

These observations do indeed invite us to renew our conceptual framework, but the proposed re-foundation is not so far-reaching as to depart from the state-centrism26 that still characterises most influential approaches to security. The focus on the state is certainly criticised as a central element of a “historically conditioned definition”27 of security, but only to the extent that it prevents one from taking into account the domestic instabilities that burdened Third World leaders and their security agendas. This critique therefore primarily questioned the exclusive interest so-called traditional security studies have in external threats. Yet, the primacy of the state referent remains: Mohammed Ayoob, for instance, made it a prerequisite for the analytical relevance28 of a security concept that it extend to economic and social issues, that only insofar as the latter “become acute enough to take on overtly political dimensions and threaten state boundaries, state institutions, or regime survival”.29 From this perspective, there was certainly an effort to broaden the quantitative scope of sources or case studies, better integrate critical approaches to expand the definition of threats,30 and an interest in the systemic and contextual constraints of the regions under consideration. The state nevertheless remained the referent of these original attempts at adapting security studies to non-Western experiences, while new conceptions centred on people or communities remained out of sight.

Postcolonial approaches departed from this reformist effort, emphasising that ignorance of the “non-Western” or “developing world” was much more than a mere “blind spot” in the field of security studies.31 For Pinar Bilgin, the study of security is not simply “parochial” because it approaches the Western experience as universal. It is also “peripheral”, since its disregard for “low politics” issues has resulted in the “emergence of a warped notion of national/state security while neglecting other potential referents”.32 This impasse is presented as constitutive of the field and therefore of policies inspired by the dominant approach to security.33 The few works inspired by the postcolonial project therefore seek to deconstruct the representations that dominate the field as a whole. They highlight the role of the historical geographies that have left their mark on security studies and obscured the mutually constitutive relationships between centre and periphery, starting with the reification of the European experience itself.34 This results in a critical approach to the centrality of the state as referent in security studies. The privileged position granted to the state, which stems from a historically Euro-centred conception of security, would indeed seem to prevent us from grasping the extent to which forms of violence or insecurity that “seemed peripheral [have] become central”, while “non-conventional” modes of action and political violence characterising the “weak” remain perceived as illegitimate by contrast with state violence.35 By challenging the universality of the state as referent, these studies clearly highlight the original sin of security studies. However, they fall short of conceptualising security in a more effective way. This limitation helps to explain why their fundamental criticism has found little resonance in works attempting to analyse the political uses of doctrines reinvented by postcolonial states to establish their authoritarian construction.

1 The author wishes to thank Thierry Balzacq and Pascal Vennesson for their thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
2 Bourbeau P., Balzacq T. and Dunn-Cavelty M., “International relations. Celebrating eclectic dynamism in security studies”, in Bourbeau P. (eds.), Security. Dialogue across disciplines, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 111.
3 Cha V.D., “Globalization and the study of international security”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 37, n°3, 2000, pp. 393–403.
4 On the conceptual reversal brought about by human security by focusing on the individual as its referentobject, see Basty F., “La sécurité humaine: Un renversement conceptuel pour les relations internationales”, Raisons politiques 4/2008 (n° 32), pp. 35–57.
5 The field’s Eurocentricity is stressed by Hobson J. M., The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. Western International Theory, 1760–2010, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012; Hobson J. M. “Orientalism and the Poverty of Theory three decades on: Bringing Eastern and Subaltern Agency Back into Critical IR Theory”, in Brincan S., Lima L. et Nunes J. (eds.), Critical Theory in International Relations and Security Studies. Interviews and reflections, London, Routledge, 2011, pp.129–139.
6 Buzan B., People, states, and fear: an agenda for international security studies in the post-Cold War era, Colchester, ECPR Press, 2008 (2nd ed.); Buzan B., Wæver O. and Wilde J. (eds.), Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, Lynne Rienner, 1997.
7 Azar E. E. and Moon C. (eds.), National Security in the Third World: The Management of Internal and External Threats, College Park, Aldershot, Edward Elgar, 1988, 308 p.; Ball N., Security and Economy in the Third World, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988, 432 p.; Litwak R. S. and Wells S. F., Jr. (eds.), Superpower Competition and Security in the Third World, Cambridge, Mass., Ballinger, 1988, 295 p.; Thomas C., In Search of Security: The Third World in International Relations, Boulder, Colo., Lynne Rienner, 1987.
8 Buzan B. and Little R., International systems in World History: remaking the study of international relations, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 21; Bilgin P., “The ‘Western-centrism’ of security studies: ‘blind spot’ or ‘constitutive practice’?”, Security Dialogue, vol. 41, n°6, 2010, pp. 615–622; Barkawi T. and Laffey M., “The postcolonial moment in security studies”, Review of International Studies, vol. 32, n°2, 2006, pp. 329–352.
9 Chakrabarty D., Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007 (2nd ed.).
10 Acharya A. and Buzan B., Non-Western international relations theory: perspectives on and beyond Asia, London, Routledge, 2010.
11 Tickner A. and Waever O. (eds.), International relations scholarship around the world, London, Routledge, 2009, 368 p.; Peters I., Wiebke Wemheuer-Vogelaar (eds.), Globalizing international relations: Scholarship amidst divides and diversity, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
12 Krause K. and Williams M. (eds.), Critical security studies: concepts and cases, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997; Buzan B. and Hansen L., The Evolution of International Security Studies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 187–225; Bertrand G. and Delori M. (eds.), “Etudes critiques de sécurité” (special issue), Etudes Internationales, vol. 46, no. 2-3, 2015.
13 Balzacq T., Théories de la sécurité: les approches critiques, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2016.
14 The UNDP report identifies seven components of human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. UNDP, Human Development Report, New York, Economica, 1994.
15 Non-traditional security is defined by the Asia Non-Traditional Security Consortium as “challenges to the survival and well-being of peoples and states that arise mainly from non-military sources, such as climate change, trans-border environmental degradation and resource depletion, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, food shortages, human trafficking, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crime”. See the NTS-Asia consortium website: [last access 29 December 2016]
16 Jürgen Rüland thus underlines the “gradual transition [in Asia] from a realistic vision to a liberal and comprehensive cooperative concept of security”. Rüland J., “Traditionalism and change in the Asian security discourse”, in Hoadley S. and Rüland J. (eds.), Asian security reassessed, Singapore, ISEAS, 2006, p. 363.
17 Conventionally speaking, Southeast Asia is made up of the ten Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This article focuses on two of these states, Indonesia and Malaysia, which have placed wider conceptions of security at the heart of their strategic doctrines despite different historical and political trajectories (independence achieved through armed conflict with the Dutch coloniser for Indonesia, negotiated with the British for Malaysia; alignment with the Western bloc for Malaysia during the Cold War, non-alignment leaning eastwards and then westwards for Indonesia; succession of the authoritarian regimes of Sukarno and Suharto, then democratisation from 1998 onward in Indonesia; constitutional monarchy and monopolisation of power since independence by the same coalition – dominated by the Malaysian nationalist party – for Malaysia).
18 Wæver O., “Securitization and Desecuritization”, in Lipschutz R.D. (ed.), On Security, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 46–86.
19 Newman E., “Critical Human Security Studies”, Review of International Studies, Vol. 36, no. 1, 2010, pp. 77–74.
20 Korany B., “Strategic studies and the third world: a critical evaluation”, International social science journal, n°110, 1986, p. 549.
21 Buzan B. and Hansen L., op. cit., p. 398.
22 BilginP., op. cit.
23 Barkawi T. and Laffey M., op. cit.
24 Ball N., op. cit.
25 Acharya A., “The periphery as the core: the third world and security studies”, in Keith Krause and Michael Williams (eds.), Critical security studies: concepts and cases, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 301.
26 On the different dimensions of methodological nationalism and their effects on the social sciences, see Dumitru S. (ed.), “Les sciences sociales sont-elles nationalistes?”, Raisons politiques, n°54, 2014/4.
27 Ayoob M., “The security problematic of the Third World”, World Politics, vol. 43, n°2, 1991, p. 263.
28 Ayoob M., op. cit. For example, the author criticises Caroline Thomas‘ (op. cit.) widened definition of security, which he considers too broad to remain analytically relevant.
29 Ayoob M., op. cit. p. 259.
30 Buzan B. et Hansen L., op. cit., p. 19.
31 Bilgin P., op. cit., p. 617.
32 Bilgin P., op. cit., p. 619.
33 Bilgin P., op. cit., p. 617.
34 Barkawi T. and Laffey M., op. cit., pp. 330–331.
35 Barkawi T. and Laffey M., op. cit., p. 332.

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ERIS – European Review of International Studies 1-2019

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