The rise of climate change-induced events and the changing geopolitical realities have opened new opportunities for ASEAN
In 2021, Southeast Asia experienced 1,180 disaster events—resulting in 1,123 deaths, displacing more than 1.7 million people, and costing the region more than US$1.1 billion in damages. Already one of the world’s most disaster-prone areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced the region to confront the increasing likelihood of converging disasters where two or more disaster events happen simultaneously.
As the frequency and scale of these disasters increase, so does the importance of multilateral cooperation in the region’s disaster management network. ASEAN—through mechanisms such as the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), ASEAN Plus Three and the ASEAN Regional Forum—has taken on the central role in the region’s security architecture. This has in turn provided an important avenue for regional multilateral cooperation in the face of intensifying disaster events and geopolitical tensions.
The AADMER has since then formed the basis for ASEAN cooperation, coordination, assistance and resource mobilisation in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) in Southeast Asia.
However, challenges to ASEAN’s long-term sustainability still remain. Not only are the effects of climate change becoming increasingly evident in the region, geopolitical tensions in the form of great power competition in the broader Indo-Pacific have led to a flurry of alternate mechanisms such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—a strategic security dialogue between India, the United States, Japan, Australia. The resurrection of the Quad has given rise to the concern over ASEAN’s role in regional security, which has been considered a central platform for cooperation in security issues in East and Southeast Asia, including disaster management in the past three decades, as some people believe that the Quad with fewer but more capable and resourceful members has the potential to be more efficient. As such, this article looks at ASEAN’s model of multilateral cooperation in disaster management and discusses the opportunities and challenges in this ASEAN model amid the evolving regional security dynamics.
ASEAN and the Disaster Management Network in Southeast Asia
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and its devastating effects across the region highlighted the need for a multilateral disaster management mechanism in Southeast Asia. This promoted one of ASEAN’s few legally-binding agreements, the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) in 2005. The AADMER has since then formed the basis for ASEAN cooperation, coordination, assistance and resource mobilisation in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) in Southeast Asia.
Other important mechanisms that have been developed in this sector include the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) which forms the operational arm of ASEAN in disaster management, and in particular, the AADMER Work Programme which forms the implementation mechanism of disaster-related agenda items. Updated every five years, this work programme has been used to establish significant regional initiatives with its partners such as the Disaster Emergency Logistics System for ASEAN (DELSA), a mechanism to develop a regional stockpile of relief supplies, thus enhancing the capacity of ASEAN states. Having been used for the swift provision of relief items via its warehouses during emergency situations such as the COVID-19 responses in Cambodia and Thailand as well as Typhoon Goni in 2020, such initiatives and mechanisms are also an example of ASEAN’s multilateral cooperative model with its dialogue partners. After all, DELSA itself is one such joint project as the establishment of its satellite warehouses was supported by ASEAN dialogue partner, Japan. While these developments have led to ASEAN becoming the central actor in the region’s disaster management network, challenges still remain.
The Quad has been gaining momentum. Considering the four participating countries of QUADare considered traditional providers of HADR, this grouping does have the potential to assume a greater role in disaster response in the region.
The case for ASEAN’s Future
The rise of nationalism and great power politics has complicated the dynamics of multilateral cooperation in the region, with alternative mechanisms introduced or revived. The concept of ‘minilateralism’ in particular has been gaining significance recently. Rather than the more inclusive mechanisms such as the ASEAN-centric ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, and the East Asia Summit in which all states—regardless of relationships and alliances—are brought together, there is an increasing interest in exclusive mechanisms. For example, the Quad has been gaining momentum. Considering the four participating countries of QUADare considered traditional providers of HADR, this grouping does have the potential to assume a greater role in disaster response in the region.
Moreover, these countries have indeed been involved in the COVID-19 response in the region—both as individual countries and as a collective. For example, the US has provided more than 23 million vaccine doses and over US$158 million in COVID-related assistance to ASEAN member states. Australia contributed to ASEAN via the ASEAN and Southeast Asia Regional COVID-19 Development Response Plan, while India contributed to ASEAN’s COVID-19 Response Fund. Apart from contributing to the Response Fund, Japan has provided support for the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases Centre and has extended up to US$100 million in aid to developing countries in the broader Indo-Pacific. Through Quad, these countries had also announced the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which aimed to donate 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific countries by the end of 2022. However, this initiative seems to have significantly underperformed, limiting its effectiveness and leading to questions about its credibility in the long run.
ASEAN’s great strength is its weakness—that it has been able to leverage the limited economic and military might of its member states to maintain ASEAN centrality in the region.
Moreover, there seems little interest by this grouping to currently take on the ASEAN’s position in Southeast Asia, further affirming ASEAN centrality. After all, while the Quad announced the establishment of the “Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) in the Indo-Pacific” after the summit on 24 May 2022, there is still a need to sort out issues such as different interests and concerns of the participating countries as well as relationship with other multilateral mechanisms. As such, disaster management is still a space in which ASEAN can maintain its centrality, by creating neutral spaces in which external parties can engage with each other and build relationships.
ASEAN should, therefore, continue to take the initiative to engage other countries as well as other regional mechanisms to exchange experiences and best practices in collective response, so as to actively shape and enhance cooperation in disaster response. After all, ASEAN’s great strength is its weakness—that it has been able to leverage the limited economic and military might of its member states to maintain ASEAN centrality in the region. This, in turn, allows the organisation to maintain its influence in the region. Considering climate change is likely to only intensify the impact of disasters in the region, working together in this sector will present further opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation. Only then will the future of ASEAN be secure.