University of Oxford

Security Politics and Regional Integration: ASEAN, MERCOSUR and SADC


During the Cold War, Latin America, Southern Africa and even the dynamic Southeast Asia hardly figured in international politics. Studies on the Cold War politics and the scramble for security in other parts of the world, particularly in the industrial West mostly overlooked the Third World countries and their quest for security. Even after the Cold War ended, Third World security predicaments remain because of the existence of a very complex balance of power that is often precariously balanced. The current phase of the globalisation, as Kenichi Ohmae (1990; 1993; 1996) puts it, has become a ‘borderless world’ where economic forces and free trade have become the main theme of international relations. In such a situation, the Third World countries often have to play awkward balancing acts. This article is therefore an attempt to look into this Third World security predicament at three analytical levels – the international system, the regional and state levels. This analysis is done using three important regional organisations in the Third World – ASEAN, MERCOSUR and SADC. This is an attempt to reveal how security politics and regional integration are interrelated and intertwined in the Third World. In the process, it will contribute to our understanding of how these regional organisations cope and deal with security issues with the current phase of globalisation.

What is security?

Security in international politics is a moot point, and it remains so to date. For a very long time, the traditional thinking had been that “the state is and should be about security, with emphasis on military and political security” (Buzan et al 1998:37). This notion of security has been prevalent since the Westphalian peace of 1648 where the concept of the nation state was created. This view became more important during the twentieth Century with the two World Wars and the consequent Cold War that lasted for almost five decades. Following the end of the Cold War, the scope of security in academic studies has been changed with many “wideners” who argued that the subject needed to embrace a more varied range of threats and move beyond the traditional emphasis on the military aspects of security for the state. Such changes in perception have created debates between those still subscribing to the traditional thinking and those who wanted to “widen” the definition of security so as to include other nonmilitary threats too.[1]

Security in the Third World

Since 1945, many of the most significant threats to state security have become internal rather than external, a shift which has profound consequences for international relations. As Holsti (1996: 15) writes, security between states in the Third World “has become increasingly dependent on security within those states.” For the Third World states, security does not simply refer to the external military threat dimension but also to the whole range of the state’s existence which includes internal security and nation building; secure systems of food, health, economy, trade and environment (Thomas 1987). The Third World states, like all states are concerned with their own security, internal and external. But as they are mostly poor, underdeveloped and postcolonial, Third World states inherited their colonial economies, political structures and security perceptions. Some are pre-modern and weak, characterised by low levels of sociopolitical cohesion and poorly developed structures of government. The securities of these states are therefore shaped by these characteristics. To the authoritarian governments of the Third World, security also means countering internal subversion and keeping internal order at any cost.

The next three sections will deal with security politics and regional integration in the Third World mostly through the different dimensions of security at three analytical levels – the international, regional and state levels. Where appropriate, the security dimensions will include the military, political, economic, societal and environmental sectors.[2] Besides these dimensions, security concerns are located in both the external and internal dimensions. As mentioned before, this analysis will be done looking at how the three regional organisations of ASEAN, MERCOSUR and SADC deal with security issues.

The International System

The Cold War Period

The politics of the Cold War had dominated the working of the international system for a major part of the second half of the twentieth century. It is interesting to note that while the Third World states were unimportant in the global balance of power and hardly figured in the security agendas of Western policy-makers, the prevailing bipolar system and the preoccupation of the Western powers with the spread of communism and its containment exacerbated conflicts in the Third World. While conflicts in the core and strategic areas of Europe and North America were avoided, the Cold War turned out to be a hot one in and for the Third World states where the superpowers played the game of international politics. The Vietnam War was the clearest result and example.

The intensity of the Vietnam War and the increasing involvement of the Soviet Union and the growing threat to regional security led ASEAN to adopt a nonaligned policy. The Vietnam War continued to strain members’ relationships and threaten regional security. Communist victories in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam worsened the situation. By 1976, ASEAN was forced to contemplate being an association with security as its predominant concern. Thus at the February 1976 Bali Summit Meeting, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the Declaration of ASEAN Concord were signed. They agreed to “The right of every state to lead its national existence; free from external interference, subversion or coercion; non interference in the internal affairs of one another; settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means; and the renunciation of the threat or use of force” (ASEAN 1976). The reunification of Vietnam, the worsening internal security problems and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia led to another security dilemma for ASEAN during the mid-1970s. Negotiations followed during which time ASEAN’s importance as a regional organisation to settle disputes and maintain security was widely recognised. Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1989 and the Vietnam War was concluded by the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.

Meanwhile, the southern African security problem during the Cold War was exacerbated by the presence of apartheid South Africa, a regime which also adopted a strong anticommunist policy and came out harshly against any socialist orientations. Angola and Mozambique, having chosen this path, were particularly targeted. During the 1950s and more in the 1960s, the South African Defence Force (SADF) developed a national security doctrine (Total Strategy) stressing the psychological, social and economic means to target its enemies, in addition to the military means. The South African government established a framework for implementing policies which completely cut across all sectors of public life, called the National Security Management System. Louis Nel, then South African Deputy Foreign Minister, said in November 1982, “The Kremlin has actively supported the southern African Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movements in their quest for power in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The Kremlin is currently backing SWAPO, the South African ANC and the South African Communist Party who operate against SWA/Namibia and the Republic of South Africa, respectively” (Quoted in Hanlon 1986: 8). Using such words had two advantages – the policy of apartheid could be seen as communist-inspired and it demanded Western support as it was a bulwark against the communist onslaught (Hanlon 1986: 8).

The United States, being a great power, recognises Latin America as being under its sphere of influence. Beginning mostly with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 when the US President James Monroe warned the European powers to keep out of the Americas, the US has, in effect, reserved the right to exert influence and interfere in Latin America. This has been a policy factor for the US as well as many Latin American countries for a long time. The Cold War also cut Latin American countries (LAC) from the possibility of relations with other regions. As a result, many of the countries of the region lessened their dependence on the superpowers. It was the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) that shaped much of the South American regionalism. This can be seen as an indirect opposition to the superpower hegemony. Contrary to Europe, this part of the world has been relatively peaceful until the 1960s when the Cold War became a hot one with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. While several interstate wars erupted after the 1960s, the real security problem for Latin America was the Cold War, with the countries of the region progressively becoming an American zone of influence. Since the 1960s, the United States had increasingly intervened militarily in its own backyard and installed puppet governments.

The Cold War also ushered a dangerous arms and nuclear race. In the face of such a threat, in 1971, a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration was signed by member states of ASEAN. This Declaration can be seen as a reaction to the emerging multipolarity of the region with the USSR, US, China and Japan as the principal powers influencing events in Southeast Asia. Likewise, through the Foz de Iguazu Declaration of November 1985, Brazil and Argentina declared that their nuclear programs were to be for peaceful purposes only. Such action on the part of Third World states can be seen as their desire to keep away from the Cold War politics of interferences and aggressions from the superpowers that destabilise the Third World regions.

Post-Cold War Period

The decline of the Soviet Union and the change in the bipolar world had more immediate effects for the Third World. It witnessed the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower which has become even more powerful with time.

Politically, the end of the Cold War resulted in the removal of support for many Third World states and movements. The collapse of the Soviet Union has discredited the alternative model and ideology represented by the Soviet Union. This in turn affected many movements and supports in many Third World states including members of ASEAN, MERCOSUR and SADC. Economically, it has also resulted in changes in the direction of trade and businesses. The military dimension also produces the same result of redirection of arms trade, transfers and dealings. The post Cold War world, epitomised by the great power influence of the US, its involvement in Third World problems and conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan etc.), besides the complex web of international relations has and will continue to have an impact on Third World security and their regional integration processes. For the Third World countries, security concern has become more multifarious after the Cold War as it has become subject to more complex pulls and pressures.

Post-9/11 Period

The world entered into a new period of insecurity and threats after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the events that followed. Soon after, the United States launched a movement and led a coalition to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The attacks also led to the introduction of “anti-terrorism” legislation in many countries including the United Kingdom, India, Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, China, Canada, Russia, Pakistan, Jordan, Mauritius, Uganda and Zimbabwe. This has brought to a close the transitional phase that followed the end of the Cold War (Wenger and Zimmerman 2003: 1).

For a long time, states and regional organisations had ignored and did not regard terrorism as a priority. While this is true for most states, it is particularly more so in the Third World countries where poverty, diseases, domestic conflicts and hunger had been seen as the immediate issues to be addressed. But this threat had been becoming more a problem for every state mostly beginning from the bombings in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Casablanca in 1999, Bali bombings, attacks in Britain, Egypt, Yemen, Argentina in 1992 and 1994 and other threats and attacks in all parts of the world. Terrorism can no longer be treated as a Western concern. It has become an international security issue where regional organisation must provide a coherent response so that the integration process and inter and intra regional trade will not be hampered by such threats.

The Regional Level

When ASEAN was formed, despite their policy of nonalignment, some members still had official alignments with the US and Great Britain. The fact was that member countries were solely responsible for their own security. Thus, much of the political and strategic alliances with other countries took place outside ASEAN’s structures. After its establishment, ASEAN was seen by the communist bloc as nothing more than a “western-inspired military alliance directed against China and the Indo-Chinese states” (Dixon 1999: 118). True, during much of the Cold War and after, China has been viewed as a major security threat by ASEAN members, which is why most ASEAN states want to see the US remain as a regional power. Many of them feel that US disengagement will create a power vacuum that would be filled by either China or Japan. But ASEAN members’ relation with China has improved considerably since the end of the Cold War. This new relationship with China was reflected in the ASEAN Meeting of 1997. It was held in Beijing. This new understanding was because the ASEAN leaders began to recognise the political and economic benefits of closer ties with China easily outweigh any military risks.

The end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the formation of the SADC and its attempt to reconcile differences between erstwhile states of divergent policies and regimes were significant developments for southern African security. At the Gaborone Summit of 1996 of the SADC heads of government and state, the SADC Organ on Politics, Defense and Security (OPDS) was launched. For the first time since the SADC was established, the region now had stable regional security architecture. The Inter-State Defense and Security Committee (ISDSC) which had been established in 1994 was incorporated into the newly found OPDS. In 2003, a Mutual Defence Pact was signed by SADC members. This was an official commitment by SADC to function as a collective defence organisation. While “International terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction… play as good as no role at all in the region” (Steinhilber 2006:11), the problem of HIV/AIDS is a big concern for all African states. This creates instability and as a result affects regional integration. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has been a major factor and issue that raises a big concern for southern African states at present. This problem is clearly reflected in the statement of Prega Ramsamy (2001: 35), the former Secretary-General of the SADC when he said that, “the [HIV/AIDS] pandemic continues to escalate in our Community. Available statistics indicate that the rates of infected people in the region could be as high as one in five in some member states. At least four member states have rates higher than 400 per 100,000 population indicating the magnitude of the problem.” The SADC members have committed themselves to collectively fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in an urgent manner (SADC 2003).

Improved relations, the changed security agendas and the process of democratisation in Latin America since the late 1980s and early 1990s have led to a newly shared perception of a vision for Latin America. The Treaty of Asunción established MERCOSUR in March 1991. With the admission of Bolivia and Chile, MERCOSUR expanded to represent 230 million inhabitants, that is, 45 per cent of the population of Latin America. Though the countries of the southern cone do not face much external threats, closer economic ties and open borders often cause security problems for their neighbours. As the military has taken new tasks, the problem is whether a balance is maintained between member countries in matters of security responsibilities and management. Argentina and Brazil are also opposed to the idea of the institutionalisation of the conference of American defense ministers. This explicitly implies that they are against a continental security system. Though they explain that the countries of the continent are too different, it can also imply that the two most powerful states in the Southern Cone desire to wield their influence on other members of the MERCOSUR and on the functioning of the regional integration arrangement itself. Paraguay and Uruguay favour a joint manoeuvre and want an advisory body for this purpose because they are afraid that Argentina and Brazil could use their nuclear technology for their own ends despite nuclear treaties. Brazil is also said to have its own nuclear project. Chile meanwhile opted to have an autonomous defense policy. On the economic front, the MERCOSUR countries are yet to achieve security – the Brazilian Real devaluation of 1999 and other financial crises in Argentina and Brazil being cases in point. These crises have even led the MERCOSUR members to question its existence.

The State Level

An analysis of Third World security at the state level encounters enormous problems because of the vast dimensions of security and differences in the perceptions and conditions in these states. Security for these states always goes beyond the common issue of the state’s ability to protect its resources and borders and involves the dimensions of food, environment, economy, elites, society, culture and the legitimacy and survival of the states and regimes. In other words, the whole dimensions of military, political, economic, societal and environmental securities are all equally important for the Third World. In recent years, the problem of transnational crime, drug trafficking and terrorism have also added to the security dilemma of these states.

Firstly, the role played by the armed forces is vital for regimes and governments in ensuring and maintaining their sovereignty, ideology and legitimacy. This political role of the military in the Third World coupled with the weakness of government institutions have led armed groups and the paramilitary forces to gain more power and influence. In the case of Thailand, military coups after military coups have happened because of the extremely powerful political position that the military enjoyed. In Indonesia too, the longevity of regimes depended on controlling the military. The military has also been used to gain more power even illegitimately. This in turn leads to the use of more military might against opposition forces leading to the deaths of thousands. This type of military adventurism and use of the military is particularly widespread in Africa. For example, in August 1998, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia decided to take part in an intervention operation in the DRC to fight against rebel forces. This intervention happened based on the request of President Laurent Kabila who came to power through military force. In most parts of the world, the militarisation of these problems and the new role that the military began to play ironically led to more insecurity for the civilian population. Such roles as played by the military could bring them into contact with the civilian population and increase the chances of human rights violations. It could also bring them into direct confrontation with the people (Pion-Berlin 2000). But as a whole, the political role that the military played had immensely reduced since the process of democratisation began.

In addition to the secessionist movements, ethnic violence and internal unrest, the states of ASEAN are susceptible to economic crises and are economically unstable. Monetary security has not been achieved. For example, the Thai economy underwent a severe economic crisis during the 1970s and early 1980s that led the economy to the verge of collapse. Several reforms were initiated under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank through which the Thai economy slowly recovered. The Asian Crisis of the late 1990s also had severe effects on the economies of these states.

Environmentally, over exploitation of resources and the limited concern paid to the environment has now been the subject of international dispute and one in which regional organisations are now more involved. As the ECLA (2001) stated, “The environment has played an important role in the production of resource-based commodities as well as in the provision of food and other amenities for the population. Nevertheless, an integral relationship between economic and social development and the environment did not form the basis for development strategies and policies pursued in the Caribbean. Since the Uruguay round of multilateral trade negotiations, the importance of environment to trade and development has become generally accepted. However, developing countries have been concerned about proposals to bring environment and labour standards within the purview of the WTO. This was part of the reason for the failure to launch a new round of trade negotiations in Seattle in 2000. Environmental issues were again on the agenda at the Doha Ministerial meeting in November 2001.”

Integration and Security

From what has been said above, security and its perception, for many of the Third World states continue to be the main source of strain for any regional integration movements. During the Cold War, the international system had created a condition that led to the emergence of internal strife and, sometimes, wars. Such ill effects destroyed the thin fabric that holds Third World countries in their endeavour to come together.

The very nature of the ASEAN Way of noninterference, multilateral consultations can also be modified to a more useful and practical way. Instead of ignoring the underlying problems and skirting the issues, they must be directly addressed. Of course, sovereignty of a member should be respected, but as a regional organisation, it is also its responsibility to effectively deal with a member’s problems in a constructive way. Linked to all of these is the problem that ASEAN regionalism faced. It lacked in capacity and resources. These limitations are augmented by charter constraints which accord a high priority to principles like sovereignty and noninterference. In such a situation, prospects for cooperation are further reduced. Even as ASEAN had “come to be regarded as one of the most successful experiments in regionalism in the developing world” (Acharya 1993: 3), ASEAN Way or ASEAN’s informal process of noninterference has come under severe criticism. Because of these reasons, some have commented that its “central purpose seemed to consist in concealing fundamental differences of view among its members under the guise of consensus and non-interference” and that “The ASEAN Way” did not deal with underlying tensions; it simply ignored them” (Jones and Smith 2002: 103, 108).

The Southern African scenario was quite different from that of ASEAN. For many years, the SADCC member states had faced the brunt of South Africa’s ‘Total Strategy’ of destabilisation and blackmail. From the 1990s, new hopes emerged within the region. But hope and reality often go their separate ways. Therefore, for the SADC to continue as a strong regional organisation, the SADC Organ on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation (OPDSC) should not be allowed to function as its predecessor, the OPDS. Members’ suspicion of each other can be removed through a series of confidence building measures, and the adoption of a system of shared leadership. For the OPDSC to be effective, it needs to adopt a concept of security that takes into account military, political, social, economic and environmental issues. Mutual suspicion still remains in southern Africa that led to diverse perception of security. Southern African states have not yet shared common values and visions too. An optimistic outcome that can be ascertained from the Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation and the Strategic Indicative Plan for the Organ (SIPO) is that the SADC seem to have abandoned the narrow view of security that was prevalent during the Cold War period. Its agenda now includes both the politico-military threats (inter-state war, internal war, large-scale human rights abuses, war crimes against humanity, genocide, coups d’état and other forms of illegal seizure of power, poor governance and abuse of power, dangers of instability accompanying political transition periods and attacks on democratic institutions) and non-military threats (food security, mass movements of refugees, illegal migrants, humanitarian and natural disasters, disease, poverty and underdevelopment and ecological degradation) (Hammerstad 2005: 7). Another major issue for southern Africa in recent times has been the problem of AIDS/HIV. Interaction and cooperation between people, individual, parties, leaders and government will help a great deal. It is now up to the states to gather pace and start the process of confidence building and cooperation in the military, political, social, economic and cultural fields.

By the 1990s, many of the erstwhile interstate conflicts in Latin America (Argentina-Chile, Peru-Ecuador, El Salvador-Honduras, Chile-Peru) had been diplomatically resolved. The policies of rapprochements followed both by Brazil and Argentina had also paid dividends leading to the eventual formation of MERCOSUR, one of the biggest economic groupings in the world, eventually representing 45% of the population of Latin America. Democratic institutions in Latin America being relatively new, they are weak in their structures paving the way for nonstate actors to wreak havoc (Steinhilber 2006: 7). The internal problems therefore include drugs trafficking, arms trafficking, organised crime, environment, natural disasters, social deprivation, transnational crime, guerrilla organisations, state dysfunction and counterrevolutionary violent activities that in many cases lead to militarisation and confrontations between groups. The key risk factors for Latin America after the Cold War are associated with lack of governance, instability, and weak democratic institutionalisation (Aravena 2004: 6). Let not the mere formation of MERCOSUR be the end. Instead of relying on mere rhetoric and ideologies, the member states must work collectively in a cooperative spirit and tackle these enormous problems head on.

As a whole, the regions of Southeast Asia, Southern Africa and South America have peculiar kinds of security concerns different from the Western idea of security. For them, security does not alone imply being safe from external threat and having a huge stockpile or arsenal; it also means being secured from internal subversion. It also means regime maintenance and continuance, secure systems of food, health, trade and development. All these problems are interlinked. These problems challenge the legitimacy of governments which in turn results in ineffective governments incapable of ensuring security for the people. But at the same time, no single organisation or model has managed to establish strong governance for these regions to achieve these goals satisfactorily. To create a new organisation to address these issues is out of the question. The existing ASEAN, SADC and MERCOSUR organisations can lead the way in improving relations while at the same time seeking ways to ensure security for the Third World states, provided that these organisations become more proactive and sincere in their activities.


[1] To read more on this, see Ullman (1983); Hirsch and Doyle (1977); Meadows et al (1972); Ruggie (1982); Walt (1991); Mearcheimer (1990); Ayoob (1997); Peterson and Sebenius (1992); Lynn-Jones and Miller (1995); Buzan (1991a); Buzan (1991b); Buzan et al (1998) and Wirtz (2002).

[2] This is derived from Buzan et al (1998)


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