Prospects for Regional Security in Asia

The convergence of economic interests, shared transnational threats perpetuated by globalization and balancing powers are drivers of regional security cooperation in Asia.  As recent events in the South China Sea have illustrated, how to deal with these issues and the conceptualization of threats to state security has differed across Asia.  Therefore, rather than caving to external pressures and trying to be like the European Union or NATO, a regional security framework for Asia would need to be organic and based on the distinct experiences, interests and values of Asian states.  In order to be successful, regional security mechanisms in Asia must: take a pragmatic, bottom-up approach to regionalism; involve China and the US as strategic players; and, establish a clear division of labor among existing political and security entities to promote maximum efficiency.

Increasingly states in Asia are incorporating non-traditional security issues such as energy security, human security, threats caused by climate change and other transnational issues into their traditional state military-centered security institutions.  Attaining security, according to Alan Collins (2003) involves effectively managing threats and having sufficient access to resources to maintain relative peace and stability.  For example, part of China’s energy security strategy is to control the supply chain by gaining equity positions in the oil sector using national oil corporations.

In the wide regional landscape of Asia, states have the goal of political interdependence and territorial integrity, but in part their lack of agreement regarding what constitutes a threat has led to the stalling of deeper regional security cooperation.  Security cooperation in Asia combines power-political and institutional approaches to encompass joint actions to advance a common security goal.  Security architecture, meanwhile describes a broader security environment in which distinct mechanisms and processes interact with the aim of ensuring regional stability.

There is no indication that states in Asia will initiate a new comprehensive regional security architecture.  Europeans frequently criticize the multitude of regional institutions and loosely structured arrangements in Asia; outsiders have argued that Asia must follow a European model to succeed in promoting functional cooperation and real integration.  For Asia, a more likely path is to take a pragmatic, step-by-step, bottom-up approach to regionalism instead of an idealist, comprehensive, top-down pan-Asian ‘vision’ approach similar to Europe.  Given the delicate nature of security and historical animosities built over time, a pragmatic approach such as the institution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are a way forward for regional security.  Originally started to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism in Central Asia, the SCO has added observers and dialogue partners in addition to additional issues of drug trafficking and economic issues.  The SCO brings together countries which did not previously consult together.

Any approach to regional security in Asia must take into consideration the United States and China as leading regional powers.  The US alliance system is the most important feature of security in Asia and is the central stabilizing factor.  Both the US and China prefer a bilateral structure over multilateral institutions as the most efficient way to organize state security policy, and for the US because of geographic concerns.  The ‘hub and spoke’ pattern enables the central power to have more influence over its junior partners.  Further deepening bilateral security relations is part of the US Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative.  Moreover the rise of China and India has led states to reconsider regional security dimensions; as China continues to flex its strategic muscles in the South China Sea and continues with a charm offensive in the Pacific, Asian states will need to gauge future bilateral and multilateral relations.  The incorporation of the US into the East Asia Summit and China into ASEAN + 3 are examples of regional security cooperation extension.

With overlapping membership and areas of capability, the “current alphabet soup of groupings” (Bisley, 2009) has not met the demand for institutionalized security cooperation.  As Jim Rolfe (2008) highlights, relations within and between these organizations are complicated.  Therefore there is a significant need to set out a clear division of labor among political and institutional entities.  The desire for APEC to include a security dimension demonstrates the changing attitudes to security cooperation.  A regional security architecture is needed to facilitate regional order, and the broad range of multilateral mechanisms – including platforms such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting, the EAS, ARF and others – need to be catalogued and work together in a more constructive way.  With an active secretariat, historical longevity and due to the fact that it is not led by China, Japan or the US, ASEAN is the premiere regional grouping; it would however need to change its membership rules and the ASEAN way in order to take a central role in security maintenance in Asia.

Because of the changing regional landscape in Asia, the prospects for security cooperation rely primarily on the attitudes of regional powers.  China, India, the US and Japan approach state and regional security based upon their own interests.  These powers have already demonstrated their desire to take part in multilateral institutions alongside deepening of bilateral relationships and alliances.  There is genuine interest in Asia in the ability of cooperative elements of existing security architecture to reduce strategic uncertainties, improve policy coordination and collaborate on nontraditional security problems.  While the drivers for regional cooperation are evident, nationalism (including increased military modernization), historical animosity, and balance of power thinking remain as impediments to a concerted architecture.  Therefore, when considering regional security architecture in Asia, policymakers must take into account the achievement of relative international strategic stability in the post-Cold War period for such a diverse region.  A forced architecture from non-Asian states (such as former Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s Australian-led Asia-Pacific community) has already been rejected, and is a clear sign that like ASEAN, movements must be made from within Asia.

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