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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Myanmar on the Precipice: How Suu Kyi & the NLD May Learn from History

Protest on March 24, 2012 by members of the International Foundation for Burma National Congress (IFBNC), outside The White House. Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson.

Myanmar’s April 1 by-elections are over, but tensions and uncertainty still hover – will the National Democratic League elected officials be able to maintain their seats within Parliament for the remaining term without military interruption?  Will the new government be able to effectively pass progressive reforms despite the military grip on power? How will the celebrity of Aung San Suu Kyi impact the party’s effectiveness and foster an environment for a fair democracy? All these questions and more are swirling around the media, academia, and importantly are in the minds of the Burmese. The relatively smooth elections on April 1 were a positive sign despite corruption allegations. The next three years until the general election may seem like a decade if reforms move at a staggered pace.  Lessons can be learned from Myanmar’s rich history, including its struggles with democracy, civil war and involvement of outside powers. 

The transitions of power between democracy and coups from the 1940s to 1980s demonstrate the perplexities in Burma/Myanmar politics and the ways that individuals and parties have tried to cling to power. In the early 1940s Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, attempted to lead an ‘independent’ Burma free from British rule, Aung San and his colleagues courted the Japanese; they spent months training and fighting with Japanese soldiers and even wore kimonos during their flirtation with Fascism.  Aung San wrote “There shall be one nation, one state, one party, one leader…there shall be no nonsense of individualism.  Everyone must submit to the state which is supreme over the individual.” (Thant, 2006, p. 229)  The slogan of the Burma National Army in 1943 while he was War Minister still reigns today – “One Blood, One Voice, One Command”.   Luckily Aung San turned against Fascism just in time in 1946 to help Burma in its first democratic elections; however, he always held onto his belief in statism and the determination that his party’s views were best for the country.  When Aung San negotiated with the Japanese and the British to enable an independent Burma, he demanded that his party automatically receive a majority in the provisional government council, with more rights than other parties and in disregard of ethnic minorities. In a way, Aung San eventually led the U Nu government to democratic power through the 1947 Constitution.

Burma has yet to achieve sustained democracy; greed, corruption, military strength and politicians that feel they’re infallible have impeded its perpetuity.  By the late 1950’s, Independent Burma’s first elected government under Prime Minister U Nu experienced a decline in influence.  After ten years in power and in spite of electoral success, U Nu’s party began to break apart.  The league had been a mixed grouping of competing interests, goals and loyalties, sealed by relationships at the very top. (Thant, 2006, p. 283) The friends and colleagues in government grew tired of each other and mutual confidence began to wane.  The league lost much of its support and started to rely on extremist wings for continued support in Parliament, causing worry among the military.  In September 1958, rumors of a coup d’état circulated; eventually forces under command of future NLD leaders surrounded the government buildings as a “preemptive coup”; several days later U Nu announced that he had asked General Ne Win to assume a “Caretaker Government” due to the current security status of the country, until new elections could be held.

The Caretaker Government that lasted until 1960, stabilized the country reducing crime and making some inroads regarding ongoing ethnic conflict. (Thant, 2006, p. 284) However, when time came for the next national election, the military leaders failed to win over the public, and U Nu’s former government easily regained power.  General Ne Win projected an unconcerned image publicly to the media, but his military “believed they had acquitted themselves admirably and could run the country better than anyone else. They wanted another chance, this time without any electoral deadline looming overhead.” (Thant, 2006, p. 285)

General Ne Win took over Burma with a military order for the second time in 1962; the ruling party had helped the country move forward and could not understand why the military-backed party didn’t gain the people’s trust for another term.  The first military government used technocrats to rule effectively; the new military government, however, worked in an opposite way, distrusting and firing educated civil servants, academics, and others within the educated professional class.  The government abolished many foreign aid agencies, international education exchanges, and closed Burma to the outside world.  The effects of decades of inefficiencies, military rule and the path toward a totalitarian state by General Ne Win from the 1960’s to 1988 can still be seen and felt across the country.  Rather than turning Burma into a national-socialist utopia, Ne Win turned it into one of the poorest and least developed countries in the region.  Now with a civilian leader in charge – but strongly backed by the old ruling military order – the country may yet fall back into disarray come next election.  A major difference this time, however, is that the world is watching and advocating for democratic normalcy and greater freedom, with its ASEAN neighbors and the US noting every step. 

When Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1987 to take care of her mother, she also prepared herself for potentially having to nurse the country back to health.  A strong and determined leader, she has claimed her place in history but is just getting started.  Suu Kyi’s discussions with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations delegations and other diplomats demonstrate the faith and authority that the international community has in her opinion and commitment to a free Burma.  It is amazing that Suu Kyi has made it this far despite assassination attempts, but the current leadership knows that they need to keep her placated to survive.  Prior to the election, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in Foreign Affairs that Thein Sein would actually be at a loss if Suu Kyi did not win her parliamentary seat; the international community and Burmese would not accept the election results as being accurate.  In this way, one hopes Suu Kyi is in fact fostering a more genuine democratic spirit amongst military leaders.

Suu Kyi has changed Myanmar’s fate, but can she continue to move the country forward? As much as Suu Kyi is the focus of the changing political landscape in the country, her party lacks enough parliamentary seats, internal experts and policies recommendations to peacefully develop the country; as well, they need to foster more leaders to counter the stubbornness Suu Kyi shares with her late father. Furthermore, a collaborative effort will be necessary to make the economic and political changes necessary to restore a collective national pride and governmental legitimacy.  The NLD will need to keep its relations with the ruling government amiable in the same way that Thein Sein, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military need a peaceful environment with the NLD to maintain their status.  All sides will have to compromise in one way or another to keep ASEAN on its side. 

The April 13 visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Myanmar is a striking sign that the West is interested in Myanmar’s development; that he decided to take a business group to investigate leaves me on edge that the country’s natural resources or economic market could potentially be ruthlessly exploited.  The bilateral and multilateral meetings to come in the next few months should provide greater insight into how things will develop in Myanmar.  The more unfiltered information sent out to the international press and the more access foreign press and nonprofits are able to gain within the country, the better.  The international community no longer seeks to alienate the government of Myanmar but they must not let the state reign ‘supreme over individuals’.

Aung San Suu Kyi, like her father, has found herself at an important precipice in Myanmar’s politics. The fragile balance that has emerged out of the most recent elections could point toward a more stable and more prosperous future for Myanmar’s people, but also looms at the edge of renewed military rule. The hope is that Suu Kyi and that NLD can navigate this situation without repeating mistakes of the past.

*Note: this post uses the name “Burma” to refer to the time before the country was renamed “Myanmar”. The people of Myanmar are referred to as “Burmese”.

Reference: Thant, Mynt-U (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps: A personal history of Burma. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, NY.

A Hopeful ‘Turn’ Toward 2012

A series of critical events compelled the US to turn its attention toward the Asia-Pacific region in 2011. Natural disasters, leadership changes, protests, power struggles, China’s rise and American influence led the headlines. This tumultuous year foreshadows an eventful 2012 for those with interests in the region. Looking forward, states and their citizens should be prepared for continued political, economic and environmental disruptions.

Gripping Natural Disasters:

  • Flooding in Australia, Philippines, Thailand
  • Earthquakes in Japan, New Zealand
  • Water shortages in Tokelau and Tuvalu

Top Political Occurrences:

  • Death of Kim Jong Il and uncertainty for the future of the Korean Peninsula
  • Burma’s election of civilian government and promise of future elections with participation by Aung San Suu Kyi
  • China’s Peaceful Development white paper release
  • Disputes in the South China Sea
  • Political standoff in Papua New Guinea

Key US Initiatives:

  • President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s trips to the Asia-Pacific for bilateral and multilateral meetings
  • US ‘turn’ toward Pacific and “forward-deployed diplomacy”
  • Renewing and affirming alliances with Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam

Strides toward bilateral and multilateral cooperation in trade and security have been taken in 2011 in the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN and APEC are coming into their own, and the ASEAN Community has much to look forward to. Despite Canada leaving Kyoto, there is still hope for international climate agreements with the US, China and India beginning to accept their responsibilities. Furthermore, free trade agreements and regional trade agreements continue to gain momentum; the growing list of countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a signal of the importance of regional trade and plans for continued growth.

International cooperation can appear to be wishful thinking with growing resource insecurity, continued border disputes, periodic political instability, increasing natural disasters and renewed aggressive rhetoric from the US and China. However, economic, political and social progress demands increased cooperation. Hopefully China can use its influence in the region and alliances with countries like Burma and North Korea for good rather than aiding authoritarian leaders in their maintenance of power and in the exploitation of natural and labor resources. Popular movements in the region, spurred on by current injustices, are also providing pressure for change from the bottom up. Together, these events could have a powerful impact on the plans for greater regional integration, security cooperation and economic development. Hopefully 2012 will be a year of cooperation for mutual benefit for the people of the region.

ASEAN, People of Burma, UN, US – Everyone wants a bit of Burma

Tensions in the South China Sea, China’s currency, American troops in Australia and opening markets have all been significant news stories over the course of the APEC, ASEAN and EAS meetings. Amidst these events one evolving story could have a unique impact on bilateral and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific. Over the weekend in Bali, US President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Burma. Set for the first week of December, Clinton’s trip will be the first visit by a US Secretary of State in 50 years. The recent announcements in favor of engagement with Burma led to a flurry of events and discussions which will hopefully ultimately signal a more open and peaceful Burma.

Since becoming the first civilian president of Burma in fifty years in March 2011, President Thein Sein steadily proceeded with national democratic reforms and attempted to gain greater legitimacy among members of the international community. The current leadership of Burma (now Myanmar) understands the importance of domestic and international legitimacy, especially given the events of the Arab Spring and global Occupy movements. By releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from home detention, allowing the National League for Democracy to participate in elections, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, attempting peace with ethnic groups and seeking to host ASEAN in 2014, the Burmese government has garnered potential conditional support of the US government, United Nations and ASEAN members. President Thein Sein was seen smiling and answering to reporters over the weekend, a sign he’s getting the hang of being less guarded and more open.

It is possible that President Thein Sein and his government’s recent concessions including halting work on an unpopular dam and passing a law that enables workers the right to strike were pursued to maintain power and prevent massive civil unrest. The situation in Burma, including the human rights abuses that occurred, failed to reach the agenda of the UN Security Council due to China’s veto and its respect for state sovereignty. Now, however, times are changing and UN leader Ban Ki-Moon welcomed “just as ASEAN did, the recent developments in the country under the leadership of President Thein Sein”. Given the “flickers of progress” in Burma the goal of Secretary Clinton’s trip will be “to test what the true intentions are, and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform”.

Developing a more hospitable domestic environment and international relations will be critical to improving human development indicators, lifting Burmese out of poverty and creating a safer East Asia. At one point Burma’s isolationism was akin to North Korea’s, and there were even worries about sales or transfers of weapons and what that might mean for the region. As a former ‘problem’ child for ASEAN, Burma appears to be shedding its incessant cling to Chinese leadership and influence; now that President Thein Sein and the government has been given a confidence boost, the next few months should provide a useful path for improvement; in particular the international community will closely watch the December by-elections and the role that the NLD is able to play.