Asia-Pacific security architecture needs a tweak

Ren Yuanzhe

IN recent years, the Asia-Pacific region’s security situation has become increasingly complex, with countries facing perhaps the most complicated and pressing challenges since the end of the Cold War. One of the principal causes is the ineffectiveness of the current security architecture.
How to reshape regional security institutions to meet security challenges and prevent future crisis has emerged as a critical topic both among government officials and the academic community.
Last month, the American think tank, Asia Society, released its latest report on this issue – Preserving the Long Peace in Asia: The Institutional Building Blocks of Long-Term Regional Security.
The Independent Commission on Regional Security Architecture, headed by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, produced the report.
The document outlines the Commission’s findings in several areas: (1) attributes of the current regional order; (2) challenges facing Asia’s regional architecture; (3) principles for a more effective security architecture; (4) potential pathways to reform that could address institutional deficits; and (5) recommendations for immediate steps.
The key takeaway of the report is in its recommendation to further strengthen and enhance the role of the East Asia Summit (EAS) as the center of the Asia-Pacific region’s future security architecture.
The report proposes several specific reforms for the EAS, including establishing a high-level EAS reform committee, aligning and empowering EAS bodies, and establishing an EAS secretariat in the long term.
Finally, the report urges nations to strengthen the regional security architecture to preserve regional peace and prosperity for future generations.
Although some innovative ideas are offered, the Asia Society report can essentially be regarded as old wine in new bottle. Since its establishment in 2005, the EAS has grown to include 18 members, including the ASEAN 10 plus China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Russia. Its full spectrum policy remit and political clout give the EAS tremendous potential.
It has become the premier strategic forum in the region, bestowed with different functions including confidence building, conflict prevention, as well as community building.
However, the EAS design has basic flaws. One is the fluctuation of major power commitment. In 2011, the US was incorporated into the EAS, which was seen by some as imperative for the construction of a regional security architecture.
Former US president Barack Obama once encouraged the EAS to serve as a security institution, but his absence from the summit in 2013 signaled a lack of American commitment. With President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach and possible strategic retrenchment from the Asia-Pacific region, it remains to be seen whether the US will meet its commitment to the region.
Another flaw is rivalry between member countries. The EAS has always been seen as a platform for competition between China and Japan’s influence within multilateral institutions. Japan’s lobbying for EAS expansion reflects a concern over the possibility of Beijing dominating the grouping.
The US, largely supported by its allies and security partners, sees regional mechanisms like the EAS as important instruments in the effort to sustain its preferred regional order, and deter challenges from China.
Since 2010, the EAS has strengthened its focus on pressing “strategic issues,” such as the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula security challenges. One watches with regret the split among ASEAN members over those contentious issues.
China is a strong supporter of ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture and has expressed its understanding of the path forward. During the eighth EAS, held in Brunei on October 10 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged, “Given the numerous economic cooperation structures in the Asia-Pacific, it is imperative to establish a regional security architecture that suits realities in the region.”
Since then, China has put forward ideas on this issue. In January 2017, China released the whitepaper “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation,” which illustrated contents of the future Asia-Pacific security architecture.
In contrast to the Asia Society report, China envisions a multi-layered, comprehensive and diversified future regional security framework. A single consistent security framework (based on the EAS or other mechanisms) is not foreseeable.
Another emphasis of the whitepaper is on the parallel development of regional security and economic frameworks, which serve as the basis for establishing a robust security architecture. The long-debated “Asian Paradox” (disconnect between the region’s booming economy and its lingering historical disputes and new power rivalries, nationalism and arms spending) could be greatly alleviated in this new framework.
Of course, common ground does exist between Chinese and Western points of view toward working out the best path forward. Each side emphasizes the importance of dialogue and cooperation. No matter what type of regional security architecture develops, consensus among major powers is indispensable.
Besides maintaining peace, stability and dynamic economic growth, facilitating and strengthening the central role of ASEAN in the region’s architecture is of critical importance. The ASEAN-style approach of non-contentious and constructive discussion should continue.
A new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region will be hard to realize within a short time.
As the region faces uncertainties and challenges, the only path to preserving a long peace passes through China-US cooperation and maintenance of ASEAN’s centrality.

—Courtesy: GT
[The author is an associate professor, Department of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs Management, China Foreign Affairs University and a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center for Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights.]

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