For over a decade, many relevant academic journals have prophesized the 21st century as the Asian century. The argument is usually based on impressive economic growth, increased production, trade and booming foreign currency reserves. Undoubtedly, the fact that Asia holds nearly 1/3 of the total world population doesn’t hurt its chances from overtaking the United States and Europe in many areas. However, history serves as a powerful reminder by warning us that economically and/or demographically mighty geographic centers run into problems, especially when the periphery is weakened by several factors.
This means that any (absolute or relative) shift in economic or demographic strength will inevitably put additional stress on the existing power equilibriums that support this balance in the particular theater (implicit or explicit structure). Thus, what is the state of Asia’s security structures? What are the existing capacities of Asian countries of preventive diplomacy and what instruments are at their disposal when it comes to conflict prevention and resolution, exchange mechanisms, reconciliation, capacity and confidence in the Asian theater?
While other major theaters have had institutions in place for many decades, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) in the Americas, the African Union (AU) in Africa, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Europe, the situation in the world’s largest continent is rather different. What becomes apparent at first glance is the absence of any pan-Asian security or multilateral institutions. Prevailing security structures are bilateral and mostly asymmetric. They range from the clearly defined and enduring non-aggression security treaties, through less formal arrangements, and ad hoc cooperation accords that address specific issues.
The presence of the multilateral regional settings is limited to a very few spots in the largest continent, and even then, they are rarely mandated to deal with security issues. Another striking feature is that most of the existing bilateral structures have an Asian state on one side, and either a peripheral or external protégé country on the other side (which makes them nearly per definition asymmetric). The examples are numerous: the US–Japan, the US– S. Korea, the US–Singapore, Russia–India, Australia–East Timor, Russia–North Korea, Japan –Malaysia, China–Pakistan, the US–Pakistan, China–Cambodia, the US–Saudi Arabia, Russia –Iran, China–Burma, India–Maldives, Iran–Syria, N. Korea–Pakistan, etc.
Indeed, Asia today resonates with a mixed echo of the European past. It combines features of the pre-Napoleonic, post-Napoleonic and the League-of-Nations Europe.
What are the useful lessons from the European past? Well, there are a few, for sure. Bismarck accommodated the exponential economic, demographic and military growth as well as the territorial expansion of Prussia by skillfully architecturing and calibrating the complex networks of bilateral security arrangements of 19th century Europe. However, as soon as the new Kaiser removed the Iron Chancellor (Bismarck), the provincial and backward–minded, insecure and militant Prussian establishment contested (by their own interpretations of the German’s machtpolitik and weltpolitik policies) Europe and the world in two devastating world wars. That, as well as Hitler’s establishment afterwards, simply did not know what to do with a powerful Germany.
The aspirations and constellations of some of Asia’s powers today remind us also of the pre-Napoleonic Europe, in which a unified, universalistic block of the Holy Roman Empire was contested by the impatient challengers of the status quo. Such serious centripetal and centrifugal oscillations of Europe were not without grave deviations: as much as Cardinal Richelieu’s and Jacobin’s France successfully emancipated itself, the Napoleon III and pre-WWII France encircled, isolated itself, implicitly laying the foundation for the German attack.
Finally, the existing Asian regional settings also resemble the picture of the post-Napoleonic Europe: first and foremost, of Europe between the Vienna Congress of 1815 and the revolutionary year of 1848. At any rate, let us take a quick look at the most relevant regional settings in Asia.
By far, the largest institution in Asia is with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an organization engulfing both sides of the Pacific Rim. Nevertheless, this is a forum for member economies (not of sovereign nations), a sort of a prep-com or waiting room for the World Trade Organization (WTO). To use the words of one senior Singapore diplomat who recently told me in Geneva, “what is your option here?…to sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), side up with the US, login to Facebook, and keep shopping on the internet happily ever after…”
Two other crosscutting settings are the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The first is with a permanent secretariat and the NAM is without one. The OIC and NAM represent well-established political multilateral bodies. However, they are inadequate forums as neither of the two is (strictly) mandated with security issues. Although both trans-continental entities do have large memberships (being the 2nd and 3rd largest multilateral systems, right after the UN), neither covers the entire Asian political landscape – having important Asian countries outside the system or opposing it.
Furthermore, one should mention the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) (Nuclear) and the Iran-related Contact Group (Quartet/P-5+1). In both cases, the issues dealt with are indeed security related, but they are more of an asymmetric approach to deter and contain a single country by the larger front of peripheral states that are opposing a particular security policy, in this case, North Korea and Iran.
If some of the settings are reminiscent of the pre-Napoleonic Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Cooperation Council for the Arab states of the Gulf (GCC) they remind us of the post-Napoleonic Europe and its Alliance of the Eastern Conservative courts (of Metternich). Both arrangements were created on a pretext of a common external (ideological and geopolitical) threat, on a shared status quo security consideration. Asymmetric GCC was an externally induced setting by which an American key Middle East ally, Saudi Arabia, gathered the grouping of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies. It has served a dual purpose; originally, to contain the leftist Nasseristic pan-Arabism which was introducing a republican type of egalitarian government in the Middle Eastern theater. It was also (after the 1979 revolution) an instrument to counter-balance the Iranian influence in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.
The response to the spring 2011 turmoil in the Middle East (including the deployment of the Saudi troops in Bahrain, and including the analysis of the role of influential Qatar-based and GCC-backed Al Jazeera TV network) is the best proof of the very nature of the GCC mandate.
The SCO is internally induced and more symmetric setting. Essentially, it came into existence through a strategic Sino-Russian rapprochement (based, for the first time in modern history, on parity) to deter external aspirants (the US, Japan, Korea, India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and to keep the resources, territory, present socio-political culture and political regime in Central Asia, Tibet heights and the Xinjiang Uighur province in line.
The next to consider is the Indian sub-continent’s grouping, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This organization has a well-established mandate, is well staffed and has a permanent secretariat. However, the Organization is strikingly reminiscent of the League of Nations. The League is remembered as an altruistic setup which repeatedly failed to adequately respond to the security quests of its members as well as to the challenges and pressures of parties that were kept out of the system (e.g. Russia until well into the 1930s and the US remaining completely outside the system, and in the case of SAARC surrounding; China, Saudi Arabia and the US).
SAARC is practically a hostage of the mega confrontation of its two largest members, both confirmed nuclear powers; India and Pakistan. Pakistan and India continue to challenge each other geopolitically and ideologically (existence of one is a negation of the existence of the other; the religiously determined nationhood of Pakistan is a negation of multiethnic India and vice verse). Additionally, SAARC, although internally induced, is an asymmetric organization. It is not only the size of India, but also its position: centrality of that country makes SAARC practically impossible to operate in any field without the direct consent of India (be it commerce, communication, politics or security).
For a serious advancement of multilateralism, mutual trust, a will to compromise and achieve a common denominator through active co-existence is the key. It is hard to build a common course of action around the disproportionately big and centrally positioned member (which would escape the interpretation as containment by the big or assertiveness of its center by the smaller, peripheral members).
Finally, there is ASEAN – a grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations, exercising the balanced multi-vector policy (based on the non-interference principle) internally and externally. This, Jakarta/Indonesia headquartered organization has a dynamic past and an ambitious charter. It is an internally induced and relatively symmetric arrangement with the strongest members placed around its geographic center (like in case of the EU equilibrium with Germany-France/Britain-Italy/Poland-Spain geographically balancing each other). Situated on the geographic axis of the southern flank of the Asian landmass, the so-called growth triangle of Thailand-Malaysia-Indonesia represents the core of ASEAN not only in economic and communication terms but also by its political leverage. The EU-like ASEAN Community Road Map (for 2015) will absorb most of the Organization’s energy.
However, ASEAN has managed to open its forums for the 3+3 group/s, and could be seen in the long run as a cumulus setting towards the wider pan-Asian forum in future.
Before closing this brief overview, let us mention two other institutions, both based on external calls for burden sharing. One, with a Wall Street banker’s jingoistic-coined name, BRICS, which includes two important Asian states, India and China, and one peripheral state, Russia. Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Iran are a few additional Asian countries that have strongly advocated for membership in BRICS. The G–20, the other informal forum, is also assembled on an ad hoc (pro bono) basis following the need of the G–7 to achieve a larger approval and support for its monetary (currency exchange accord) and financial (austerity) actions introduced in the aftermath of (still unsettled) financial crisis.
Nevertheless, the BRICS and G-20 have not provided the Asian participating states with more leverage in the Bretton Woods institutions (aside from burden sharing), or have they helped to tackle indigenous Asian security problems. Appealing for national pride, however, both informal gatherings may divert the necessary resources and attention to Asian states from their pressing domestic, pan-continental issues.
Even though the ASEAN member states are members of the UN General Assembly and various other international institutions, they have no suitable standing forum to tackle and solve their collective security issues. An organization similar to the Council of Europe or the OSCE is still far from emerging on Asian soil.
There is hardly a single state in Asia that does not have a territorial dispute with a neighbor. From Central to South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indian sub-continent, mainland Indochina, and the Far East, many countries in these regions are suffering countless border disputes. The South China Sea accounts for over a dozen territorial disputes, in which mostly China presses its peripheries to break free from a perceived encirclement. China’s neighbors often interpret these moves as dangerously assertive. Unresolved territorial issues, sporadic irredentism, conventional armament, nuclear ambitions, conflicts over exploitation of and access to the marine biota, other natural resources including fresh water access and supply are posing enormous stresses on the external security, safety and stability in Asia.
It is somewhat inappropriate to compare the size of Asia and Europe (the latter being an extension of a huge Asian continental landmass, a sort of western Asian peninsula) but the interstate maneuvering is comparable. Yet, the space between the major powers of post-Napoleonic Europe was as equally narrow for any maneuver as is the space today for any security maneuver of Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the like.
Besides holding huge stockpiles of conventional weaponry and numerous standing armies, Asia is home to four (plus peripheral Russia and Israel) of the nine known nuclear powers (declared and undeclared). Only China and Russia are parties to the Non-proliferation Treaty (NP). North Korea walked away in 2003, whereas India and Pakistan both confirmed nuclear powers declined to sign the Treaty. Asia is also the only continent where nuclear weapons have been deployed in times of war. This discounts the countless nuclear tests that have been conducted by the world’s nuclear powers.
Asian states that are nuclear armed bring up the annoying fact that each state has a history of hostilities, armed frictions and confrontations over unresolved territorial disputes along mutually shared borders, all combined with intensive and lasting ideological rivalries. The Soviet Union has had bitter transborder armed conflicts with China. China has fought a war with India and as a result acquired a significant territorial gain. India fought four mutually extortive wars with Pakistan over Kashmir and other disputed border regions. Finally, the Korean peninsula is divided as a result of a bloody conflict.
Only India and post-Soviet Russia have strict civilian control over their nuclear arsenals. In North Korea and China, control is in the hands of an unpredictable and non-transparent communist leadership. In Pakistan, it is completely in the hands of a politically omnipresent military establishment.
Nuclear stockpiles in Asia are considerably modest. The numbers of warheads and delivery systems are not sufficient and sophisticated enough to offer second strike capability. One of the greatest thinkers and humanists of the 20th century, Erich Fromm wrote: “…man can only go forward by developing (his) reason, by finding a new harmony…”
Asia, collectively the largest continent, should consider the creation of its own comprehensive pan-Asian multilateral mechanism. Regarding its institutional arrangement, Asia can closely revisit the well-envisioned SAARC and ambitiously empowered ASEAN. By examining these two regional bodies, Asia can find and skillfully calibrate the appropriate balance between widening and deepening of the (security) mandate of such future multilateral organization – given the number of states as well as the gravity of the pressing socio-political, environmental and politico-military challenges.
In the age of unprecedented success and the unparalleled prosperity of Asia, an indigenous multilateral pan-Asian arrangement presents itself as an opportunity. Contextualizing Hegel’s famous quote, “freedom is…an insight into necessity” let me close by stating that a need for a domesticated pan-Asian organization urgent. Clearly, there is no emancipation of the continent; there is no Asian century, without a pan-Asian multilateral setting.