Chapter 8. Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region

Brendan Taylor

Table of Contents

Emergence and Evolution of Regional Security Cooperation
Successes and Shortcomings
Where To From Here?

In keeping with the theme of this volume, this chapter examines the evolution and achievements of security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, with a view to gauging where it might be headed. ‘Security Cooperation’ is, of course, a rather broad term that can be applied to a wide range of activities. The analysis undertaken in this chapter will be limited to regional security institutions and other dialogue channels however, given that it is in relation to these processes that the SDSC has typically made its most visible and important contributions to security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. The chapter is divided into three main sections. It begins by examining the evolution of regional security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific—a process which really only began in earnest during the 1990s. It then considers the successes and shortcomings of regional security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, including some brief reflections upon the contribution that the SDSC has made toward the furtherance of these endeavours. Finally, the chapter concludes with some observations regarding the main issues and prospects facing regional security cooperation in this part of the world.

Emergence and Evolution of Regional Security Cooperation

Prior to the 1990s, very few channels for regional security dialogue existed in the Asia-Pacific. This was not for want of trying. Several ill-fated efforts were undertaken to establish regional groupings which, over time, provided the basis for a more substantial Asia-Pacific security architecture. These included the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization—an eight member grouping established in 1955 that began to lose members and was finally dissolved in 1977—and both Maphilindo and the Association of Southeast Asia.[1] Likewise, in Northeast Asia, the Asian and Pacific Council—a South Korean initiative established in 1966 and comprising nine member countries—struggled due to the diverging perceptions and interests of its membership, and finally collapsed in 1975.[2] Flowing from this legacy was the more successful sub-regional ASEAN, founded in 1967 and expanded via several avenues, including a major security component—the ASEAN Regional Forum. But even ASEAN’s initial collaborative functions were essentially economic, political and cultural; and its latest manifestations—ASEAN-plus-three and the East Asia Summit (EAS)—focus more on these issues than on strategy or geopolitics.

As a consequence, bilateral (namely US-led) cooperation tended to be the primary mode of Asia-Pacific security collaboration throughout the Cold War period. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the situation today. To be sure, America’s Asia-Pacific alliances remain an integral component of the region’s security architecture and—notwithstanding the process of ‘transformation’ which this system of alliances is undergoing to accommodate the dynamics of the post-11 September 2001 strategic environment—some of these relationships (namely the US–Japan and US–Australia alliances) have actually strengthened during the period since the end of the Cold War, contrary to the expectations of conventional theories of alliance politics.[3]

Because the hierarchical aspects of this system are giving way to more fluid processes of intra-alliance consultations, however, new ‘minilateral’ mechanisms such as the US–Japan–South Korea Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group and the US–Japan–Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue have been formed to address emerging security issues at both the regional and global levels. This ‘expansive bilateralism’ has been supplemented since the early 1990s by a startling growth in regional institutions, arrangements and structures. According to one recent estimate, over 100 such channels now exist at the official (Track 1) level, including such leading regional security institutions as the ARF, the SCO and the EAS which, despite its largely economic focus, still has the potential to emerge over time as an influential East Asian security mechanism.[4] More ad hoc, but still substantial, multilateral initiatives have also been employed toward specific issues such as the Four-Power Talks and, later, the Six-Party Talks concerning security on the Korean peninsula. The growth in institutions and dialogues at the unofficial (or Track 2) level has been even more profound, with in excess of 200 such channels now estimated to exist.[5] These include the ASEAN Institutes for Strategic and International Studies, which was one of the few facilitators of regional security dialogue prior to the 1990s; the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), arguably the region’s premier second track institution and with whose development the SDSC has been intimately involved; the relatively new Network of East Asian Think Tanks (NEAT), which some analysts regard as a potential (Chinese-led) challenge to more established second track processes such as CSCAP; as well as the annual International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-la Dialogue, which takes place in Singapore and has essentially become a de facto gathering of regional defence ministers.[6]

Yet, this startling growth in regional security cooperation has been neither steady nor straightforward. The volume of such institutions and activities plummeted in the immediate aftermath of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis, for instance, and temporarily lost the attention of policymakers in the process. Still, there can be little disputing the fact that regional security cooperation has since recovered well and, moreover, that the general trend in such activity across the decade and a half since the beginning of the 1990s has been upward. So what explains this recent and, indeed, rather dramatic growth in regional security cooperation? I see at least five factors at play.

First, for a number of reasons it is virtually impossible to overstate the catalytic role played by the ending of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its withdrawal from the region subsequently called into question the future of America’s strategic presence and level of commitment to the Asia-Pacific. At one level, the establishment of highly consensual security mechanisms such as the ARF was intended to serve the dual purpose of ‘tying in’ this regional US presence, while at the same time diluting the influence that the sole superpower would be able to exert in the new strategic environment. Added to this, however, it soon became apparent that many of the features of the Cold War had remained intact in the Asia-Pacific and that inter-state conflict remained a very real possibility here. How the region’s other major powers—namely China, Japan and India—might react to this intriguing set of developments therefore provided a further source of uncertainty. Hence, as Desmond Ball has observed, ‘mechanisms for regionwide dialogue, confidence building, transparency, and cooperation were considered to be essential to the management of this uncertainty’.[7]

The desire to alleviate regional concerns regarding China’s rise provided a second rationale for the burgeoning in regional security cooperation. One of the primary reasons for establishing the ARF, for instance, was to allow for the greater exposure of decision-makers in Beijing to regional and global norms, with a view to positively influencing the shape of China’s foreign and security policy orientation. Since the late 1990s, however, an interesting feature of China’s apparent embrace of multilateralism has been the extent to which Beijing has become an increasingly direct contributor to the growth in Asia-Pacific security cooperation through the leading role it has played in the establishment of a number of high-profile regional institutions including the Boao Forum for Asia, the SCO, and the NEAT.

Third, at several levels, economic factors also serve to explain the dramatic increase in regional security cooperation. The ‘success’ of regional economic cooperative processes, such as the Pacific Basin Economic Council and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, generated calls for this positive experience to be replicated in the security sector. Indeed, the institutional make-up of CSCAP—comprising national committees, a steering committee and several working groups—was modelled directly on the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council process. For at least two reasons—one positive and one negative—the growing economic weight of a number of actors in the region can also be seen to have contributed directly towards the increase in regional security cooperation. The increasing economic (and strategic) weight of Japan and China, for instance, can be seen as a factor which has contributed towards their growing willingness and ability to play more active and stimulatory roles as institutional contributors and even innovators. As India’s economic and strategic weight also grows, its desire to play a similar leadership role is likely to increase in kind.

At the same time, however, economic growth has afforded many regional governments the option of increasing national defence expenditure. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, this was a source of much concern as regional arms acquisitions burgeoned at alarming rates on the back of the so-called ‘East Asian economic miracle’. Some commentators even went so far as to posit the emergence of a ‘new Asian arms race’.[8] As a consequence, the fact that the Asia-Pacific was looking increasingly ‘ripe for rivalry’ served only to reinforce the urgent need for further security cooperation amongst the countries of this region. The onset of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis resulted in a temporary slowing of these startling trends in regional arms acquisitions and, as noted previously, took the wind out of Asia-Pacific security cooperation in the process. However, most regional countries have since resumed increasing defence budgets, giving rise to renewed apprehensions that competitive arms processes (if not a regional arms race) are currently re-emerging. As Robert Hartfiel and Brian Job have recently concluded:

In both Northeast and Southeast Asia, resources are being directed towards externally oriented weapons systems, including submarines, surface ships, fighter aircraft, and missiles of all types. This strongly suggests competitive arms processes that are heavily weighted towards types of weapons that destabilize the military balance. Such a conclusion merits more careful, sober analysis by political decision makers in the region in order to reduce the likelihood of confrontation and conflict.[9]

This finding, while unsettling, could also potentially augur well for regional security cooperation.

Fourth, the continued persistence of traditional security concerns—such as the prospect of a destabilising arms race—has been complicated by the increasing prevalence and potency of a range of non-traditional security challenges including international terrorism, transnational crime, environmental issues and disease-based threats. Moreover, as the continuing North Korean nuclear crisis and plight of a perpetually starving North Korean population demonstrate all too well, there is a growing awareness as to the interdependence between these traditional and non-traditional security agendas—a realisation which has, in turn, fundamentally re-cast the dynamics of regional security cooperation. The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States and the onset of the so-called ‘war on terror’ served as a watershed, giving rise to a flurry of regional dialogue activity addressing a range of terrorism and human security issues. The attendant realisation that terrorism and these other transnational security challenges simply could not be tackled on a solely unilateral or even a bilateral basis has subsequently been reinforced by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003, the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, and the ongoing regional (and, indeed, global) threat posed by H5N1 Avian Influenza (or ‘bird flu’). By way of example, even in the case of the US-led system of bilateral alliances—so often preoccupied with more traditional security concerns—there is evidence of a shift of focus (albeit intermittent at this stage) toward non-military security challenges, as demonstrated by the relief effort of late 2004 and 2005 following the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Finally, while still in a nascent phase of its evolution, the desire to realise the potentially powerful idea of an East Asian community has gone some way towards contributing to the growth in regional security cooperation. At the Track 1 level this has been reflected in the creation of a number of high-profile institutions, including the EAS. It is a trend that is also being mirrored at the Track 2 level, as evidenced over recent years in the establishment of the NEAT and its Japanese competitor, the Council on East Asian Community.[10] It ought to be noted, however, that the proliferation of such groupings does not, by itself, necessarily constitute progress toward tangible regional security cooperation. These entities, after all, tend to compete with each other for attention, as much as coordinate. This is a theme that will be re-visited in the concluding section of this chapter.