Asia-Pacific Regional Security Cooperation: ARF/ADMM Functional Cooperation
Mainstream scholarly discussions about the prospects for peace and/or inter-state war in the Asia-Pacific region have seen remarkably little change, in spite of the end of the Cold War two decades ago. Worries about diplomatic rivalry leading to eventual warfare continue to dominate academic and policy deliberations. At one level, it is the duty of the academic international studies community to be constantly on the lookout for signs of challenge to the ongoing non-war peace in the Asia-Pacific region. At another level, talk of a “new cold war” taking shape risks promoting a spiral of action and counter-action among major states. Security dialogues have achieved a life of their own in the region. The task is how to make them better serve the purpose of peace maintenance.
A Pacific Nation, Who Is Not?
For much of the 2010-2011 period, scholarly and security policy rhetoric from the United States centered on reminding the US itself and other states in the region that the US is a Pacific nation. Indeed, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s trip to Myanmar in late 2010 was in some ways a climax in the Obama Administration’s “back to Asia” campaign. Clinton’s trip was unprecedented in part because the last time a US Secretary of State travelled to Myanmar was fifty years earlier.
The trip took place against continuing debates within American security study elites over whether or not political change in Myanmar warranted such a high-level trip in the first place. Many analysts saw the trip as a part of the US weaving a net of encirclement of its perceived rival, China. After all, political relations between Myanmar and China experienced an unusual development in the same year. Barely a month before Clinton’s trip, Myanmar unilaterally announced the suspension of a large dam project that Chinese companies were constructing in that country. A kind of Cold War logic was at work: a potential foe’s adversary, no matter how temporary, is to be treated as a friend in need.
Other developments that seem to affirm the notion of a “new cold war” include the decision of Australia to host US marines in its territories. Because there is no clear and present disorder to tackle, the deployment was justified as being preparations for the future. That future enemy is not specified. Yet again, the reasoning goes that the message is meant for China to heed.
There is, however, a different way to make sense of such developments. US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, a natural development of the decade-old military campaigns there. But simultaneous reduction of military spending is costly in domestic politics, especially when America enters another season of presidential election. Besides, moving some of the US military facilities to the Asian side of the Pacific implies success in “burden sharing.”
From my perspective as an academic based in China, however, the rhetorical campaign is puzzling. The United States is of course a Pacific nation! In terms of military capacity, the US remains unrivaled. It remains the only nation that is in reality free to deploy its military hardware and personnel anywhere in the world. Its regional security alliance arrangements, put in place decades ago, remain intact. There is no indication of any of its alliance members working to switch its security and political allegiance to another country, certainly not towards China.
Chinese influence is often said to be on the rise, though for the most part in the realm of “soft power” through trade and investment. However, even when one counts deepening trade ties as a manifestation, China is but one actor (albeit one of the more active in terms of the aggregate inflow and outflow of products and services) in the regional production network that was shaped in the 1970s-1980s. The American market continues to be pinnacle in that network in terms of finance, innovative technologies and management ideas, final demand market, and other essential inputs. When we bear in mind the different dimensions of power in the Asia-Pacific region, China continues to lag far behind the US, Japan, Korea, and even Singapore and Hong Kong (in trade facilitation), and the gaps are not going to be narrowing soon. In the world of trade and investment competition, the size of trade and investment flows does not equal dominance.
Some Chinese commentators erroneously point to the difficulties a few Wall Street financial institutions experienced in 2008 as indicators of America being on the decline. While the USA-in-decline thesis is not new and periodically resurfaces in America itself, Chinese observers often forget to see that the popularity of the thesis, in reality, functions to motivate that country to unify and prevent a decline from coming true. It is, instead, a sign of strength in America’s self-rejuvenation.
Evidence of the US in decline is feeble. For example, China’s holding of American public debt is often said to be a sign of strength. But, without a smooth functioning American economy, Chinese exports to the US and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region and indeed the entire world would be in serious jeopardy. China depends on the overall health of the US economy. Even the much-touted Chinese manned space program amounts to progress the United States achieved in the 1960s. The US military’s cultivation of the air-sea battle weapons system is generations ahead of what China can manage to accomplish.
In the eyes of American observers, Chinese commentary about the US in decline amounts to a signal of Chinese assertiveness. In response, American commentators promote the notion of resetting American security priorities from doing what is urgent (dealing with militant Islamic groups in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia) to tackling what is important (preparing for a perceived and perhaps more evident eventuality of China driving the United States out of the Western Pacific). There is, clearly, a race in doing guesswork about the darkest possible scenario.
Developments in recent years between the United States and its allies in Asia are more active than before. The collective purpose appears to be preempting China working to unseat US dominance in the Western Pacific. But China today is not what the Soviet Union was in the Cold War years. Nor can it afford to be. Furthermore, China is not what either Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany was before World War II. The proverbial new cold war between China and the US in Asia is more a journalistic observation than serious study.
It is in the interest of few, if any, states in Asia to contemplate the prospect of having to choose sides in the event of an overt confrontation between the US and China. That simple logic is and will continue to be at work in region-wide security and political diplomacy. In other words, security observers in China and the United States cannot fail to see the role of other states in the Asia-Pacific region working to maintain the status quo of no-war.
The Role of Security Institutions
Collective efforts to manage the security dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region materialize through regular, albeit legally non-binding discussion forums. The ASEAN Security Forum (ARF, since 1994) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM, established 2006, and ADMM Plus, since 2010) are the most noticeable. Those forums breed numerous issue-specific meetings on both a regular and ad-hoc basis. There is no easy agreement over the degree to which these forums have contributed to a more predictable future of regional security. But the region has a profound reason to celebrate the progress made thus far: dispute management through non-military means has become possible. Regularized meetings offer a valuable venue for gauging alterations to intent and working against suspicions of one selling out another.
It is true that multilateral forums for security dialogue better serve the purposes of the countries represented. It is also true that the law of diminishing returns is at work, particularly when the same hot-topic challenges do not seem to abate. Agenda setting becomes an art to master. ARF and ADMM Plus meetings are often dominated by pressing headline issues of the day, and have thus acquired a reputation of being “talking shops.” Such skepticism has to be kept in proper perspective. What could have happened without those meetings?
Bilateral security meetings carry a much higher political price in the sense that once they take place the general public has a much higher level of expectation that some measurable progress in resolving the issues will follow. The art here is more on the management of domestic debate than on the international front.
For the Asia-Pacific region, the “ASEAN Way” to handling security topics sensitive on the domestic front for all dialogue participants is indispensible. There are no easy alternatives, as the gaps in public perceptions—partial and even misinformed but politically serious—remain wide. Though the “deliverables” are not always easy to pinpoint, the political cover provided is valuable in and of itself.
It is up to the non-ASEAN participants to make better use of “ASEAN centrality.” Consultations leading up to the routine meetings are also important. The task for the security studies community is to help to prevent an atmosphere from taking over the real task of accomplishing conflict avoidance.
In recent years, maritime security has been presented as the overarching challenge facing all nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Much is to be desired from the prevailing sentiments. Chief among this is “freedom of navigation.” Rules for governing commercial passage through the ocean waters and civilian-use flights through airspace are longstanding and cannot be contested. Deliberate interruption of the free commercial flows through the Western Pacific is self-defeating for any state to attempt.
In response to maritime piracy, which raises the cost of insurance premium for all users of the oceans, northeastern and southeastern Asian states have put into practice the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, or RECAAP for short. India, Norway, and Denmark have joined the collective endeavor as well, because their cargo fleets make extensive use of the South China Sea waters as well. Indeed, full support by China and Japan is essential for the smooth functioning of the mechanism.
Military uses of the ocean, particularly unannounced and uninvited intelligence gathering missions, naturally cause alarm for the affected states. Thus far, Chinese responses to such US naval missions in the East China Sea and South China Sea make up much of the background for observing that rules for military freedom of navigation are under challenge. Nonetheless, it is remains questionable whether other littoral states, particularly those in Southeast Asia, would subscribe to the demand (though often unspoken) that any state with similar capacity provides them the same freedom as the US has done to China.
The search for region-wide security dialogue has extended to a conceptual linkage of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as well. There is supposed to be a “String of Pearls” at work, only that the very terminology was first coined by Booz Allen Hamilton, an American public consulting firm. The community of maritime security studies can make a more meaningful contribution by presenting findings about the technical suitability of the Indian Ocean ports in which Chinese companies are involved for naval use. That can help balance the media speculations and commentary that often find details too troublesome to go through. Allegations of Chinese naval listening posts on Myanmar’s Coco Islands, which lasted for a couple of decades, turned out to be unfounded. There is a lesson to learn.
Last but not least, serious security cooperation efforts should include the effective protection of fishery stocks in the Western Pacific. Equally important are amicable interactions among the fishermen of different countries. Moving toward the end of the Chinese calendar year, when Chinese fishermen are compelled to increase their income to prepare for a long winter of no meaningful new income, some of them needed to go deeper into the oceans and ended up clashing with Korean and Japanese marine patrol authorities. Such developments serve as a powerful wake-up call to the international studies community: security begins on the ground, not imagination about big-picture futures.