10th Asian Security Conference

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  • Rapporteur Report on Session VI: Cooperative Framework for Asian Security in 21st Century

    February 6, 2008
    Prepared by Pushpita Das & Amarjeet Singh

    Jasjit Singh, former Director of IDSA, chaired the session. Chinamaya Gharekhan was the guest speaker. The key questions addressed in this session were: Do multilateral institutions help in reducing tensions between countries thereby averting wars? Do both small and big nations gain from multilateral organisations? Are multilateral institutions helpful in tackling non-traditional security threats? The Chair noted that a co-operative framework on security seems elusive as security since the days of Westphalia has been competitive. He also stressed that while discussing multilateral institutions in Asia, it is important to view Asia in its totality i.e. from the Pacific Ocean in the east, Asia goes all the way to the Suez Canal. In this session, six papers were presented and two discussants presented additional perspectives.

    Guest Speaker

    Chinmaya Gharekhan’s basic contention was that multilateral institutions are not necessary for Asia. He dealt with security in the traditional way, i.e. in terms of military security. He asserted that Asia does not need multilateral institutions for security because inter-state armed conflict is highly unlikely to occur even though there are many unresolved territorial issues. He argued that since the overriding priority of all nations is economic and social development, major inter-state armed conflict will not take place in the foreseeable future. He said that if an attempt is made to create a multilateral institution, it is bound to be dominated by major powers in the region. Also, any such grouping of nations might be perceived as hostile by other countries, leading to tensions. Even if such institutions are created, their scope and focus would be limited. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created in the cold war period to deal with the communist threat. However, since 1994, it has mutated into a broader framework of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). ARF’s task was confidence building though it has ended up dealing with security issues. Also, the inclusion of extra regional powers complicated the matter.

    Gharekhan stated that terrorism is the greatest scourge of the 21st Century. But multilateral institutions would not be of much help to eliminate it because intelligence and information sharing is extremely vital to deal with terrorism and individual nations would not part with intelligence so easily. Therefore, bilateral institutions would be far more effective in this regard. At the same time, multilateral institutions might prove helpful in combating non-traditional threats like transnational crime, drug and human trafficking, non-proliferation issues, HIV-AIDS, etc. To achieve the goal, these multilateral institutions have to be Pan Asian, inclusive of all the major powers in the region.


    Robert Ayson’s paper titled The Role of Multilateral Institutions in Forging Cooperation Among Major Powers: A Framework for Analysis provided arguments both for and against the usefulness of multilateral institutions. Ayson claimed that the aim behind the formation of multilateral institutions is to prevent the outbreak of war between major powers. Further, multilateral institutions provide a community of norms to avoid conflict between major powers. In his view, Asia is still searching for an effective inter-governmental institution. And the establishment of ASEAN, ARF, ASEAN+3 and East Asian Summit (EAS), all reflect an attempt to extend the geographical border of co-operation and to include all the major powers because engagement of great powers is the key for the formation and success of multilateral institutions. Ayson went on to present four arguments in favour of multilateral institutions. The engagement argument states that multilateral institutions keep the major powers engaged in the region. The sensitivity argument extends the notion that great powers may come to internalise the values of multilateral institutions. The cooperation argument explains that multilateral institutions foster co-operation among major powers. The security argument states that multilateral institutions can help manage and reduce tensions and competition between the major powers and thus the chance of armed conflict between them.

    However, Ayson also argued that there are negative effects of multilateral institutions. The self deception argument asserts that multilateral institutions exaggerate the good intentions of the major powers whereas in reality selfishness and competition are more likely. The impotence argument claims that multilateral institutions do not live up to their promise. The competition argument states that institutions are artefacts of the sometimes mutually exclusive interests, and certainly always the selfish interests, of the major powers. The hegemony argument is that although multilateral institutions are good, at times they complicate matters as the quest for regional dominance may complicate matters. The paralysis argument suggests that major power can effectively shut down the work of multilateralism as tensions between powers make progress difficult. The irrelevance argument suggests that major powers will undermine the institutions, thereby rendering them irrelevant. On the flip side, the major powers, if committed, can give institutions a reputation boost. The credibility argument claims that the participation of major powers as well as small powers makes these institutions credible. He concluded that whatever be the case, multilateral intuitions are necessary as they help in preventing armed conflicts between nations.

    The paper by Greg Mills titled Peace Building in the 21st Century: Towards Greater Operational Coherence and Relevance was presented by Steve Stead. The paper draws heavily from the Tswalu Process, which culminated in the Tswalu Protocol of January 2008. According to the paper, global peace-building has assumed an important role in the 21st century, especially in the work of the United Nations, which has recently established the Peace-building Commission, the Peace-building Fund and the Peace-building Support Office. There is a broad consensus that multilateral approaches to restoring order, establishing institutions of governance and encouraging prosperity are preferable to unilateral approaches. However, frequent setbacks and outright failures in peace-building come at a very high cost. Therefore, improving peace-building practice is critical for reasons ranging from humanitarian imperatives to counter-terrorism strategies.

    The paper identified a few common threads to the challenges of peace building in strife torn countries. Lack of clear strategic plans as well as sufficient linguistic, cultural and political knowledge on the part of external actors hamper the management of their activities. Also, the regimes in these countries tend to be weak and politically non-inclusive. The leaders tend to concentrate on regime security rather than national security, and attempts to establish the rule of law and policies to promote investment and economic growth are absent. The paper argued that peace-building is inherently difficult because the domestic politics in post-conflict societies comprise a mix of violence and corruption. The international response is also hard to co-ordinate because its multi-sectoral task attracts a diversity of actors each with a different reason for being in the same operational space. Further, there is a corrosive dynamics between donors and their local partners: the longer foreigners are present, the more likely is the local resentment and at times violent resistance against them. But, at the same time, long term commitment is fundamental to ensuring stability, governance and development. In every peace-building process there are spoilers, a regional adversary or discontent domestic warlords. The only viable, long term defence against spoilers is for international actors to prepare and plan for the day when full control of state functions is transferred to local forces.

    There are four links in the chain to peace-building – principles, goals, strategy and implementation. Weakness in any of these can undermine the entire peace-building operation. Some of the principles identified were local government support and legitimacy, realism, nature of conflict, operational coherence, common doctrine, force size, effective police, underlying role of militancy, strategic communications, transparency, cultural knowledge, commitment, etc. The paper explained that goals that must be established by external and internal players involve convergence of local and foreign objectives, action based on what legitimate local partners want, actions that are sequenced and synchronised, people linked to their government, ownership, agency and empowerment instilled, local insecurities identified and coherent planning and consistency of effort. To achieve these goals, a peace-building strategy must be structured along the three lines of state activity, which have a symbiotic relationship with each other; security, governance/politics and development. To implement this strategy several key improvements in operational co-ordination and effectiveness are required. The paper explained that the Tswalu Protocol identifies ten measures for improving the effectiveness of peace-building interventions. These are campaign plan, establishing coherence, lead nations, building capacity, economic assessment, aid focus and priorities, creation of employment, code of conduct, information and messaging, and maintaining momentum.

    Arpita Anant, in her paper Regional Counter Terrorism Cooperation: Lessons from Southeast Asia, argued that regional counter-terrorism co-operation, though ‘limited’ by national interests and notions of sovereignty, has important implications for security in Southeast Asia. She identified three manifestations of the nature of terrorism: local-regional-global linkages, domestic context, and competing perspectives on terrorism. She asserted that regional counter terrorism is necessary since there are significant transnational linkages and that the regional response to terrorism can be elicited through fora of co-operation, framework of co-operation, institutions of co-operation and issues of co-operation. She, however, claimed that in the case of Southeast Asia there is limited regional counter-terrorism co-operation because regional co-operation in counter-terrorism is only ‘meant to shore up national capabilities’. Further, national interest in terms of national policies, perspectives and institutions and historical rivalries also limit regional co-operation. The ASEAN way, i.e. preoccupation with internal stability, non-interference in internal affairs and informal structures, according to her, also comes in the way of regional co-operation. While citing the implications for security, Anant argued that counter terrorism co-operation raises the threshold of multilateralism on security issues, while bilateral cooperation with big powers questions the notion of a “security community” in Southeast Asia.

    Bharti Chibber examined the inter-relationship between regional associations and regional security in South East Asia and South Asia through a comparative study of ASEAN and SAARC. Chibber argued that the regional co-operation dynamic cannot be comprehended without taking into account non-military threats to regional and national security. Thus, military power does remain a crucial factor in the overall power of states but it alone is no longer sufficient for the security of the state. Both intra-regional and extra-regional factors contributed to the creation and evolution of ASEAN and SAARC. She argued that ASEAN was originally conceived of as an organisation for economic, social and cultural co-operation. But the real objectives were regional and national security. The paper compared ASEAN and SAARC on the following aspects: Economic aspects, Environmental, Transnational organised crime, Political and military dimensions.

    Chibber argued that regional co-operation in the developing countries do not necessarily lead to or aim at political/economic union; but rather the effective functioning of an inter-governmental organisation with specific purposes. The goal is not to create a supra-national authority. Regional co-operation is only an adjustment for mutual benefit based on national interests. Neither ASEAN nor SAARC involve pooling of any part of the sovereignty of member countries. ASEAN has adopted the twin approaches of mufakat (a decision arrived at unanimously); and musfawarah (decision is reached through largely informal discussions and consultation without coercion). On the other hand, SAARC provides a forum for regional states to interact regularly “which itself is a big point given the conflicts and different perceptions that exist among the member states.” According to Chibber, the main obstacle to regional co-operation in South Asia is political.

    Phunchok Stobdan stated that the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) is being formed as an alternative multilateral architecture to deal with the Eurasian dilemma in the 21st century. It tries to provide a delicate equilibrium, through a co-operative framework among the participants in the post-bipolar structure. Stobdan, while arguing that SCO is an ‘ambiguous organisation’, examined three factors that shaped the development of SCO: Chinese perspective, Russian perspective, Central Asian perspective.

    China, the principal architect of SCO, considered it a perfect political and economic mechanism to overcome multiple post-Cold war crises. For Russia, SCO helps it to protect its traditional interest in Central Asia. For the Central Asian countries, SCO helped to ensure a higher degree of independence by playing off Chinese and Russian influence against each other. Stobdan stressed that the development of SCO is related to the current unprecedented changes in the world order, particularly to the geopolitical crisis in Central Asia, accentuated further by the problem of the unilateralist approach adopted by the US. It is seen as an attempt to blunt American influence and to gain for Russia a foothold in Asia. China emphasises on keeping the SCO an exclusive grouping so as to inhibit its growing into a real multilateral body. In many ways, this would prevent or further delay Central Asian integration into the international system. The paper brought forth several challenges confronting the SCO:

    • Fear of China runs deep in most Russian and Central Asian minds.
    • Sino-Russian rivalry
    • Struggle for supremacy in Central Asia by China and Russia
    • Strategic differences between China and Russia
    • Central Asian fissures

    Stobdan argued that the SCO appeared ineffective in the aftermath of 9/11. He also stressed that the future of SCO hinges on the future course of relationship between Russia and NATO. China, nonetheless, flaunts SCO as its own version of multiculturalism in Asia for the 21st century. However, the actual control over the agenda and decisions of the SCO is likely to remain with China and Russia. The paper also observed that in the absence of a direct land border with Central Asia, India’s ability to assert itself in the SCO will be rather limited.

    Wong Ming-Hsien stressed that the development of multilateralism in Asia has limitations. Nevertheless, he stated that there are regional, sub-regional, and trans-regional co-operative systems on security in Asia. According to Wong, the existing security institutions in Asia can be divided into military allies, strategic dialogues, negotiation of leading states, and collective security, and categorised into regional, sub-regional, and trans-regional levels. He also identified three factors that influence multilateral security institutions: the power interaction among leading powers; diversification of regional states; and the limit of security institutions.

    Wong argued that a chief factor that prevents Asia from establishing pan-Asian security measures such as EU or NATO is the lack of collective identity among the Asian community. Here, he explored three key elements: “interdependence”, “collective destiny” and “homogeneity” to scrutinise Asian states. The first two elements are shared by most actors; “homogeneity” remains most differentiated. He argued that China does not wish for the formation of a pan-Asian security community, because of the fact that it would invite the intervention of too many external actors. He suggested that an “Asian State Association” might be considered for development of pan-Asian multilateral security measures in the future, through the perspective of regional co-operation.


    T.V. Paul said that while all the six papers were information rich, they however should have had more focused research questions. While discussing Ayson’s paper, Paul said that the paper should focus on the time required for the institutions to become embedded. Since in many Asian countries the third pillar of peace i.e. democracy is missing, multilateral institutions may emerge as a pillar of peace. In his view, great powers are shaping the institutions while the smaller powers are initiating their formation. He contended that the use of institutions by smaller powers should be discussed. Paul also explained that China is using institutions very smartly, which is helping in increasing its soft power image and its ability to influence. While commenting on the paper of Greg Mills, he said that focus should be given to the building of institutions within war torn societies and also on civil society’s abilities to build institutions. He stated that there is an absence of United Nations Security Council’s leadership as the United States no longer provides it. He also emphasised that peace building and peace keeping are long drawn out processes. Discussing Anant’s paper, he said that peculiar domestic policies and unwillingness of the Southeast Asian nations to come together to fight terrorism co-operatively hampers the establishment of any collective security institution. He further said that Southeast Asia does not feel the threat of terrorism may be because it is episodic in nature and lacks greater intensity. He added that the ASEAN has come a long way in the security area as its members have realised the need for collective security. With reference to Chibber’s paper, he pointed out the need to analyse the issue at three levels –inter-state, intra-state and individual levels. He said that co-operative frameworks are not materialising as there is a dearth of entrepreneurial policy makers and a lack of dynamic leadership in the region. He noted that Stobdan’s paper was interesting. He reiterated that institutions take time to form and it is perceived external threats propel nations to form co-operative institutions. Wong’s paper, in his view, needs to look at alternate approaches and empirical explanations for understanding co-operative framework. He said that Asia has s weak form of interdependence and inter-state rivalries are still prevalent, and these make co-operative institutions difficult to establish.

    Gudrun Wacker addressed the issues raised in the papers. Discussing SCO, she argued that it is a good example of a multilateral institution but it is important to find out whether SCO will be able to mitigate the rivalry between China and Russia. She asserted that external factors were responsible for the formation of SCO. SCO came into being as a reaction to two factors. The first event was the US-Japan alliance and NATO expansion in the mid-1990s and the second was the events after September 11. She said that the European Union (EU) cannot be a standard for Asia as Asia is very diverse and it has both traditional and non-traditional security concerns. She also asserted that multilateral institutions are not goals or values in themselves. They are a platform that has something both for the weak as well as the strong powers. The fact that China is socialised in the norms of multilateral institutions is very crucial. For the bigger powers, multilateral institutions provide less transaction costs than interactions through bilateral institutions. She, however, said that multilateral institutions have an exit cost, the longer they persist greater are the exit costs. Multilateral institutions also help in reducing tensions by facilitating dialogue. She also stressed that multilateral institutions only provide general terms and regulations for co-operation among member nations. She argued that with the rise of China, India, Japan and Russia in Asia, multilateral institutions might lose their usefulness as these powers will have more resources to deal with their own security concerns and would not need to enter any multilateral co-operative institution.


    • Security concerns are increasingly becoming politicised.
    • SCO is a result of several years of process of boundary negotiations between Russia and the Central Asian countries.
    • There is a hidden motive behind China’s participation in SCO. It wants to form an alliance against the US.
    • SCO is the first multilateral organisation to recognise terrorism as the major threat in the new era.
    • China is using multilateral institutions to allay fears among weaker states. India should also follow the example of China, for “India emerging” because of its size and strength would be seen as a challenge in the future.
    • India should participate in multilateral institutions to further its own interest.
    • Criticism of multilateral institution would not serve any purpose.
    • India, Japan and EU should work closely for the socio-economic development of the region.
    • The United States should be included in any multilateral institution as it is the most dominant power in the world.
    • ASEAN is still a weak organisation and also it does not like to include big powers in its fold. Rivalry between Japan and China is obstructing regional co-operation.
    • Multilateral institutions are a means for achieving different goals for different countries.
    • Multilateral institutions have their own life, but many countries have vested interests in keeping these institutions alive for a longer time.
    • ECO, GCC and Oslo process were not mentioned in the session.
    • For Asia, multilateral institution is not the only framework for addressing security.
    • Multilateral institutions are instruments of foreign policy.
    • Security is more a bilateral issue unless there are issues like non-proliferation, terrorism, narcotics, etc., which could be tackled more effectively through multilateral institutions.
    • There is an absence of a conceptual framework for security. Security needs to be dealt with at inter- intra-state and individual levels.