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A Brief History of the Asian Security Conference

S. Kalyanaraman is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 13, 2012

    The story of the Asian Security Conference (ASC) is the attempt by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) to capture the complex issues involved in Asia’s emergence as the new locus of international affairs in the 21st century and India’s emergence as a factor in the continent’s evolving economic, political and security dynamics. For this purpose, every year since 1999, IDSA has brought together academics, policy analysts, and officials (government and multilateral organisations) from various Asian countries as well as other parts of the world to debate upon issues pertaining to Asian affairs under the auspices of the Asian Security Conference. The conference’s deliberations have been enriched by the participation of successive Indian Ministers of Defence and of External Affairs as well as of political leaders from various countries including from Afghanistan, Brazil, Japan, Maldives, Mongolia, Netherlands, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom. This year again, the inaugural address at the conference is being delivered by India’s Minister of Defence Mr. A.K. Antony, a special address is scheduled to be delivered by Ms. Roza Otunbayeva, a former President of Kyrgyzstan, and the valedictory address will be delivered by India’s National Security Advisor.

    India’s Emergence as a Factor in Asian Security

    The immediate context for the first edition of the conference was provided by India’s May 1998 crossing of the nuclear weapons threshold, a decision that was part and parcel of the policy changes that became inevitable to cope with the post-Cold War world and the challenges that the oncoming ‘Asian’ century portended – Russia’s inability to provide India support in the diplomatic and military domains, the sole superpower’s efforts to prevent India exercising its nuclear option and availing of the benefits of nuclear deterrence, China’s enabling role in Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, the economic devastation wreaked by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its political consequences, the coming to the fore of non-traditional security challenges like small arms proliferation, drug trafficking, terrorism and religious extremism, etc. At the same time, India’s nuclearisation had led to calls for a clear articulation of its security concerns, its envisaged role in the emerging Asian balance of power and its views on the international order. It is the combination of these factors that led to the organisation in January 1999 of IDSA’s first ASC titled ‘Asian Security in the 21st Century’. ASC 1999 focused upon 1) the strategic framework for policy makers in Asia including the emerging threats and challenges facing Asian countries in the 21st century, 2) the emergence of new powers including India and India’s relationships with the Great Powers, 3) the future of nuclear deterrence, and 4) the challenge for defence planning in an era of strategic uncertainty.

    These discussions about Asian security and India’s role in it were carried forward at the second edition of the ASC held in January 2000. Entitled ‘Asia’s New Dawn: The Challenges to Peace and Security’, ASC 2000 saw an expanded discussion on nuclear deterrence by including issues relating to non-proliferation as well as the spread of ballistic missiles in Asia. Similarly, the ambit of the discussion on great power relations was expanded to include how they might unfold in the new century, their impact on Asian security, and a special focus on China’s relations with the ‘big powers’. At the same time, the critical challenges faced by small Asian countries and by important regional countries were also factored in through perspectives from Maldives, Mongolia, Tajikistan, etc. In keeping with the focus brought to bear upon non-traditional security issues during the previous year’s conference, ASC 2000 devoted a session to discussing the geopolitics of energy, a particular concern in this regard being whether Asian countries’ quest for energy security would lead to cooperation or conflict. The final session of the conference was devoted to a discussion on limited wars, the challenge it posed for defence planning and the responses and options available to countries faced with it – a theme that was explored consequent to India being forced to engage in a limited war with Pakistan during the summer of 1999.

    The Thrust on Cooperative Security

    ‘Reshaping Asian Security’ was the theme of the third ASC held in January 2001, its main thrust being the imperative of building cooperative peace in an Asia marked not only by multiple traditional and non-traditional security challenges but was also being reshaped by globalisation and the information revolution even as a new balance of power was struggling to establish itself. Other specific issues covered at the conference were: the new agenda of intervention without regard for state sovereignty, the transformation of war, defence planning for limited war, transnational terrorism, human security challenges, nuclear weapons and proliferation issues, India’s re-engagement with the world economy, and building cooperative peace in Asia.

    September 11 and the Focus on Terrorism

    The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the December 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament provided the context as well as the content for the fourth edition of the ASC held in January 2002. Entitled ‘Asian Security Strategies in a Period of Uncertainty’, ASC 2002 brought to bear intense focus on the strategies being contemplated and adopted by major powers, emerging powers and regional countries to deal with the challenge posed by the emergence of terrorism as a major threat. The conference also discussed at length the prospects for international and regional cooperation on countering terrorism.

    The Rise of China

    The biggest story of our times – the rise of China as a major global power during the course of the first decade of the 21st century – was the focus of the January 2003 edition of the ASC. Organised on a much larger scale than earlier editions, ASC 2003 saw the presentation of 43 papers on various aspects related to China’s rise and its impact on Asian security. Taking a cue from projections about China, India and the United States emerging as the three largest economies of the world and by extension as the three most powerful actors on the world stage by mid-century, the conference began with Indian, Chinese and American perspectives on Asian security. The focus of the next two sessions shifted to what underlay China’s rise – its economic reforms and military modernisation programme. Then came the massive exercise of discussing China’s relations with the countries of Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia as well as its ties with the United States, Russia and Europe. The concluding session of the conference focused on China’s non-military challenges – its quest for energy security, the challenge posed by radical extremists, its environmental problems and policies, and the popular challenges China faces in Tibet and Xinjiang.

    The Challenges to Multilateralism

    ASC 2004, the sixth edition of the conference, devoted itself to discussing the consequences of one of the most contested issues of the previous decade – the decision of the United States and its coalition of the willing to wage a pre-emptive war on Iraq without the express sanction of the United Nations. Entitled ‘United Nations, Multilateralism and International Security’, the conference benefited from the address of UN Deputy Secretary General Ms. Louise Frechette. One of the highlights of the conference was the 12 different perspectives on the challenges to multilateralism and the United Nations including those provided by Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando, Ambassador Yasushi Akashi, the British political leader Geoffrey Van Orden, and the American academic Stephen Schlesinger. Other issues discussed at the conference were: conflict resolution and post-conflict management in various countries of Asia and Africa, the imperative of international cooperation in tackling terrorism, drugs trafficking and organised crime, and perspectives on the UN’s role in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. ASC 2004 concluded with an assessment of the prospects for restructuring and strengthening the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.

    The Focus on Asia’s Sub-regions

    The seventh, eighth and ninth editions of the Asian Security Conference devoted themselves to in-depth assessments of the unfolding security dynamics in Eastern Asia, West Asia and Southeast Asia, respectively. While the larger theme of ASC 7 (held in January 2005) was Eastern Asia, it included within its ambit a special focus on Japan’s changing strategic and security profile. But the focus on Japan was an integral part of the larger discussion on the traditional and non-traditional challenges confronting the region – the North Korean nuclear issue, maritime security challenges, the implications of China’s rise, energy security, etc. Similarly, ASC 8 (held in January/February 2006), brought to bear intense attention on the traditional and non-traditional security challenges confronting West Asia especially in the wake of the churning that the region began to undergo in the wake of September 11 which was accelerated further by the US attempt to bring democracy to the region at the point of a bayonet. ASC 2006 concluded with a discussion on India’s role and interests in West Asia. The focus of the ASC shifted to Southeast Asia in February 2007. A wide range of issues including the role of regionalism and multilateralism, the challenges posed to countries of the region by terrorism and religious fundamentalism, the region’s quest for energy security, and the role of external powers were discussed at ASC 2007 before concluding with a focus upon India’s growing economic, political and military linkages with countries of the region.

    Asian Geopolitics

    The 10th edition of the ASC saw a return to its roots so to speak, when once again an effort was made to capture the broad contours of ‘Asian Security in the 21st Century’ although there were some significant additions to the issues discussed 10 years earlier. ASC 2008 focused not only on the perspectives of major powers, the future of the nuclear order and the idea of evolving a co-operative framework for Asian security, but also brought to bear an in-depth discussion on Afghanistan and another on terrorism and sectarian conflicts.

    The Changing Face of War

    While retaining its previous edition’s focus on geopolitics and the Asian security perspectives of major powers, ASC 2009, the 11th edition of the conference held in February 2009, emphasised upon the changing face of war. In addition to focusing on irregular warfare, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, it also sought to capture changes in land, maritime and air warfare doctrines through case studies of the Chinese PLA, the US Air Force and the Indian Navy. In addition, the space technology and ballistic missile defence dimensions were also covered in this conference.

    Imagining Asia’s Future

    ASC 2010 sought to imagine how Asia would be in 2030 for which purpose it explored current trends and possible scenarios. The conference’s ambit was vast covering as it did a range of traditional and non-traditional security issues including: climate change, environment, energy and water; globalisation, economic growth, poverty and equity; demography, migration and urbanisation; society, identity, religion and governance; the impact of transformational technologies; weapons of mass destruction; Asian militaries and the future of war; and Asia’s future geopolitics; before throwing up alternative scenarios of Asia’s future.

    Towards a New Asian Order

    The search for a new Asian order was the thrust of ASC 2011 and the conference sought to point the way forward through in-depth analyses of the major factors impacting upon Asian security – the consequences of globalisation on the Rise of Asia, traditional security challenges in the nuclear and maritime domains, non-traditional security challenges like water security, energy security, climate change and disasters – and ways to manage them at the level of Asia’s various sub-regions as well as at the continental level.

    The Importance of Non-Traditional Security

    That non-traditional security issues are likely to emerge as important challenges was identified at the very first Asian Security Conference by IDSA’s former Director the late Mr. K. Subrahmanyam. This year, the ASC has decided to focus only on this aspect of security. Thus, the various sessions of ASC 2012, being held between February 13 and 15, 2012, are seeking to bring comprehensive focus upon issues like water security, climate change and natural disasters, energy security, transnational crime, and financial and economic security.

    Conclusion

    The 14 editions of the Asian Security Conference highlight the major aspects of India’s thinking on Asian security. First, that an emerging India is a benign power that does not seek to undermine let alone overthrow the existing order across all dimensions. Second, although India favours a peaceful and cooperative Asian order, it understands the importance of a balance of power among the major states in Asia. Managing the rise of China as Asia’s most powerful state is the most significant challenge confronting India. Finally, non-traditional security challenges which directly affect the lives and livelihoods of the common people are as critical as traditional security challenges; and the best way to tackle them is through multilateral cooperation.

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