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Closing Remarks at the 13th Asian Security Conference

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  • Amb. Shivshankar Menon
    February 18, 2011

    Mr. NS Sisodia, Director General IDSA,
    Distinguished participants,
    Guests.

    Thank you for asking me to speak to the closing session of IDSA’s 13th Asian Security Conference, “Towards a New Asian Order”. You have a very impressive list of participants and speakers, and there would seem to be little that I can add to what has come before.

    I must confess to some confusion when I first heard the title of your conference, “Towards a New Asian Order”. I was not sure whether you meant a new world order that was Asian, or whether you meant a new order in Asia; whether you meant new Asian rules of the game and stakes in the international order, or a new ordering of the way things are done and managed in Asia. It took only a second’s thought to make it clear that the answer was the second choice, especially as your conference is about Asian security. But the fact that the question even arose in my mind suggests how rapidly and how extensively world geopolitics has changed, and how the centre of geopolitical gravity has moved to Asia.

    At the risk of repeating what may have already been said, I thought I would give you one Indian’s view on how Asia is changing, on the new security challenges that result from these changes, and on the sort of Asian order that might meet these new challenges.

    Changing Asia

    There is no question that the rise of Asia, with China as the most prominent example, is the major geopolitical fact of our times. What Asia has achieved in the last three decades in terms of the rapid accretion of wealth to begin with, and now power, has never been done so fast in history by any other region. Nor has any other power in history grown as rapidly as China in this period. The relative prominence and importance of Asia and China have been accelerated by the world economic crisis since 2008, and a crisis of confidence in the Western developed world. We Asians are reminded nearly every day that Asia is now pivotal to global politics, and urged to fulfil our responsibilities, (which I sometimes suspect is merely a polite way of asking us to do what others find more convenient than our following our own interests.)

    But, stupendous as the Asian achievement is, we must remember that it has several unique characteristics.

    • Asia has seen several powers rising simultaneously, and has yet to find a new internal equilibrium of its own. Unlike what occurred when Japan rose in the thirties, China is not the only rising Asian power today. Within Asia itself, on China’s immediate periphery, other powers like South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and India are also developing rapidly. We already see in Asia classical responses to the rapid rise of new powers in terms of internal and external balancing. We see increasing defence budgets throughout the region over the last two decades.
    • These growing Asian powers increasingly owe more and more of their economic growth to the links and interdependence among themselves. Several of them still have overwhelming domestic preoccupations and will therefore concentrate on those rather than on external entanglements. It would be natural to expect that these powers would concentrate on creating external environments conducive to their continued economic growth and social transformation rather than focussing purely on security aspects of their external environment. For quite some time to come Asia will see the development of powerful states whose citizenry as individuals will enjoy lower standards of living than those in the developed world. These states will therefore not replicate the behaviour of previous powers. The new equilibrium in Asia is likely to be as much a result of production chains and regional and global market integration as of purely security driven alliances or structures.
    • Asia’s geopolitics are complicated by the presence of several global and extra-regional powers who are now integral to Asian security in this age of globalisation of economics, security and technology. Powers such as the USA, Russia and Japan are present and have long established interests of their own in Asia. An Asian order which ignores their interests is unlikely to be stable.
    • And lastly, Asia as a whole is and will remain dependent upon the rest of the world for its own continued growth and security, whether in terms of energy security, food security or, in the more conventional calculation of the sources and providers of security capabilities and technologies. In several respects that matter, (concepts, technology, security, energy etc), Asia is still and will remain a net global consumer for some time to come. With younger populations, and the task of maintaining the growth necessary to generate jobs for new entrants to the labour force, this will remain true of the major Asian developing economies for the foreseeable future. (Historically speaking, this is very different from the situation before the mid-eighteenth century when Asia last enjoyed relative global pre-eminence. Then Asia depended on itself for its needs and markets. Again, the contrast with the Soviet Union’s autonomy from others could not be greater. So expect different behaviour from Asian powers.)

    In other words we are speaking of an Asia that will be largely developing, increasingly integrated within itself, and simultaneously dependent upon the broader global community and environment, --- a powerful but poor Asia.

    None of this is to say that the relative rise of Asia will not continue. I would expect it to over the medium term, though straight line extrapolations have seldom worked in history. This is just to say that the issues that we face in dealing with the changes in Asia are different from those that we see in historical analogies of rising powers in the past. (This is not 19th century Europe, amenable to balance of power solutions such as a “Concert of Asia”.) For the present, Asia and the world have yet to work out a security architecture that accommodates the changes in Asia and the legitimate interests of all the countries concerned without reducing them to a zero sum game. Our preference is that the new architecture be open, inclusive, and flexible. But this still is a work in progress.

    The Issues

    What are the new challenges that this situation in Asia throws up for us? To my mind three challenges stand out:
    1. Connectivity domains like maritime security, cyber space and outer space;
    2. The increasing security divide within Asia; and,
    3. The institutionalisation of security cooperation in Asia.

    The first probably explains itself. Asia’s pattern of growth and the fact that her physical and economic security will be linked to that of the rest of the world make her connectivity critical. Hence the need to assure security of maritime communications, cyber space and outer space. Many of you know much more than I do about these domains, but it is no accident that these are precisely the domains where Asia is witnessing latent and explicit competition and contention, a build up of national offensive and defensive capabilities which in other areas would be called an arms race.

    You might well ask why I also mentioned the security divide and a lack of institutions. Why not choose traditional security issues like border disputes or terrorism or inter-state conflict or nuclear proliferation? Because these problems, though very real and worrying, which exist in virulent forms in Asia, have not prevented the stupendous transformation that has resulted in the accumulation of power and wealth in large parts of Asia that we spoke of. In other words, so far Asia has successfully managed individual issues of nuclear balance and several conventional security threats, and even the proliferation of WMD and missile technologies. These will require continued and considerable effort, but increasingly these problems will occur in new forms.

    Take piracy, for instance, one of the oldest of all conventional security threats. Asia was successful in tackling it around the Straits of Malacca but the international community have been much less so off the Horn of Africa. Why is this so? To my mind this is largely because there are parts of Asia which have not been transformed or changed. While we were able to act on both land and sea near the Straits of Malacca, we are unable to do so in the Horn. In those parts of Asia which are not developing as rapidly, traditional security issues now affect Asian security differently. There is a growing security deficit or divide within Asia.

    To take another instance, there is an increasing danger of terrorism spreading from those parts of Asia, like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which have not been part of the Asian economic miracle. The security of nuclear materials and weapons in those same parts of Asia is another example of the sort of problems that we face. These are the problems I mean when I speak of the increasing security divide within Asia. There are parts of Asia which are falling behind, not just in economic terms but in terms of the normal security attributes of sovereignty that we take for granted. And the consequences for Asian security should concern all of us in Asia.

    The New Asian Order

    So what sort of new Asian order will meet the needs of these new challenges? Should we proceed in security as we did in the economy, building block by building block? Or do we move to collective security in Asia, something that each of the two super powers tried and failed to achieve during the Cold War?

    I do not claim to have answers to these questions, but I can try to describe some of the desiderata of a new security order in Asia that should be part of our consideration of this problem.

    • It should be inclusive. Given the diversity in Asia this is essential if the order is to work. And it must include all relevant powers, including those geographically external but intrinsic to Asia’s security in practice and presence.
    • It should be extensive, from Suez to the Pacific and including the entire Eurasian landmass. If not it will not be able to address the security consequences of the growing security divide within Asia.
    • It should be plural. No one-size solution or simplistic prescription will work. We should learn from the failure of Cold War alliance systems in the area, and of earlier Asian Collective Security proposals.
    • Its institutions should be consultative, respecting the Asian cultural bias towards consensual solutions. Centring the institutions on ASEAN would be logical and practical, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ plus Eight Meeting offers a potentially very useful way forward.

    While these desiderata may sound utopian, they are suggested in the hope that we will be able to apply them to the issues we face, thus building habits of cooperation in security as we have already done in the economic sphere.

    And if we do succeed in the years ahead to build such a security order in Asia and successfully handle the multiple security challenges that we face, I suppose the world order will indeed be “Asian” in character, and the question I started with would have been answered.

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