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Asia Pacific Regional Security Architecture

Panel presentation by Prof the Hon Gareth Evans, Former Australian Foreign Minister, President Emeritus International Crisis Group, Chancellor Australian National University, Professorial Fellow University of Melbourne, to the Global Policy Forum, Yaroslavl, Russia, 9 September 2010

Why Regional Dialogue and Cooperation Machinery is Necessary

The general arguments for having effective regional security cooperation mechanisms are familiar, and compelling:

  • Many contemporary problems are simply beyond the capacity of single countries, however powerful, to resolve unilaterally: terrorism, maritime security, arms control, drug and people trafficking, climate change, health pandemics, refugee management, and some major trade and financial imbalances all need cooperative and collective action. Global level responses may be optimal, but problems which are primarily regional in scope and character are likely to be better dealt with at that level, given limitations of time, attention, commitment and resources at the global level.
  • Collective action beats unilateral action almost every time. Unilaterally volunteered actions can make an important contribution to problem solving, but unilaterally imposed solutions, even if possible, generate resentment and stress, are inherently more fragile than cooperatively agreed ones, and very susceptible to changes in underlying power balances.
  • Multilateral action beats bilateral action most of the time. Some problems may appear capable of bilateral resolution, but are much better resolved in more multilateral frameworks: e.g. free trade agreements, and arms control and disarmament agreements.
  • The most general reason may be the most compelling of all: no power relationships remain static for very long. Some states are invariably losing their way as others are finding theirs: the wheels turn. Shocks are less likely, peaceful accommodation to new power realities is more manageable, and stability is more sustainable, if close and confident personal relationships can be built between regional leaders.

In all of this, what constitutes a ‘region’ is always up for argument, and very dependent on context. The ‘Asia Pacific’ constitutes at a minimum the countries of North East Asia, South East Asia, and the major Western Pacific countries Australia and New Zealand. But given the extent and intensity of US strategic and economic engagement with all these countries (greater by orders of magnitude than any other North or South American Pacific country) it has always made sense to include it. And the case for Russia’s inclusion has also always been compelling, given its geographical presence as well as its size, stature and Security Council role.

India has always been a little more problematic as an 'Asia Pacific' country, given its geographical distance from the other Asian countries in the basic group, but the huge recent growth in its economic engagement with them, and its sheer size and strategic significance -- again in both cases much greater than any of its South Asian neighbours -- makes its presence inescapable in any regional organization designed to address the problem-solving objectives i have outlined.

However one defines a ‘region’ there will always be overlap with other regions, and regionally organized economic and security structures. In particular, in the context of this forum here in Russia, there is of course some overlap of the Asia Pacific region -- as I have just broadly defined it, with the US and Russia as key members -- and the broader Euro-Atlantic region, ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’, encompassed by the OSCE, and potentially by the European Security Treaty proposed for debate by Russia.

I have gone on record -- wearing my former hat as President of the International Crisis Group -- as expressing some sympathy for a fundamental rethink of Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and in particular the role of NATO in this context, and I certainly believe that a debate of the kind President Medvedev is proposing is one we have to have. But for present purposes I believe that this debate, and that about Asia Pacific architecture, can proceed comfortably in parallel tracks – the evolution of more effective dialogue and cooperation structures in either of these contexts would reinforce, rather than impact negatively, on the other.

Strengthening Regional Cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region

Past Efforts. In the Asia Pacific region, substantial efforts have been made in the past, always with strong support from Russia, to build regional economic and security architecture, most obviously with the creation of APEC in 1989 and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) not long afterwards. There has been much additional activity, especially in the form of ASEAN+ summits and ministerial meetings, and most recently with the emerging East Asia Summit (EAS) process, initiated in 2005, involving meetings held after the ASEAN leaders’ meetings of the ASEAN 10 with the North East Asian 3 (China, Japan and ROK) plus India, Australia and New Zealand. There have as well been varyingly active roles played in other sub-regional and cross cutting organizations like ASEAN itself, SAARC, and the SCO and CSTO.

But there are still obvious basic gaps in the structural architecture for Asia Pacific dialogue and cooperation, three in particular:

  • There is no security forum bringing all key players together at leaders level (ARF is ministerial).
  • The key economic forum – APEC – does not include India.
  • The only forum with potential for broad-ranging dialogue on all major policy issues, security, economic, and broader socio-political – EAS – does not presently include all the relevant players, namely the US and Russia.

The Australian ‘Asia Pacific Community’ Proposal. These are the perceptions which lay behind the proposal announced by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in mid-2008 to create an ‘Asia Pacific Community’, which set a major debate running over the last two years.

The Australian proposal generated quite a lot of controversy. As a former foreign minister myself, much engaged in the original creation of APEC and the ARF, I am very conscious that there are always risks in taking these initiatives – testing the water is a trial and error process. Looking back, some of the criticisms that were directed at the Rudd proposal – at least in the way it was originally formulated – were perhaps not entirely unreasonable:

  • The public launch could have been preceded by much more prior consultation (even though express purpose was to start a debate, not produce a concluded proposal for endorsement).
  • The use of the ‘Community’ word -- even with small ‘c’ -- and the reference to ‘by 2020’ rather than some earlier date, made the initial proposal sound more grandly amibitious -- even EU-like -- than it ever actually was.
  • There could have been more emphasis from the outset, on the achievability of the desired architecture by the evolution of existing institutions rather than the creation of new ones.
  • And there could have been acknowledged more clearly from the outset the necessary centrality in any such institutional architecture of the ASEAN countries. That is not the same as automatically accepting a dominant ‘driving seat’ role for ASEAN: the other major non-ASEAN countries are bound to want their own turns at the wheel. But it is a matter of recognising its geographical status at the hub of the entire region, the stabilizing role it has played in its own traditionally volatile area, and the historic role it has played in encouraging wider regional cooperation. There is, moreover, clearly utility in having the voices of at least some smaller Asia Pacific states heard in the dialogue and cooperation process envisaged.

Current Situation. There is now every sign that, very much as a response to Australian-initiated debate (but also with some momentum contributed by the parallel Japanese promotion of an ‘East Asia Community’ (itself never very clearly defined but responding to some of the same concerns as the Australian proposal), there will in fact shortly be in place the dialogue and policy cooperation mechanism that the Asia Pacific region needs.

In July, after the US made clear that it would welcome participation in the East Asia Summit process, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers invited the US and Russia to attend the 2011 EAS in Indonesia: this is expected to be endorsed by the ASEAN leaders in October and supported by the other participating countries.

So if things go according to plan, we will have in place from next year an annual meeting of leaders from all the key broader Asia-Pacific region countries - ASEAN, China-Japan-ROK, India, Australia-New Zealand, and the US and Russia, which is able to debate in a free-ranging way all the key economic, security and strategic political issues (including the environment) that will be crucial to our common future. This is exactly what Australia had in mind from the outset as the core unmet regional institutional need, and we will be delighted if this indeed proves to be the outcome.

It would obviously be highly desirable if over time this leaders' meeting could be supplemented by a supporting schedule of ministerial meetings in the different policy areas, starting with foreign affairs, defence, and economics and finance.

My final word is this. What we all now need to do is move on from our preoccupation with discussing issues of form – who sits around what table when – to focus in a major way on issues of substance: what exactly will the leaders and their ministers talk about, and what practical outcomes can emerge from their discussions that are capable of real-world delivery.

We need real dialogue and policy cooperation, not just another expensive series of photo-opportunities with set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common denominator communiqués. Improved regional architecture is not an end in itself – all the effort will only be worthwhile if it enhances stability, prosperity, state security and human security.