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Regional Security Cooperation

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Former Foreign Minister of Australia and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, to World Peace Forum, International Security in a Changing World: Innovation, Coordination, Development, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 28 June 2013

Regional security cooperation has its general objectives the prevention, reduction, management and resolution of conflict.  But the institutions and practices aimed at advancing   these objectives come in many different shapes and sizes around the world, with varying degrees of formality, durability and effectiveness.

Regional organizations are often designed with primarily economic cooperation objectives, but in fact achieve security objectives by their very creation, and the enhanced degree of general intergovernmental dialogue, cooperation and interdependence that comes with the association. The European Union in this respect is probably the single most effective conflict prevention mechanism ever constructed, when one considers the history of Western Europe before its creation. ASEAN, similarly, although not itself a primarily security-focused organization, has evolved since its creation in the 1960s to the point that conflict, endemic in the past, is now almost unthinkable between any of its members.

 But other regional organizations created with similar objectives - like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established in the 1980s – have not evolved to anything like this extent. And other regional organizations with much more explicit security mandates – like the African Union, and the sub-regional African organizations like ECOWAS in West Africa and SADC in Southern Africa, have had very mixed records of success.

In our own East Asian, or Asia-Pacific region, a number of attempts have been made over the last 25 years to build more broadly based economic and security architecture – often with the ASEAN countries at the heart of the enterprise – with some progress being made but less than I for one would have hoped.

As Australian Foreign Minister back in 1990 I argued that we should consider trying to build something based on the Euro-Atlantic Helsinki process, or Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as it then was – with the core idea being that in the post Cold War era we should work harder to embrace the principle of ‘common security’, i.e. finding our security with others rather than against them. 

This was not very well received at first by the US and its regional allies in ASEAN and Japan – being thought likely to weaken the fabric of the Western alliance, and being a bit too comforting for Russia with its enthusiasm for naval arms control – but with the election of the Clinton Administration in 1992 a more relaxed approach was adopted, and from the early 1990s on we have seen the evolution of a number of regional mechanisms of varying degrees of formality and effectiveness:

  • APEC, initiated in 1989 with annual leaders’ meetings institutionalised from 1993, is a purely economic dialogue and policy organization, but security issues have regularly been discussed in its margins, nowhere more importantly than at the New Zealand meeting in 1999, which mobilized a response to the explosive situation in East Timor.
  • The ASEAN + summits, especially ASEAN +3 (South Korea, Japan and China).
  • The ASEAN Regional Forum, meeting since 1994 at foreign minister level, and now with 27 members, which was intended to evolve through three phases over time –  starting with confidence building measures, moving from there to more explicit conflict prevention roles  and ultimately conflict management and resolution. 

Although it has done some useful work on initiating discussion on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and developing cooperative disaster relief  capability – and there has been some useful regular dialogue on issues like counterrorism and transnational crime, maritime security and non-proliferation and disarmament, it would be fair to say that ARF is still largely stuck in the first groove – dialogue about confidence building – rather than living up to the hopes that by now it would be doing something more substantial;  and now

  • The East Asian Summit, initiated in 2005 involving leaders level meetings  - growing out of the ASEAN + 3, + another 3 (India, Australia and New Zealand), and now, since last year, embracing the US and Russia as well.     Although nothing very substantive has yet emerged from the EAS, it has the potential to be by far the most significant grouping.

Before the US/Russia inclusion there were three big previously obvious unmet needs: there had been no security forum bringing all key players together at leaders level (the ASEAN Regional Forum is ministerial); the key economic forum – APEC, which remains an important engine for trade facilitation, even if it has not lived up to the hopes of its founders (including me) by delivering rapid trade liberalisation – did not include India; and the only forum with potential for broad-ranging dialogue on all major policy issues, security, economic, and broader socio-political – the East Asia Summit – did not previously include all the relevant players, namely the US and Russia.[1] Now it does.

In addition there is the less formal Six Party Talks process, initiated in 2003 when DPRK walked away from the NPT, and the more Central Asia-focused Shanghai Cooperation Organisation  (SCO) formed in 1996. Also worth mentioning in our region is that in addition to all these intergovernmental mechanisms, there has been some significant non-governmental and academic dialogue and cooperation established through the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), initiated in 1993, and some other second-track mechanisms like the Institutes of Strategic and International Studies within ASEAN (ASEAN-ISIS), which have between them generated a number of ideas and inputs for first-track consideration in ARF.

The impulsefor all these institutions and processes is a recognition, to at least some extent, that multilateral approaches are necessary in addressing security and related issues.  There are certainly a number of good reasons for that approach:

  • 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.
  • Regular meetings between regional leaders, in group as well as bilateral settings, help build close and confident personal relationships: which makes shocks less likely, peaceful accommodation to new power realities more manageable, and stability  more sustainable.

Of course sometimes support for multilateral process is less forthcoming than it could be, including from the most important players. Let me raise two provocative questions for the most important players of all:

  • To Chinese colleagues: While China often expresses general support for multilateral institutions and processes as a means of trust-building when it comes to territorial issues like the South China Sea it has insisted on the primacy of bilateral diplomacy: is that position sustainable?
  • To U.S. colleagues: Although the U.S. has a long post-World War II history of  building  multilateral institutions, it  has tended to work through the UN only when it has had to, was initially reluctant to support regional security dialogue mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific, and on big issues like nuclear disarmament continues to prefer bilateral processes to any multilateral discussions: is aversion to multilateralism  its instinctive default position, and if so is that sustainable in the world of the 21st century?

My final word is this. What need to be less preoccupied in the future with issues of form – who sits around what table when – and much more focused 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 real 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 actually enhances stability, prosperity, state security and human security.



[1] 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 next two years. The Australian proposal generated quite a lot of controversy, and looking back, some of criticisms that were directed at the Rudd proposal were not entirely unreasonable. Certainly we could and should have been more receptive to the sensitivities of our ASEAN friends, who have seen themselves as both a model for effective sub-regional cooperation, and have made most of the running in developing the dialogue forums that already existed. But what we now have with the expanded EAS is almost exactly what Australia had in mind from the outset as the core unmet regional institutional need.