Security forum asks how northeast Asia's powerful neighbours can avoid conflict
The chairman of the meeting invites his audience - security officials, academics and analysts from around the region - behind closed-doors for 30 minutes to find a solution to the tensions dogging northeast Asia. Nervous laughter erupts from all corners of the room.
That was the scene played out in Kuala Lumpur this week at the annual regional security forum hosted by Asean and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
The subject was no laughing matter. Instead, the titters reflected the growing sense that the challenges presented by China's rise, Japan's potential militarisation and a habitually recalcitrant North Korea are moving into a new realm of uncertainty.
Many in the room agreed current tensions between China and Japan over Tokyo's leaders repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine were a mere manifestation of wider nagging questions in the longer term. How can serious conflict be prevented in an increasingly integrated region that is home to a China and Japan that are both powerful at the same time? Will the US continue to be the dominant player in the region? How will potential tensions over a worsening environment or energy resources be dealt with?
Given the uncertainty, many believed a new way urgently needed to be found to get senior officials talking formally regularly, particularly over security issues. Currently, the wider region is home to an alphabet soup of international bodies. None deal specifically with northeast Asia. There is the Asean Regional Forum, created by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Then there are the so-called Asean+3 meetings, linking northeast and Southeast Asia. Then there is the Apec leaders meeting, the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. In terms of defence issues, none of the existing bodies quickens pulses.
'China's huge and sudden rise necessitates the creation of an East Asian regional institution to be able to cope with her,' said Indonesian academic Jusuf Wanandi.
'South Korean officials have recently floated the idea of turning the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions into a long-term body to guide security relations. Given the fact the talks have long struggled to bear fruit, some want to avoid any such link.'
One US analysts said: 'The six-party talks are an utter failure. We don't want to cripple any future talks with that association, but something is surely needed.'
Desmond Ball, a security expert at the Australian National University, said the assumptions that have governed strategic relations for decades are being shattered at an ever-faster pace.
'We're in a new arms race, and it is happening faster than anyone thought,' he said. 'All the big countries - China, India and Japan - are spending more but so are the smaller countries. We are at the point in military growth terms where every action is immediately met by a reaction.'
Mainland scholars and former diplomats were keen to put a limit on China's ambitions. They repeatedly insisted that China's development goals related to the livelihood of its people - not regional expansion. 'People need to realise that we don't want to overturn what has been a peaceful region for decades,' one veteran envoy said. 'We simply cannot afford a new enemy, whether it is China or the US.'