Regional security an uphill struggle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2009, 12:00am

The phrase 'new regional security architecture' may not quicken many pulses. But for East Asia's military analysts, strategists and diplomats it is stirring stuff - and it will probably not be long before it becomes more widely recognised terminology.

Essentially it refers to a meaningful body that brings together the region's expanding militaries - big and small. The goal is to find a way of guiding future military development, easing tensions through co-operation and improved understanding.

When regional defence ministers, military brass, weapons dealers and academics met in Singapore last weekend for the informal Shangri-La Dialogue, it was North Korea - one of the few countries declining to attend - that delivered one of the strongest messages. Its second nuclear test, last Monday, reminded all just what a dangerous region it is.

Uncertainty surrounding the future of the Korean Peninsula - home to the last great border of the cold war - reflects the wider issues facing the region. The big one, of course, is the future Sino-US relationship.

Decades-old assumptions concerning security in the region are changing, in large part due to China's emergence as a global economic and military power.

American power in the region - represented by its alliances with Japan and South Korea - may not be directly challenged for years to come, but the history of international relations suggests strategic shifts between large rising powers and declining ones are seldom peaceful.

China's military build-up is already having a marked impact, sparking a re-tooling of forces from Australia to Vietnam.

Australian defence planners recently warned of the prospect of a war in Asia in the next two decades - a view often expressed in private as analysts survey a rapidly changing scene. And unlike other regions, there is little in the way of formal diplomatic bodies to keep the peace.

Asean's regional forum on security links the 10 nations of Southeast Asia with powers from further afield, including China, Russia, the United States and India. It is, however, restricted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' own caution and is little more than a talking shop focusing largely on the odd confidence-building measure.

In Singapore, almost all ministers acknowledged the need for some sort of meaningful mechanism. But few specifics were on offer.

At this early stage, the emerging diplomatic struggle points to the wider tensions. China is undoubtedly keen but is likely to be leery of anything that is dominated by the United States, its allies and friends - the 'cold-war mentality' it often refers to.

Speaking in Singapore, Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the PLA's general staff, promoted the need for an inclusive, co-operative security arrangement based on equality. History had shown, he said, that bilateral alliances and the use of force 'could not settle disputes at their source' - an apparent crack at Washington.

The US is almost certain to be wary of anything that does not have teeth or seeks to limit its ability to act. Defence Secretary Robert Gates couched the need for a new body in terms beyond any rivalry with China. 'New and re-emerging centres of power - from China and Russia, to India and Indonesia - combined with other shifts, give impetus to the search for a new security architecture in the region,' he said.

The Singapore event is unusual for the easy way old suspicions and rivalries fall away in the interests of a weekend of friendly discussion. Diplomatic formality is sure to cloud that once something official is created. It is tempting, however fanciful, to imagine just getting all the ministers together once or twice a year, laying on some good food and wine, and allowing them to get on with it.