As tensions mount over North Korea and South China Sea, does Asia needs a new diplomatic forum?
Asia Society report calls for fortifying Asean-based institutions and the East Asia Summit as venues for resolving regional economic and security problems
The escalation in tensions around North Korea and the dominance of the US and China in reaching a resolution underscore the need for a stronger multilateral framework in Asia, said the project director of an Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) report calling for a new approach to economic and security issues in the region.
The report, titled Preserving the Long Peace in Asia, argues that Asean-based institutions and the East Asia Summit (EAS) – both of which include China and the US – should be strengthened as venues for discussion of regional issues and used to offset the tendency of many countries to “shop” for forums that suit their interests better.
“Big countries have to demonstrate that they are accommodating the opinions of smaller countries in the region as well and that they’re not just seeking to say ‘we’re going to do this the way we want to do it or we’re going to gang up in a G2 against you guys’,” Lindsey Ford, Director of Policy-Security Affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
The report was produced to reflect the consensus view of ASPI’s Independent Commission on Regional Security Architecture, which is chaired by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Other members of the commission include Thomas E. Donilon, National Security Advisor under former US President Barack Obama.
Efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme are likely to be a focal point of an expected summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump in November.
“There have also been people like the Secretary of State and others that are pushing towards potential discussions with North Korea,” former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said in an interview with the Post earlier this week. “But I think the first thing we need to push is actually engage China one-on-one on North Korea.”
Such an approach to tensions on the Korean Peninsula are an example of the bilateral channels that ASPI calls “inadequate to address many of the region’s most prevalent concerns, such as nuclear proliferation, natural disasters, violent extremism, and cyber threats, which require a coordinated regional response”.
The ASPI report called for more dialogue about security issues within Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus, a forum that consists of the 10 Asean members and eight other countries including the US, China, Japan and Russia. As well, the EAS should build “its operational capacity by establishing temporary working groups tasked with developing recommendations on discrete security policy topics”.
“Asean can help bring countries together as a neutral arbiter,” Ford said. “When things are going right, what big countries see, and China has seen this in some instances is if you push too hard on that you’re the 800-pound gorilla in the room, it doesn’t go well for you.”
Ford was referring to the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, when China called then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comments about competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea “an attack on China”. At that meeting in Hanoi, Clinton said: “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”
The prominence of the US and China as primary brokers in regional issues have created challenges in building a more coordinated consensus around how to handle the North Korea problem, the ASPI report said.
“Countries across the region often feel torn between their dependence on the US security umbrella and their reliance on China’s growing economic influence,” the report said.
The report also addressed the missile defence system deployed by the US in South Korea as a measure of protection against possible attacks by Pyongyang.
“The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) case also puts a spotlight on the growing concern for many Asian nations: in a world in which their economic and security interests diverge, partners are increasingly being forced to choose between the two in uncomfortable ways,” it said.