The speeches and discussions were at several occasions remarkably open and direct.
The strongest impression that remains with me (as a European) is that the crisis in Ukraine, and Russia’s ambitions to regain its status as an international heavyweight, were hardly mentioned at all. From an Asian perspective there are several other problems, far more serious. Furthermore, several of the delegates showed a surprisingly (from a European perspective) understanding attitude toward the way Russia is acting: “Isn’t Crimea really a part of Russia, there are mostly Russians living there – are there not?” This undeniably brings thoughts about how isolated, or perhaps not, Russia is from a global perspective. In this context one cannot ignore that Asia contributes to some 50% of the world’s GDP. Europe (and the US) are no longer the centre of universe.
One area where the Asian countries and “the West” however do seem to have a strong common interest is the fight against terrorism. A recurrent mantra in many of the speeches was the threat from “extremism, terrorism, and separatism”. The interpretation of these words were in many cases quite diverging, but my impression is that IS, Al Qaida and other similar organisations are considered as serious threats in many Asian countries.
Future developments in Afghanistan are therefore a major source of worry. Although several countries, including China, would like to see a reduced US presence in Asia, there is a certain ambivalence to this question. Who will now stop Afghanistan from becoming a base for extreme Islamic movements? This makes it probable that SCO (Shanghai Co-operation Organisation – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) will play a larger role as a security policy instrument in the future, compared to the relatively unclear role it has had so far. This in particular when it comes to fighting “extremism, terrorism, and separatism”.
The biggest international challenges when it comes to security in East Asia, and which was also mentioned by most speakers, are the territorial conflicts at sea. First and foremost in the South China Sea, where China, Viet Nam, the Philippines, and Brunei, among others, have overlapping demands.
There are also different interpretations regarding “freedom of navigation” within exclusive economic zones (EEZ). China and the US have very diverging views on this. China claims that there should be restrictions when it comes to military activities, while the US claims that there should be an unlimited right for anyone to carry out for example military exercises in international waters. There have been several incidents at sea as well as in the air where both parties have claimed that their interpretation should prevail.
Another territorial conflict which might lead to armed clashes is the dispute between Japan and China regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
It was obvious during the conference that all countries that are involved, one way or another, directly or indirectly (e.g. Singapore), are seriously concerned about the possible consequences of these disputes.
The smaller (everything being relative) Asian countries have ended up in a difficult dilemma. None of them can alone balance China’s growing political, military, and economic power. They are therefore interested in a continued strong presence by the US in South East Asia. Their military cooperation with the US has in many cases increased during the past few years. This is the case for example of the Philippines, Japan, and Singapore.
It is unlikely that they, even together, could create a counterweight against China without the direct support of the US, mainly due to historical reasons. The relationship between the two strongest economies (apart from China), namely Japan and South Korea, is still infected due to Japan’s behavior in Korea during the Second World War.
Although some Asian countries see China as a threat, they nevertheless see cooperation with China, and with each other, as the key to their economic development. When it comes to manufacturing, East Asia is more integrated today than the EU. To further complicate matters, there is a common pride, which they share with China, in being the part of the world which leads the development of the global economy and having broken free from Western dominance. These two last factors should not be neglected, when Europe considers (and most certainly overestimates) its influence on world affairs.
In spite of all the problems and risks which were debated during the conference, there is also a clear will to find constructive solutions. In addition to increased transparency and dialogue, two things were particularly in demand: developed structures for conflict resolution and crisis management, and also confidence building measures. Contrary to Europe, where different mechanisms were developed during the Cold War to reduce the risk of an armed conflict: OSCE, the CFE-treaty, inspections of each other’s military activities etc., there is little of this in Asia.
There are however challenges to overcome. Several countries find it difficult to accept the concept of for example intrusive inspections on each other’s territory. In addition to this, both the US and China wish to limit the other’s influence, which also makes it difficult to build functioning structures for crisis management. However, as stated by Singapore’s defence minister: “I think it is fully possible, but instead of aiming at conceptual solutions, let’s do what is practically feasible”.
Some speakers also pointed out the future responsibility of the Asian countries for global security. Today, it is mainly the US that guarantees the security of world shipping. In line with the diminishing dependency by the US on energy from the Middle East, its presence in the Indian Ocean will probably diminish as well. This will increase risks for China and Japan as well as for many other Asian countries, in need of Middle Eastern oil. No solutions were suggested, but thoughts of potential consequences were many: what would India think about a strong Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean; the smaller Asian countries would become more dependent on Chinese benevolence; what will the countries in the Middle East think about Asian military presence in their immediate proximity; does China and/or other Asian countries want to take on the role as “world police, or might this be a common interest which could lead to increased collaboration and trust between the East Asian countries?
Finally, an optimistic assessment made by several speakers. Natural disasters such as Aceh and the earthquake in Sichuan, as well as the search mission for the MH370 flight, led to an, in many cases, spontaneous and improvised collaboration between military and civil authorities from many countries, including the US. It showed that there are areas in which there is a will, and an ability to cooperate also with military assets. These are hopefully important, although small, steps, through which tensions in the region can be reduced.
On the whole, an extraordinarily interesting and well-arranged conference, and to a certain extent necessary reminder that the world is larger than Europe.