While the countries of South Asia are plagued by the challenges of regional security, the countries of southeast Asia are more concerned with balancing the prowling influence of China and non-military challenges rather than conventional sources of insecurity. The received wisdom is that Asia is too large and too varied for an Asia-wide security system, that there are very distinct sub-regions within Asia with their own security problems and that complexity, size and diversity appear to preclude the effective implementation of an Asia-wide security system.
Asia has been the fountain of the greatest and some of the most ancient civilisations and religions of the world and possesses enormous human and natural resources. However, the continent has never been at the centre-stage of world politics. Indeed, unlike Africans, for example, Asian citizens have never really had a feeling of oneness When an African is asked where he is from, he seldom says that he is a Kenyan, Nigerian or Ugandan – he invariably replies that he is from Africa. Though it was first promoted during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the concept of Asia as a continent with many commonalties and similar aspirations has gained prominence only in the last 10 to 15 years.
Asian role in world order
In common western perceptions, Asia tended to include only East Asia and was limited to the area east of the Indo-Myanmar border. South Asia, the Central Asian Republics and West Asia have only recently emerged as important regions. With China emerging gradually as a major world power, Japan dominating the international economy out of all proportion with its size and population, the continuing economic miracle of the East Asian dragons and South East Asian tigers despite a bout of currency flu, and India and Pakistan emerging as states with nuclear weapons, Asia stands poised for a giant leap forward at the threshold of the 21st century. In fact, some analysts have already declared that this will be the Asian century.
The future security of Asia cannot be considered in isolation and has to be considered within the ambit of the larger issue of global security due to the many complex linkages that have emerged since the end of the Second World War, including major military and economic alliances.
Today the globe itself is shrinking. It is not possible for a major event to take place without an impact on the foreign and security policies of every major nation. We are living in a world that is globalised and is getting increasingly integrated. Large-scale inter-state wars are becoming less and less likely because of the “balance of terror” provided by nuclear weapons and the overarching reach of the ongoing revolution in military affairs. At the same time, the geo-strategic environment is one of uncertainty and new forms of asymmetric warfare such as global terrorism are undermining military might.
At the end of the Cold War, there is today only one major power – the United States. In a perceptive essay, Charles Krauthammer had called the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union the “unipolar moment”. Five other powers are inter-acting with the US at various levels to ensure a stable world order. These include Russia, the European Union, China, Japan and India. It is necessary for these five powers to improve communications among themselves, apart from the bilateral communications with the US. Similarly, there is a need for better communications among the Asian powers. Out of the six major actors in the world, four belong to Asia and a fifth (the US) is fully engaged (some may say stretched) in Asia and the contiguous oceans.
In the emerging world order, the strands of global security are interwoven in a very complex manner across all continents. The present unipolar world order is likely to be gradually diffused. It will take time but the process of change that is now under way will ultimately result in the emergence of a polycentric world order.
The Asian continent 1s likely to emerge as the epicentre of the _ evolving polycentric world. It can be reasonably expected that in the next 25 to 50 years, Asia will become the centre of gravity of the globe in the economic, strategic and political fields. In terms of human and intellectual resources, the contribution of the Asian population that is approximately 56 per cent of the world total is growing rapidly. In terms of resources and commerce, Asia has a large snare and, by the middle of the 21st century, most new wealth is expected to be created-in Asia. The growing economic clout of the Asian nations will give them a larger number of security options, including some viable options within Asia, so that Asian nations are less dependent on the Western security umbrella and guarantees. However, at present, when Asian security is discussed, it has to be discussed in a global context.
Can Asian nations sit together?
The factors that unite Asia include intra-regional contiguity among Russia, India and China, cultural and civilisational commonalties; inter-dependence for energy and common environmental problems; and, increasing inter-regional trade and inter-regional investment. These factors suggest the need for a cooperative security framework. On the other hand, there are also a number of common challenges that confront Asia, both in the military and the non-military field. These include threats from across thenborders, the proliferation of small arms, narco-trafficking, population migration and poor water management among others. On the military side, concerns regarding weapons of mass destruction, the proliferation of missiles, large conventional forces ranged against each other on land, sea and air, characterise Asia. On the non-military side, four “Es”, that is, economy, energy, ecology and ethnicity, bring Asia together both in terms of challenges as well as opportunities.
While the countries of South Asia are plagued by the challenges of regional security, the countries of southeast Asia are more concerned with balancing the prowling influence of China and non-military challenges rather than conventional sources of insecurity. Similarly, the countries of East Asia are more concerned with the interplay between nations in what is called the “Pacific Quadrilateral of Nations”. The fact that China is not democratic is also a major concern for evolving a viable Asian-security structure. The natural process for the empowerment of the people is via the empowerment of the nation state and the democratisation of the nation state. However, that does not mean that a deduction can be drawn that the differences between the various regions of Asia are so pronounced that the Asian countries cannot sit together and talk convincingly about an overall Asian security framework.
The received wisdom is that Asia is too large and too varied for an Asia-wide security system, that there are very distinct sub-regions within Asia with their own security problems and that complexity, size and diversity appear to preclude the effective implementation of an Asia-wide security system. However, the time has come for the serious consideration of this concept. Some commentators have suggested that an Asian security system could be built on four levels. These are, firstly, an international balance of power, inclusive of the US; secondly, regional groupings with members overlapping in more than one region; thirdly, bilateral ties could be strengthened without jeopardising regional security; lastly, all aspects of security in Asia should be effectively coordinated with the UN system.
The concept of the balance of power needs to be reviewed in the post-Cold War world. While it cannot be denied that there has to be some kind of a balance for a stable world order to prevail, whether the balance of power approach is likely to remain applicable to the Asian continent in this century needs, to be deliberated in greater detail. Apart from the complexities and diversities of the different regions of Asia, there is the problem of the historical experience and the attitude of certain powers, even contempt, for the concept of balance of power. History reveals that the balance of power is always manipulated by outside powers that invariably seek domination. The possibility of establishing an economic cooperation framework as a means to replace the balance of power needs to be explored. The western model of security, as mooted by the UN secretary general, Mr Kofi Annan, is not supreme; an allowance has to be made for pluralistic societies to co-exist.
It is certainly possible to establish complementarities in the approach to Asian security as regards intra-state and trans-state security problems. The Asean Regional Forum is a good example of a regional security framework. In recent years it has been gradually proceeding from limiting its activities to confidence building to becoming indirectly involved in conflict resolution. Though Asian security must inevitably be linked with and looked at in terms of the UN framework, this should be done only after the UN system itself has gone through a process of reform and is sufficiently empowered to act as a viable and independent global security framework.
Some analysts are of the view that it will not be possible to reform the UN stem in an optimal manner in the near future because of certain deeply ingrained prejudices. This view appears to be overly pessimistic as it is premised on the assumption that dominant powers, particularly the US and China, will never give up the balance of power approach. It Is now becoming clear that realisation is gradually dawning that the balance of power approach is no longer suitable for ensuring a secure and stable world order. Once this problem is resolved, UN reform will naturally follow.