Asian War Cries

By Michael Vatikiotis

U.S. Navy and South Korean warships participate in joint training exercise Foal Eagle, March 2013. Michael Vatikiotis argues the absence of effective regional security architecture may make conflict in Asia more likely. Source: Official U.S. Navy imagery, used under a creative commons license.

It has been a terrible year so far in terms of security in the Asia Pacific region. Japan and China have come close to trading blows over disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea; North Korea tested another nuclear device and now says it is in a “state of war” with South Korea; tensions simmer over China’s claim to the entire South China Sea, and in Southeast Asia, historical boundary disputes are coming to the boil between Thailand and Cambodia as well as Malaysia and the Philippines. And it is now only April.

Alarmingly, no one it seems is interested very much in dialogue in the interests of preventing war. Rather, old-fashioned balance of power equations are creeping back into vogue. And so the U.S. “pivots” to re-build its military capacity in Southeast Asia after almost two decades of distraction in the Middle East and Central Asia. China reacts by building a powerful military capability strong enough to project force in the wider region. At the end of March a Chinese naval task force appeared less than 100km off the coast of Malaysia, its crew pledging to maintain national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, after a quarter of a century of peace and tranquility, suddenly ASEAN member states are quarreling over long forgotten boundary disputes. Back in the 1960s, the World Court ruled that a picturesque Hindu temple perched on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, belonged to Cambodia. At the time, it was a major emotional blow to Thailand and the two countries came close to war.  In the past three years the dispute has resurfaced, with Thailand challenging the ruling. Shots were fired and only diplomatic intervention by other ASEAN States brought the two sides to their senses.

Now an even older territorial dispute has erupted again after long period of dormancy. It was almost forgotten that the Philippines claims the Malaysian state of Sabah based on a 19th century agreement to pay the Sultans of Sulu a token rent, which Malaysia still honors every year. In February a small group of armed followers of the Sultan invaded the east Coast of Sabah and provoked the largest military operation Malaysia has launched since the Communist insurgency of the 1950s. It would seem the Sultan and his family felt slighted by a peace deal brokered by Malaysia with another Muslim minority grouping, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that could have led to the Philippines quietly dropping the claim.

To this sad litany of brewing conflicts, one might also add the numerous internal conflicts that afflict mainland Southeast Asia – primarily in Myanmar and Thailand that have seen elevated levels of violence all year.

Once again we are reminded that the region has no formal mechanism for resolving disputes. The United Nations, which has played a key role in managing conflict on the African continent together with the African Union, is largely missing from Asia. In contrast to Asian regional groupings such as ASEAN or SAARC, the African Union can deploy peacekeepers and often does. Homegrown efforts at fashioning forums in which dialogue over critical security issues could be discussed, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) have either been pushed down to the track two level, or have failed to launch properly.

The big powers are trading accusations about who is to blame for all the saber-rattling.  The United States accuses China of asserting its claims too aggressively; China accuses the United States of provocative behavior that has forced China to assert its claims. Sometimes the rhetoric is absurd. At a recent defense forum in Jakarta, a Colonel from China’s People’s Liberation Army sarcastically asked why the world didn’t consider the United States a warlike nation because there was no proper domestic gun control.

What is the best way to prevent a larger war, for example, erupting between China and Japan in the East China Sea; or North Korea shelling South Korea; or an incident in the South China Sea that could bring China into direct conflict with Vietnam or the Philippines?

First, existing forums such as the ARF and EAS need to be endowed with the status and significance they were envisioned to have as arenas for fostering peaceful cooperation. Russia and the United States joined the sixteen other member states of the EAS, which already included China, in 2011, thus creating the most inclusive platform for discussion of security issues in the Asia region at the highest level. Perhaps there is some hope to be found for managing territorial disputes and internal conflicts in the fledgling ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation launched by ASEAN leaders last year.

Second, fresh thinking needs to be generated on how to build trust and confidence among newly emerging powers in the region. This can be done initially at the track two level and by civil society, but then governments must be willing to listen and learn. China, for example, places great value on the Council for Security Cooperation in the Pacific Forum (CSCAP) as a venue for security discussions, preferring to debate sensitive multi-lateral issues the track two level.

The trouble is that the region has focused on rushing headlong towards growth and prosperity without considering how to harness some of this wealth to the challenging process of getting along. It should be a little easier, because most societies – with the exception of North Korea – are more open and freer than they were a quarter of a century ago.

But here lies one of the key challenges. As countries have grown more prosperous and confident, and as the shackles on freedom of expression have loosened, strong nationalist sentiment has incubated and become harder to control – as popular expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment in China over the islands dispute recently showed. Thirdly, it is important now for governments to fashion strategies for managing militant nationalist sentiment and cultivating a reflexive reaction to engage in dialogue and seek compromise and reconciliation.

For missing from this otherwise richly diverse and sophisticated region is a proclivity for dialogue and a culture of confronting truth in the interests of reconciliation. Strong Asian impulses to preserve face and uphold dignity, either individually or collectively, make it hard for even basic elements of a peace process to be embraced willingly. Let us hope that cultural change and adaptation is possible without the need to pay the high price that war would exact on society.

Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Singapore. Follow him on twitter @Jagowriter. A version of this post also appeared in the Straits Times. Re-posted with permission of the author.

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