As China rises, Asia eyes better channels for security talks

The visit by Secretary of Defense Gates to Singapore highlights Asia's lack of a strong forum for regional security talks. Asian countries are also wary of being squeezed between the US and a rising China.

Jason Reed/Reuters
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) shakes hands with China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at the 10th International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 3.

Despite a proliferation of global summits, the annual Shangri-La Dialog that ended Sunday in Singapore has become an essential stop for military chiefs in Asia and beyond. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his final Asian tour, addressed the forum, as did his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie, who defended China’s military buildup.

But the forum’s success is partly a reflection of the creaky foundations for security cooperation in Asia. Organized by the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London, the Shangri-La Dialog has become an unofficial gathering of Asia’s top brass and intelligence officials and those of outside powers like the US, Britain, and Russia. Mr. Gates and Mr. Liang held a bilateral meeting, one of several conducted on the sidelines.

Security analysts point out, however, that Asia still lacks an effective forum for multilateral diplomacy on regional security issues, such as the disputed South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. A lack of a such a forum could make it more difficult to head off conflicts in a region with rapidly expanding militaries and unsettled political conflicts.

In recent years, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to act as a fulcrum for wider Asian cooperation by hosting meetings with outside powers, including the US and European Union. Analysts say its loose structure make ASEAN summits long on symbolism and short on substance, while providing a neutral space for talks between regional rivals like China and Japan.

The next test for regional diplomacy

The next test will come in October when Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, hosts the East Asian Summit, a body which recently expanded its membership to 18 countries, including the US and Russia. Indonesian diplomats have sought to lay the groundwork to make the EAS a more substantive meeting on social and economic issues.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said last week that ASEAN aspired to be more than an “event organizer” for Asian powers.

“The East Asian Summit will be a big test. ASEAN has decided for first time that it wants to set the agenda,” says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist for the Nation newspaper in Bangkok who writes on regional diplomacy.

Squeezed between China and the US

ASEAN countries are wary of being squeezed between the US, the dominant military power, and China, a potential challenger. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told the Shangri-La Dialog that Asia should replace the “old bilateralism” of the cold war with an effective new multilateralism. "China is our partner and the US is also our partner. It's not about taking sides,” he said.

Last year, ASEAN took a tentative step toward security cooperation by inviting larger countries to the first expanded summit of defense ministers, including representatives from China, India and the US. Although ASEAN officials have said the summit could become a multilateral forum for regional defense diplomacy, critics say it hasn’t sufficient resources and is only due to be held every three years.

Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor for the Indian Express in Delhi, argues that Asia has yet to grapple with the extent that the rise of China has altered the balance of power. He points out that unlike the Western countries that formed NATO, Asian countries don’t currently face an external threat, making it harder to define common security goals.

“The structures that have preserved peace [in Asia] for the last 60 years have not adapted, so you have to look at other structures,” he told a conference last week in Malaysia.

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