The Asia-Pacific region has in recent years become a cynosure of the world. The attention on this geographical plate is shown in the outright declaration of America’s “pivot to Asia” strategy, continued and bigger strategic investment in the region by Russia, India’s Look East policy with foothold in the South Asia Subcontinent, and EU leaders’ proclamation to deepen, expand and warm up ties with Asia. Along with growth in its strategic importance, the Asia-Pacific is nonetheless afflicted by various issues left over from history and intertwined with new contradictions and conflicts, unforeseeable future of the regional power structure and increasing instability and uncertainty of the security environment.
Multiple factors contribute to the special strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific in geopolitical terms
There are unique internal features that make the Asia-Pacific a focal point of the world, a main strategic battle ground for major powers and home to a number of different contradictions. Geographically speaking the greater Asia-Pacific region encompasses Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, the Pacific Islands and the American countries along the Pacific rim with a population of nearly 4 billion or more than half of the world total, representing an immense market. The mix of countries also signifies potential: the Asia-Pacific boasts almost all the world’s big countries regarding territory, population or economic prowess. In terms of the ability to influence international politics, three of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council are in this region the relation of interests and interaction between whom have an irreplaceable and big impact on regional and global affairs.
Economically, the Asia-Pacific is the world’s most dynamic, vigorous and hopeful region whose total economy is 55% of the world and intra-regional trade volume accounting for 44% of the world. When the Western economy suffers from lackluster following the financial crisis, economies in the Asia-Pacific have maintained a rather fast and sound momentum of growth. In 2012, the Asia-Pacific registered a growth of 5.6%, a beacon in the bleak world economic environment and injecting considerable positive energy into the recovery of the world economy. With a depressing performance of the Western countries, the rest of the world wish to share in the development of the Asia-Pacific so as to enhance their own growth rate and reduce the pressure of a slow economic and social development.
The world’s three biggest economies: the US, China and Japan are members of the Asia-Pacific, and so are the three biggest military powers: the US, Russia and China. The strategic deployment of and interaction between the powers in the Asia-Pacific affect the situation elsewhere in the world. Historical issues show up from time to time and new problems and potential contradictions occur from place to place in the Asia-Pacific with frequent hotspot issues and crises intertwined. As different interests and policy propositions either converge or conflict, the competition in the Asia-Pacific is undoubtedly going to be more complicated and fierce. The emerging economies and developing countries will add to the already bewildering changes and reorganization of the power structure.
Severe security challenges are unprecedented for the Asia-Pacific
Though an enticing prospect of development and immense room for cooperation lie ahead, the Asia-Pacific region, as an important link in the international geopolitical layout, faces a series of severe security challenges both traditional and non-traditional, both internal and external.
One, a number of regional players are involved in a rapidly intensifying competition and dispute over territorial rights and marine interests. The protracted and intractable territorial and marine disputes in the Asia-Pacific over territorial land and waters inherited from history have exploded in recent years causing a chain of reaction and are likely to undermine regional peace. Among them, the most watched are disputes between Russia and Japan over the Northern Territories or the Kuril Islands, between Japan and South Korea over Dokdo or Takeshima, among China, Japan and South Korea over demarcation of territorial waters of the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea, between China and South Korea over Suyan Islet, between China and Japan over Diaoyu Islands and complicated and increasingly acute disputes over the South China Sea among China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There are also disputes of different levels over territories between Thailand and Cambodia, between China and India and between India and Pakistan. These disputes cause conflict at times and some do not expect any prompt solution.
Two, the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula is complicated and chance of a regional arms race is increasing. Burdened by a heavy conundrum, the situation on the Peninsula remains tense with the DPRK showing no sign of backing out of the policy to have nuclear capability for national defense, the "Six-Party Talks” suspended and future of denuclearization of the Peninsula becoming bleaker. Extreme nationalist sentiments are swelling in Japan adding new doubts to regional security as much as making the country more at loggerheads with its neighbors.
The US-led alliance from the Cold War era is further strengthened causing a lack of mutual strategic trust among countries of the Asia-Pacific and making it hard to curb the new round of arms race. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, in its recent report, showed that the total military expenditure of the Asia-Pacific region (US and Russia not included) in 2012 has for the first time in modern history exceeded that of Europe, which is a symbol that global military gravity is shifting towards this region.
Three, the American “pivot to Asia” strategy has sabotaged strategic mutual trust between powers and increased the possibility of misjudgment. A larger part of Obama Administration’s attention in Asia is about security. A comprehensive increase in “strategic investment” with a view to tightening military collaboration among allies and obstructing the rise of China brings about a huge negative impact on security in the Asia-Pacific. Both America’s Asia-Pacific policies and actions are following the confrontational Cold-War mentality. Such policies and actions on the one hand are causing doubt in China about the American intention and on the other, urging countries who either mistrust or fear China to stand closer with the US and driving wedge between Asia-Pacific countries. Such security pressure is palpable to China, and Russia is concerned about been stuck in between the American return to the Asia-Pacific and the ceaseless eastward expansion of NATO. A lack of strategic mutual trust is a challenge to security and stability of the region.
Four, countries are often caught unprepared by the more frequent occurrence of non-traditional security issues, to name a few: earthquake, tsunami, and infectious diseases, drug-trafficking, cyber hacking and fraud, piracy, human-trafficking and organized trans-border crimes, resource and energy depletion, environmental degradation, and terrorism, extremism and separatism. Countries in the region are yet to find common or coordinated strategies to prevent these new problems from afflicting growth and stability. In a certain sense, these non-traditional issues also prevent countries from resolving traditional security issues.
Joint efforts and a combination of measures needed in the face of the Asia-Pacific security challenge
An effective response to the Asia-Pacific security challenge mandates that the countries in the region share responsibilities, strengthen collaboration and concurrently adopt multiple measures. In a word, safeguarding security in the Asia-Pacific requires sound interactions among major countries coupled with multilateral consultation among all countries in the region, and stronger common understanding and mutual trust hand-in-hand with effective institutions as a guarantee.
First, coordination and mutual trust among major countries in the Asia-Pacific should be strengthened. To a large extent, relations among major countries determine the future of security in the region. Therefore, the first priority in achieving some level of security governance in the region is to create a new type of relationship among major countries that is in line with the call of our times and benign in nature. Communication among major countries can dispel misunderstanding and antagonism and enable exchange of views on different interests and concerns of each party, which helps countries jointly identify the possible areas of collaboration in promoting peace and development. As three major countries in the region, China, the United Sates and Russia shoulder greater responsibilities in safeguarding security and stability and promoting win-win cooperation in the region. These three countries should gear up their bilateral ties, continue with high-level exchanges, and deepen practical cooperation in various areas and on different levels. Together, they could provide leadership among countries in pooling wisdom to jointly bring about a new security scene in the region.
Second, communication and coordination among multilateral mechanisms in the region should be enhanced. The various multilateral mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific can turn into an effective platform to establish a regional security order if they are fully utilized. We have “10+1,” “10+3,” “10+6,” and “10+8” under the framework of ASEAN, and also APEC, the East Asia Summit, ASEM, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Six Party Talks on the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula, the China-Japan-Korea cooperation mechanism, and the ASEAN-Mekong River Basin Development Cooperation. These mechanisms have introduced, on their respective turf, institutional arrangements for countries to have an equal dialogue on various issues. So far they have generally been functioning smoothly with well-established regulations. However, lack of coordination and covert competition among the mechanisms lead to the dual problem of excessive institutions with inadequate efficiency. Greater communication and cooperation among mechanisms can start in non-traditional security areas, such as fighting piracy, disaster relief, and disease control, and gradually expand to military security. In this way, “the cost of redundant construction” among the mechanisms can be lowered, and the efficiency in our joint efforts to deal with security issues can be increased, enabling a new type of security cooperation that features equal participation, openness and transparency to take shape in the Asia-Pacific.
Third, regional economic integration should be promoted. At present, Asia-Pacific enjoys a sound economic momentum, but also faces strong pressure from the external economic environment. Under such circumstances, countries in the Asia-Pacific should step up cooperation to promote regional economic integration through trade facilitation and liberalization. Although not necessarily entailing political cooperation, economic ties serve as a foundation for concerted political actions. With stronger inter-state relations and greater interdependence among economies, countries are a lot less likely to engage in conflicts and wars. Therefore, continually promoting regional economic integration towards the creation of a region defined by interdependence and interwoven interests would provide the material foundation of security and stability in the Asia-Pacific and thus remains an important strategy in our efforts.
Fourth, a new Asia-Pacific order that is peaceful, stable, fair and equitable should be jointly established. There is enough space in the Asia-Pacific to accommodate China, the United States, Russia and all other countries of the region. What is crucial is that countries, especially major ones, should forsake the Cold War mentality. On major issues pertaining to regional security and stability, countries should respect each other’s legitimate concerns, rationally manage differences and disputes, and work towards the same goals, so as to develop sound interactions, with which countries would be able to explore the path to win-win, jointly create a new security scene of peace and stability and establish a new regional order that is fair and equitable. Only in this way can countries in the Asia-Pacific live up to the historic mission of our times and make our due contribution to the progress in the region and of the whole mankind.