Key Issues in Asia Pacific Security


Brad Glosserman (rapporteur)

Senior Policy Seminar


Honolulu: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2001
Binding: paper
Pages: x, 32
Free Download: PDF


Participants considered a wide variety of issues affecting a region that possesses a diversity of cultural, political, and economic traditions, that is being battered by an array of forces, and that is struggling with fundamental transitions. Geographically, the discussion spanned the entire region, from the seeming stalemate in dialogue between North and South Korea to the hope that there may at last be some solution to Indonesia's woes. There were debates over the guiding principles of international order as well as scrutiny of the problem of localized conflicts and the role of multilateral institutions. Major themes that emerged from the discussions include:

  • U.S. power is preponderant in both the Asia Pacific region and the world and is likely to continue to be so in the short- and medium-term. There are questions about how the United States will exercise this power and to what ends.
  • Paradoxically, despite the overwhelming disparity between its power and that of any other nation, the United States' ability to influence outcomes appears to be diminishing. Washington's willingness to accept the limits of its influence will be a key factor in its relations with Asia Pacific governments.
  • Globalization continues to erode the power of governments within the region as external forces play an increasing role in national decision making. The future success of regional governments will depend on their ability to take advantage of the opportunities created by globalization rather than be exploited by it. Similarly, governments need to be prepared to accommodate the new political pressures from below that are created by globalization.
  • China's emergence as a regional power poses a daunting challenge for the Asia Pacific order. Chinese participants maintained that their country is often misunderstood. Playing up a Chinese military threat is mistaken, they argued, because China's focus over the short- and medium-term will continue to be its own development and modernization. Nonetheless, China's rise will continue to strain the existing structure of relations within the region.
  • While the odds of military conflict between states are low, conflict within states is rising. The region faces a wide spectrum of threats. Security planning must adjust accordingly.
  • There is no alternative to international cooperation and coordination. Many of the new security challenges are transnational in origin and nature, and no nation can combat them alone.
  • The Asia Pacific region's diversity requires that it develop its own security architecture; it cannot import solutions, such as an Asia Pacific NATO. Any successful mechanism will respect that diversity and the distinctively Asian way of resolving disputes that has emerged.

A geographic survey revealed little immediate prospect of an outbreak of hostilities in the region, but there are still grounds for concern over time. A substantial portion of the Seminar discussions was devoted to the gap between hopes for institutions in the region and their performance. The consensus view was that expectations should be scaled back. It is still early in the regime-creation process in the Asia Pacific region.

Pacific Islands issues were raised at several points during the discussions, both because some of the islands share many of the problems of political fragmentation and instability as in Southeast Asia and because they appear to be uniquely vulnerable to a variety of global challenges ranging from global warming to money laundering. The islands' problems are compounded by the fact that the island countries have little voice in regional, much less global, affairs.

Another issue that has dogged the region is the question of the balance between sovereignty and humanitarian intervention. For ASEAN, the dilemma is especially acute due to the importance attached to the doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of member states that has guided the organization since it was formed. Seminar discussions noted movement away from absolute sovereignty and the principle of complete noninterference, but here, too, practitioners stressed the need for patience. Regional governments must be allowed to move forward at a pace with which they are comfortable.

Participants stressed the importance of a multilayered security architecture for the region, compensating for the failure of regional institutions to meet the high expectations invested in them. The network of bilateral security alliances centered on the United States still undergirds regional security, and a continued U.S. presence is generally considered to be an essential element of Asia Pacific security and stability. Several participants pointed out that one of the real changes over the past decade has been the elimination of doubts about the U.S. commitment to the Asia Pacific region, although somewhat paradoxically some questions are now being raised about the continuing need for a forward-deployed U.S. military presence.