The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Roles of Regional Security Institutions in the Era of Power Shift: The Implications for Japan-China Relations

August 29, 2012

Since the end of the Cold War, the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed the evolution of regional institutions, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN plus Three (APT), East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM Plus). Despite a significant increase in the number of institutions, they have played only a limited role in regional security due mainly to the lack of progress in their functional development.

For instance, the ARF, established in 1994 as the first region-wide security institution involving all major powers in the region, has largely remained a security dialogue forum, not yet making a significant departure from what it was in 1994. It may be said that regional institutions have been allowed to remain a venue for multilateral dialogue, since regional stability has largely depended on the US military presence and its alliance network in the region.

However, in recent years, the regional security environment has begun to undergo considerable changes, as represented by the rapid shifts in the distribution of power in the region. In the era of “power shifts,” which has already posed various challenges to regional stability, regional security institutions are expected to play new roles that go beyond their traditional role of multilateral dialogue. The main objective of this paper is to discuss the desirable role of regional security institutions in the era of power shifts with special reference to the ARF and its implications for Japan-China relations.

Emerging Security Challenges

The Asia-Pacific strategic environment has been increasingly marked by rapid changes in the regional distribution of power in recent years. In 2011, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and is expected to overtake the United States in terms of economic size in the mid-2020s. India, South Korea, and many Southeast Asian countries have also accelerated their economic growth.

The rise of new economic powers, which has enhanced the level of regional economic interdependence, is certainly a force for regional stability. However, it can also become an underlying cause of regional instability. There are two major security concerns stemming from regional power shifts. The first challenge is the rapid pace of military modernization and expansion among regional countries.

Tremendous economic development in rising states has enabled them to significantly increase their military allocations. Indeed, recent years have witnessed an unprecedented rate of increase in defense expenditure. For example, Chinese defense budget had been increasing by an average of 12% annually since 1989, and it is now the second highest in the world. Many Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore, also sharply increased their spending on modern conventional weapons. Defense forces in those countries have been restructured from counter-insurgency capabilities to high technology and modern forces with a particular emphasis on maritime capabilities, exemplified by missile frigates and submarines. It is natural that rising states seek military forces commensurate with their economic power. However, given the lack of trust among regional countries, unilateral military expansion committed by rising states further increases mutual distrust among them, thus promoting security dilemma and eventually regional arm races, which can only heighten the risk of armed conflicts in the region.

A growing trend towards military expansion helps provoke another security challenge, namely rising tensions over territorial disputes. Tensions over the South China Sea territorial disputes have heightened dramatically in recent years, due in part to the expansion of military activities in the sea. The modernization and enlargement of their naval power have allowed claimant countries, such China, Vietnam, and Malaysia, to more aggressively press their territorial claims. In a similar vein, maritime disputes in the East China Sea and in the Sulawesi Sea have also become intense in recent years.

In addition to competitive military spending and territorial disputes, the region has also faced multiple security challenges, including ethnic and religious disputes, terrorism, and piracy. These security challenges have generated a great deal of uncertainty about the prospects of regional peace and stability. In short, although the Asia-Pacific region has witnessed growing economic interdependence and some progress on institution building, the risk of armed conflict remains serious in many areas. Overcoming many of these challenges requires multilateral approaches, but none of them has been fully addressed by the existing regional institutions. This indicates that in the era of power shifts, the region needs more effective security institutions that can promote practical cooperation on the above security challenges.

The Roles of Regional Security Institutions in the Era of Power Shifts

Then, what roles should regional security institutions actually play? The answer is simple. They should play the roles they are supposed to play. For instance, the declared objectives of the ARF are to promote a three-stage process for security cooperation envisaged in the 1995 ARF Concept Paper, namely, confidence-building measures (CBMs), preventive diplomacy (PD), and finally in the longer term, approaches to conflict resolution. In the newly emerging security environment, regional institutions need to perform functions that go beyond mere dialogue.

First, regional security institutions should promote meaningful CBMs. Preventing the escalation of arms acquisition and the risks of misperception among regional countries requires effective CBMs, designed to enhance military transparency. Over 17 years, regional countries have undertaken efforts to promote CBMs centered on the ARF. However, its CBM agenda has not made progress beyond the adoption of a modest set of CBMs, which are largely ineffective in reducing lingering suspicion among participating states stemming from uncertainties about defense programs. Given the growing risk of military competition, it is now time to make a real effort to promote effective CBMs.

Secondly, regional security institutions should develop effective mechanisms for conflict prevention. As noted above, the Asia-Pacific region contains a large number of potential military flashpoints, including religious, ethnic, and unresolved territorial disputes. These security risks and uncertainties have created an immediate need to establish institutional mechanisms for conflict prevention. Over a decade, the ARF has had intense discussion on PD. However, like the CBM agenda, its PD agenda has also suffered from serious stagnation. As a result of this, the ARF’s actual capacity to exercise PD in response to regional crises has been so far severely limited. For example, the only measure that the ARF is allowed to exercise in the event of a crisis was to convene an emergency meeting on prior consent of directly involved states and the consensus of all ARF members. In order to play a meaningful PD role, the ARF must adopt practical PD measures, including early warning, fact finding, and dispatch of mediators. Now is the time for regional countries to more seriously realize the importance of PD measures for regional stability.

Thirdly, regional security institutions should play roles in rule-making on maritime security. Given that tensions over maritime disputes have dramatically heightened in recent years, there is an urgent need to establish rules regulating activities in maritime zones. Regional countries have already embarked on rule-making in this field. At the meeting of the EAS foreign ministers’ consultation in July 2011, Japan floated a proposal to establish a maritime security forum in order to promote rules regarding maritime safety. Reflecting this proposal, at the ASEAN summit in November 2011, ASEAN leaders agreed to explore the possibility of including non-ASEAN states in an expanded meeting of the ASEAN Maritime Forum on security and safety issues. Regional countries should press ahead with these initiatives.

Needless to say, promoting practical security cooperation on the above agenda is still a daunting task. However, from a mid- to long-term perspective, it is not a mere pipe dream, since a growing number of regional countries have become willing to advance such cooperation. For instance, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore, which were once reluctant to advance practical cooperation on military transparency, PD, and rule-making in maritime security, are now playing an active role in developing cooperation in these fields.

Perhaps, a major potential obstruction to the advancement of such cooperation is China. It is no secret that China has been loath to promote security cooperation on the above agenda. Whether China can support the development of meaningful CBMs, practical PD measures, and rule-making regarding maritime security will significantly influence the future roles of regional security institutions as well as the prospects of regional stability.

The Implications for Japan-China Relations: Toward Collaborative Action

In the era of rapid power shifts, maintaining a stable regional order becomes a more onerous task without effective regional security institutions. This is because overcoming security challenges stemming from the rapid changes in a regional distribution of power requires the development of practical CBMs, PD measures, and effective rules on maritime security that can be promoted only through a multilateral setting.

The strengthening of regional security institutions has also great implications for bilateral relations between Japan and China, since it will provide the two countries with a great opportunity to ameliorate their security relations. The promotion of bilateral military exchanges and cooperation is regarded as one effective way of enhancing the level of mutual understanding and trust among the two countries. However, it has been proved that the advancement of such activities is extremely difficult due in part to a complicated political situation surrounding them. This does not mean, however, that such interaction between Japan and China is unattainable. Japan and China can still develop their security cooperation through regional institutions in which the two countries regularly participate.

As mentioned above, China has shown a negative attitude toward multilateral security cooperation in traditional security fields, such as military transparency and conflict prevention. However, in recent years, China has begun to show a more positive stance toward security cooperation in nontraditional security fields, represented by its active participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, antipiracy cooperation off the coast of Somalia, and disaster relief following the Indian Ocean tsunami. This has provided Japan and China with a golden opportunity to develop their collaboration in the military-security field.

Through regional security institutions, Japan and China along with some other regional countries should make collective efforts to promote and implement security cooperation regarding disaster relief, peacekeeping operations, and anti-terrorism measures. Such interactions would greatly enhance mutual trust and understanding and thus have spillover effects on bilateral security relations.

In addition, it is also expected that the success of their initiative regarding nontraditional security cooperation may draw a more positive stance on security cooperation from China in traditional security areas. It is argued that China’s negative attitude toward the advancement of security cooperation on CBMs, PD, and maritime disputes has mainly stemmed from its concerns that such cooperation might greatly undermine its own security interests. For instance, there are lingering concerns among Chinese policymakers that the ARF may be used by other countries to interfere with China’s sovereignty and internal matters, such as the issue of Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

However, if nontraditional security cooperation led by Japan and China can produce a record of concrete achievements, China may come to understand the value of regional security cooperation for its national security as well as regional security. In short, the significant reduction of China’s concern about security cooperation may open up the possibility of the development of regional cooperation on the enduring traditional security problems of the region. China should realize that China’s greater activism in regional security institutions will greatly serve, rather than undermine, its national interests since its active role in regional security cooperation can be a more convincing manifestation of “China’s peaceful rise.”

    • Associate Professor, Hosei University
    • Takeshi Yuzawa
    • Takeshi Yuzawa

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