In a report just released by the Asia Pacific Foundation, a majority of those surveyed indicated that they believed that a conflict among Asian countries is likely in the next 10 years. They have reason to be concerned.
For the past 30 years, the public image of the Asia-Pacific region has been one of remarkable growth, economic dynamism and rising living standards. Despite some downs and ups along the way, especially in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, economic optimism as been the one constant. It has been a place where nations, businesses and individuals from Asia and all parts of the world could find opportunities for building more prosperous futures.
Canadians have been among those taking up these opportunities. Although we have been regrettably inconsistent in our efforts over the last decade and a half (which has been much noticed in the region), the Harper government has, over the past three years, joined and encouraged Canadian businesses in making the significant investments in time and effort needed to recover lost ground and rebuild confidence within the region that we are serious long term players. Ottawa is now pressing ahead with key trade and economic negotiations.
But there is another story coming out of the Asia-Pacific, and it is a worrisome one.
At last weekend’s annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, ministers and officials, military officers and security experts from the region and elsewhere had no difficulty concluding that the Indo-Pacific world – as some, like the Australians, are now labeling it – is facing an increasing array of security challenges.
In the East-Asia region particularly, the relatively stable conditions that have both facilitated and been supported by strong economic growth over the past three decades cannot be taken as “givens” for the future.
Why is this? The first and most important reason is that the Asia-Pacific has become the main stage on which the new geopolitical order will be sorted out between the U.S. superpower and a rising China.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s keynote speech at the Dialogue was a firm re-iteration (perhaps one was also needed before this week’s Obama-Xi summit) that the U.S. “re-balancing” to Asia was for real in terms of the stationing of 60 per cent of naval and air forces in the region with the most technologically advanced equipment available. He emphasized the U.S. was updating all of its defense partnerships in the region and announced that the first-ever meeting between a U.S. Secretary of Defense and ASEAN Defense Ministers would take place in Hawaii this autumn. At the same time, he reiterated that this was no more than the next chapter of a 200-year presence of U.S. interests in the region, and that it did not constitute a containment policy towards China.
Chinese efforts in Singapore seemed more focused on a “charm offensive” of re-building some of the trust it has lost among its Asian neighbours from its recent assertive stance on maritime boundary issues, than trying to build bridges with the United States. Indeed, one senior Chinese general made it clear to Mr. Hagel from the floor of the conference that her government was far from assured that the U.S. was not following a deliberate China containment strategy.
This geopolitical face-off has been accompanied by the re-emergence of historical maritime jurisdictional issues in the East and South China Seas, involving a more assertive China and robust responses by Japan and others. The risks of incidents at sea have been increased substantially, and were a major preoccupation at this year’s Dialogue. The Vietnamese prime minister and other ASEAN members called on China to sit down and negotiate a code of conduct that would mitigate these risks, something the Chinese have so far refused to do.
This re-emergence of “hard” power threats does not mean that the region’s long list of non-traditional security problems, including piracy, human trafficking, drugs and crime, has gone away. These issues have been joined by the serious new threat to cyber security, with Chinese entities being singled out for allegations of misbehavior. This will also be a top issue when Mr. Xi meets Mr. Obama in California.
In sum, the mood in the region is one of intensified concern for security. Most Asian countries have launched military modernization programs, adding to both the sophistication and range of military assets at their disposal. As these nations move from developed to more mature middle-income states, they are refocusing military objectives from the maintenance of internal stability and border defense, to the ability to project power externally to promote national interests.
The growing sense of nationalism in many countries, including those most powerful among them – China and Japan – adds a further dangerous dimension. In one positive development at this year’s Dialogue, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera deliberately sought to counter the nationalist image of the Abe government by re-iterating his government’s support for former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama’s statement of apology in 1995 for Japanese actions during the Second World War. A Chinese participant welcomed the statement from the floor.
Canadians are therefore correct to be concerned that the Asia-Pacific is not that far away when it comes to impacts on our own security.
The Indo-Pacific is not yet a significantly more dangerous place, but it could become so without efforts by those with a stake and friendships in the region – including Canada – to help ensure the heightened risk environment is managed and that all players (but especially the major ones) are given the encouragement, support and sometime the plain speaking needed to pursue cooperative outcomes to their differences.
At Shangri-la, Defense Minister Peter MacKay gave some strong signals that Canada wants to be more involved in contributing to Asia-Pacific security and join the key governance mechanism of regional defense ministers. Although it will take some time to gain admission to the “club” and overcome the regional view that we have been inconstant partners, Mr. MacKay efforts are important and welcome.