Asia-Pacific: A Region of Transitions
(5-7 November 2002)
The Asia Pacific region has been experiencing or is likely to
experience a number of transitions at the regional, sub-regional and national
levels. These transitions have the potential to affect regional and national
The ‘Asia-Pacific: a region of transitions’ Conference on 5-7 November
2002 sponsored by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies provided a forum
for discussion of some of the issues surrounding transition and for an
examination of some actual and imminent transitions.
was organized according to a number of broad themes. They were: the context
within which transitions occur; regional power relationships; the possibility
of a transition from narrowly nationally-focused state policies to an approach
that emphasises community as much as it does the
state at sub-regional level; transitions to democracy, to market economies and
to open societies at the national level; and some approaches for preparing for
transition. This reports highlights key issues that
emerged from the conference and others that are important but which were not,
for various reasons, a focus of discussion.
- The US is the dominant actor in the region and
the underlying question for much of the conference was ‘would the United States
remain as consistent in its policies in the future as it has in the past?’
The consensus was that it would remain engaged with its allies and its
friends and would continue to underpin regional security.
- The relationship
between the US and China was
the big issue. There was an acceptance that, in material terms, China could become as large as the United States
in 30 or 40 years. The most likely outcome of this rise in China’s
stature was seen not as armed conflict but as a multipolar
region in which there was as much cooperation as there was inter-state or
intra-regional tension. However, a cautionary note was sounded that if
relations were not managed sensibly conflict could occur.
- The proposition that
democracy was a core value with universal acceptance was strongly argued
by the keynote speaker to general acceptance. However, in the discussions
on transitions to democracy all the speakers emphasized that there were
problems with integrating democracy as practised
in the West with local cultures. Cultural practices and their
relationships with the issues raised by globalization were emphasized
throughout the conference.
- The transition to
market economies is well developed, but not complete, and the evidence is
clearly that markets provide more benefits for citizens than do command
economies. That point has been recognized even in nominally communist Vietnam.
The problem with the transition to full market economies is that a range
of bureaucratic and political elites stand to lose from the transition.
The policies required are clear, but governments have to mobilize support
for the policies.
- Development of
regional community is a long way off. Three sub-regions have developed
institutional inter-governmental structures designed at least to increase
coordination between the members, and they have visions that call for
community. In practice, though, to the extent that community develops, it
may be more likely to happen because of the imperatives of globalization
that allow for intra-regional links to be formed by the actions of people
and businesses rather than through governmental initiatives. Moves to
integration at a sub-regional level were almost unanimously discounted.
- In the Oceania
sub-region the post-colonial transition to democracy is breaking down,
although less so in Tonga
which has retained its absolute monarchy than in a number of other
countries. The region is groping for new political forms and societies
that reflect their cultures but which fit into the modern world. In the
meantime there is a distinct bloc of unstable countries, especially in Melanesia, which is taking time and resources from
other states to address.
- The need to account
for the effects of terrorism on US policy was introduced late
in the conference. It was argued that the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States
redefined the country’s approach to international relations and coloured all aspects of its foreign policy. Other
countries needed to understand that and take account of it when
considering US approaches to issues.
- Underlying much of the
conference discussion was the understanding that the power and range of
interests of the United
States has grown greatly in relation to
other states. Despite the disparity in power, however, one participant
noted that in the region an outrigger is preferred for stability ahead of
a single hulled canoe. The United
States still needs friends and allies
if it is to achieve its regional policy ends without excessive costs.
The Asia-Pacific region is not insecure in any sense, but it faces
challenges and many of those challenges are caused by the uncertain effects of
different transitions being experienced or about to be experienced by the
region as a whole and by the individual countries within it. If states and
their citizens can develop a clear understanding of the likely course of the
transitions they are more likely to be able to plan for them and thus to lessen
the margins of insecurity.