Executive Summary

The Asia-Pacific: A Region of Transitions

(5-7 November 2002)

Executive Summary

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 security significantly.

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.

The conference 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.