The 2013 Shang-ri La Dialogue may have ended but the reverberations continue. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s keynote speech was perhaps the most watched at a time when the Asia-Pacific region is experiencing dramatic change.
More than four hundred statesmen, diplomats, military chiefs, scholars from around the region and beyond attended this year’s Dialogue. Singapore has traditionally been viewed as an excellent organizer of big events and it once again excelled with this major security event.
In his speech, Vietnam’s prime minister made at least three points with strategic connotations for the Asia-Pacific region.
Trade is win-win, conflict lose-lose
When the classical economist David Ricardo came up with the idea of comparative advantage as a boon for trade, he possibly also had a vision of world peace in mind. The idea is simple: one has to limit conflict to focus on trade. It is this promise of economic prosperity – and by extension, happiness and peace – that has kept us from another world war since the end of World War II.
In international relations theory, the prospect of a win-win incentivizes cooperation. Whether the payout for cooperation is 50-50 or 70-30, both participants end up gaining more than they start off with. For example, once a nation joins the WTO, it can incur losses in one market but gain in another. Vietnam has a trade deficit with China but a surplus with the U.S. And a trade deficit can be forgiven if domestic demand from companies and consumers are somewhat met. Trade, not self-sufficiency, makes more parties better off.
Ricardo was right and his contemporary critics or even interest groups cannot halt the inexorable spread of trade liberalization. For instance, protectionist resistance to free trade agreements has been futile at best in the Asia-Pacific region. Apart from ASEAN’s RCEP, TPP is another representative of a group of potentially game-changing free trade agreements.
However, the region’s promising future in commerce is under grave threat. Commerce needs safe shipping routes. If conflict were to break out in the South China Sea, two-thirds of all cargo that moves through the region will be interrupted. A gunshot scares away more than just one ship; it clouds every other negotiation in the region. It also resurrects the region’s dark memories of a time when mistrust, loss and animosity reigned. Even a small confrontation can break an edifice of peace that has been meticulously built over decades.
There are no winners in wars. Funds that could have been used for schools, hospitals and amusement parks is diverted to fuel a war machine. Media and public awareness of this make a gunshot very costly indeed.
Dung’s message is thus that every nation must be mindful of the consequences of policies that elevate the use of threat, coercion, provocation and most dangerously, the use of force.
Mutual trust – the prerequisite to peace
Dung’s second message concerns strategic trust. He acknowledges that there is no shortage of trust-building efforts. Trust building was the first of the three stages postulated by the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The other two were preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. Apart from the Shang-ri La Dialogue, other important trust-building mechanisms include the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting (ADMM+) and the East Asian Summit, the latter an open forum for regional leaders. However, it seems that not enough has been done.
It is not only a matter of quantity, but quality too. Trust must have depth and be executable on a strategic level. It must be regarded as an asset, a responsibility shared by every country in the region.
However, reality has betrayed ideals. This explains the frantic rush for arms, pushing regional defense budgets ever higher. It explains the confrontations in the South China Sea and East China Sea and escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula. And it explains why the countries that share the Mekong River haven’t found a better way to cooperate and coordinate policy.
Yet reality will be even bleaker if the region neglects trust building. Mutual trust is the only remedy to old the security dilemma, in which country A attempts to increase its national capacity but country B interprets the act as potentially antagonistic, ultimately leading to an arms race.
In feudal times, tributes were often sufficient to cultivate good relations. Today, trust building is much more difficult because everything has increased in size and complexity, whether it be our society or our population. The world is more unpredictable and there is little room for error.
Despite arguing that conflict is difficult to avoid in international relations, realists stop short of asserting that war is inevitable. In the small gap between conflict of interest and war lies the human ability to temper disagreements. That makes the South China Sea something of a grand experiment in trust building.
Trust has produced multitudinous agreements and treaties. The world agrees that we must avoid another great war. However, the events that have been taking place in the region demonstrate that to effectively manage conflict, we must begin with trust.
The responsibility lies with great powers
The prime minister’s third message is that big states have a special role in maintaining peace as well as regional and global stability. To any realistic observer, the notion that international relations are ultimately influenced by great powers and their respective relationships is inescapable. If the major powers cannot sit down together and talk, other countries have reason to worry. At the same time, of course, smaller states do not want bigger states to negotiate security deals at their expense.
Smaller states must also not neglect their responsibilities and should consistently seek to express goodwill. In this sphere, Vietnam is being realistic by pursuing strategic partnerships with all five members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France). It is surely no nation’s wish to have no ties with bigger states. Of course, smaller states will protest in the face of the unilateral imposition of the will of a bigger state. Nevertheless, this does not mean that smaller states are not working towards building better relations. Vietnam, for example, worked hard to normalize relations with China in 1991 and the United States in 1995.
The world has also waited for Vietnam to announce its contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping operations. A Vietnam that was torn apart by war for far too long but now yearns for peace is a role model. With a history of countless wars against the great powers of the day and a sensitive geographic location to boot, Vietnam has always been extremely cautious in projecting military power beyond its borders. The essence of Vietnam’s military strategy is self-defense, as set forth in the 2009 Defense White Paper and the prime minister’s speech. Therefore, its prospective participation in UN Peacekeeping operations can be seen as a watershed moment in Vietnam’s security and foreign policy. This showcases a new Vietnam – more confident, proactive and responsible. It also contains a subtle message of trust: when it comes to ensuring a common security, Vietnam is ready to contribute with real actions.
Maintaining peace is the responsibility of states large and small, with bigger states bearing more of the burden. If big states cannot fulfill their duties, they are losing trust in themselves and as a result, siphoning away that of the world.
Le Dinh Tinh is Deputy Director General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. The views expressed here are his own.