Reconcept­ualizing Asia’s Security Challenges

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Reconcept­ualizing Asia’s Security Challenges

Conventional wisdom suggests that economic development driven by a hegemonic power leads to economic prosperity and peace. That may no longer be true.

Reconcept­ualizing Asia’s Security Challenges
Credit: Depositphotos

As the world’s economic center of gravity and strategic focus continue to shift toward Asia, the region has become a focal point for strategic competition among major powers. The Asian region also harbors many flashpoints such as Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, and the China-India border. The critical challenge ahead is how Asia can maintain peace and prosperity in this era of significant geopolitical frangibility and complexity.

The conventional wisdom suggests that economic development driven by a hegemonic power leads to economic prosperity and peace in the Asia-Pacific. This approach leverages economic interdependence to promote regional integration, and places more weight on pragmatic outcomes in the strategic interactions among Asian nations.

This “hegemonic stability” model has been applied by both Asian and Western powers. The Chinese tributary system paved the way for an era known as Pax Sinica, a period of peace in East Asia spanning nearly 500 years from 1368 to 1840. The tributary system established a diplomatic and commercial framework that enabled nations to meet their demand for goods peacefully, both with China and with each other, thus minimizing resource-based plunders. The prospect of participating in this thriving trade network encouraged polities to prioritize economic growth and adopt strategies geared toward long-term prosperity, which in turn reduced their inclination toward conflict. 

Similarly, by underwriting the stability in Asia, especially after World War II. the United States enabled countries in Asia to prioritize economic development and trade over regional rivalries. 

However, this conventional “road to peace,” which has served the region well for so long, is now confronted with three challenges. 

First, the burgeoning Asian economy may paradoxically be contributing to its escalating instability. As countries grow more prosperous and stronger, they may experience rising societal expectations, amplified national ambitions, and intensified nationalism. These sentiments could motivate competition for status and heighten the risk of conflicts over lingering historical territorial disputes.

Further, interdependence may lead to increased fragmentation and division within the Asian region. The late Professor Robert Jervis of Columbia suggested that states may resist deeper economic ties due to concerns that increased interdependence could lead to strategic vulnerabilities, such as undue influence over national security and sovereignty, supply chain disruptions, and economic coercion. This tension is mitigated between countries with aligned values, but it can escalate among nations with stark differences, potentially leading to the division of the region into separate blocs.

Lastly, from an environmental viewpoint, economic strategies solely centered on material growth risk societal destabilization over the medium to long term. They could worsen inequality and heighten geopolitical tensions over scarce resources, fueling climate risks and a cycle of blame for deteriorating conditions. This is particularly relevant to the Asian region as its diverse geography and climate conditions make the region vulnerable to a variety of climate risks. 

The concept of hegemonic stability in Asia is also undergoing a significant transformation. Whereas Chinese dynasties and the United States dominated the region and set the rules in the past, every Asian nation now possesses agency in shaping the region’s future. For instance, as the only region facing both the Pacific and Indian oceans, Southeast Asia is crucial to the Sino-U.S. strategic competition. Central Asia’s strategic location at the junction of China, Russia, and Europe gives it crucial regional influence. As major U.S. allies hosting American military bases, Japan and South Korea are pivotal to Asian security. India’s rising influence in the region is also undeniable. 

This newfound agency among Asian nations presents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Asian countries could band together to foster the development of a more robust and comprehensive security architecture, encouraging China and other regional powers to pursue more accountable and cooperative engagements. On the other hand, Asian countries might try to vie for centrality in the regional order. This desire for influence could potentially hinder collective efforts to address regional challenges. 

Navigating this complex security landscape in Asia paradoxically calls for both boldness and caution. Asian nations must tread softly and take careful steps to manage the myriad of current tensions and flashpoints amid profound uncertainty. To begin with, it is vital that they bolster communication and collaboration among security institutions within Asia’s subregions, including the East Asia Forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These inter-institutional dialogues should aim to not only facilitate candid and constructive discussions about ongoing tensions, but also devise practical steps to prevent crises and disputes and offer policy measures for de-escalation when they arise.

At the same time, the region needs a novel and bold agenda to match the magnitude of the challenges it faces. Looking into the future, in an age marked by polycrisis involving not just seismic geopolitical shifts but also various non-traditional security threats including climate risks, technological upheaval, and societal transformation, it is crucial for Asia to collaboratively reconceptualize the concept of security to go beyond traditional geopolitical rivalry. 

First, it is essential that Asian nations adopt a holistic view and embed non-traditional security challenges at the heart of Asia’s security discourse. Second, they must recognize that these intertwined non-traditional security challenges extend beyond the confines of any one nation, rendering the notion of “siloed security” obsolete. Cooperation is imperative. A possible starting point could be to adopt the concept of human security introduced by the United Nations Development Program as a guiding principle for the region, as it acknowledges the deep interrelations among human well-being, economic stability, environmental sustainability, and technological advancements. 

The tasks of managing tensions and reconceptualizing Asian security must be pursued simultaneously. An exclusive focus on shared non-traditional security risks could heighten strategic distrust by neglecting the present risks of conflict and deeper causes of regional tensions. However, efforts towards the reconceptualization of security should begin immediately to catalyze cognitive shifts and cultivate innovative thinking about new patterns of cooperation between states. This approach may provide fresh perspectives for tackling the current complex security issues and enhance resilience against Asia’s future challenges.

This essay was first published in the Asian Peace Programme (APP) webpage. The APP is housed in the National University of Singapore (NUS).