The challenges to regional security in the Asia Pacific

20 December 2017

The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) speech by Dr Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialouge.

I would like to thank the CSCAP Convenors and organisers, and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand for inviting me to speak at this distinguished gathering.  I see many familiar faces in the room tonight, which means I need to be extra careful what I say. 

One face I don’t see, sadly, is that of my dear friend Dr. Surin Pitsuwan.  He died a little more than two weeks ago and his loss weighs heavily on me, and on us all – especially here in Thailand.  The region has had few statesmen who have managed to overcome the obstacles to collective regional action. Dr. Surin showed us how.   

In the spirit of Surin’s enthusiastic willingness to look for creative solutions to regional problems, I want to focus tonight on some of the key challenges to managing regional security as I see them, and try to describe how I think they might be addressed. 

As Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, I inhabit a world of unresolved conflict and perpetual tension.  These are some of the themes I have explored in a new book I wrote called “Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia”.  One of the central issues I dwell on is that while Asia appears to be at peace, protracted violent conflicts linger on the margins, afflicts our borders and attracts unwanted external interference.

These conflicts are less about sizable numbers of battle deaths: the violence is low intensity, but it displaces people, disrupts lives and interrupts education.  According to UNICEF an estimated fifty thousand children are displaced annually in the Southern Philippines; more than 100,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states due to ongoing violence over the past two years. And around 700,000 people have fled their homes in Rakhine State since October 2016 into neighbouring Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, escalating tensions in East Asia could spark a conventional war or worse, a nuclear war, between states.  On the Korean peninsula, the North’s likely ability in the very near future to be able to launch intercontinental nuclear weapons, could push the United States towards some kind of military action that could easily spark a wider conflagration in the region, and a slide towards nuclear confrontation.    

Excellences, ladies and gentlemen

Given all this, the first challenge we face in our region is the decay of multilateralism and the impact this is having on the effectiveness of the existing regional security architecture.

Multilateral engagement helps generate trust and confidence to better manage bilateral disputes.  There is no better example of this than ASEAN itself, which has for half a century kept the peace in Southeast Asia, and perhaps the wider region, by sustaining a burdensome but necessary rhythm of annual meetings that brings regional leaders together to help alleviate suspicion and generate goodwill.

ASEAN, which turned fifty this year, helped the region recover from the polarisation of the Cold War, and with overlapping dialogue partnerships centred on Southeast Asia, made it hard for bigger powers to impose their will and divide the region.  The beauty of what we call “ASEAN centrality” is that it corrals larger powers into a multilateral framework that has helped build trust and to a degree manage tensions.   

This happy equilibrium started to change at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  First there were locked horns over the South China Sea, then pressures on smaller states to align with major powers. 

Now we have competing visions of development and security – China’s Belt and Road Initiative, up against the newly-minted Quad and the idea of an Indo-Pacific region.  Countries of the region are being asked to make choices and as a result the equilibrium that has maintained relative peace for half a century is being upset.

The United States is a waning power in Asia, and China is a rising one. China has clearly indicated the contours of its more active engagement with the region. In an important speech he gave this past week in Beijing Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke of playing a more constructive role in the stability of the world by “actively exploring the Chinese way of helping find solutions to hot issues.” Wang Yi outlined these characteristics in terms of three principles: 1) not interfering in the internal affairs and opposing and imposing force on others; 2) upholding the principles of fairness and objectivity; and 3) adhere to political solutions and oppose the use of force. 

Because it is not yet clear how this new “active” dynamic translates into reality, it is vital we all engage intensively with China to help inform policymakers and generate ideas that may be of mutual benefit.  To meet this challenge, we should reinforce existing track one multilateral engagements with the more creative use of informal space for dialogue. If ASEAN centrality has started to fray at the official level, it can perhaps be effectively emulated and preserved at the informal level.

What most countries of the region fear is an imbalance of power, whereby everyone is forced to align towards a single geo-political polarity.  Restoring balance in the formal sphere needs visionary leadership and persuasive diplomacy – neither of which is evident at this point in time.  So, in the interim, it is important to generate trust and confidence using ideas developed from informal dialogue.  The congenial habit of multilateral engagement must be preserved.

Over the past three years I have seen evidence of this from a series of meetings I and my colleagues at HD, working with regional partners, have conducted on preventing incidents in the South China Sea.  Our goal was to provide a discreet platform for dialogue for relevant governments in the region to build trust and confidence, and conceptualise effective mechanisms to prevent incidents in the Spratlys area of the South China Sea. 

I am happy to say that these meetings have cultivated a high degree of trust and confidence, which in turn has generated useful ideas on how to maintain peace and security in this contested maritime area – in particular a set of “Common Operating Principles” specifically designed for maritime law enforcement agencies operating in the area.

The key was to convene relevant people in an informal setting where hard official positions and delicate sensitivities about sovereignty could be laid aside.  Just as importantly was a focus on practical cooperation and the facilitation of tangible confidence building measures – rather than more research and unrealistic aspiration.  The key was to keep it practical and to involve the practitioners – those who encounter one another in the disputed area.

In an era of diminishing multilateral space, the informal realm of dialogue, carefully facilitated and productive, is an important, even essential reinforcement of official tracks.  

Excellences, friends, ladies and gentlemen.

The second major challenge to our security is in the social and cultural sphere. 

We live in an age of religiosity – piety everywhere is on the rise.  Across the Asian region, great religions co-exist in close proximity; Southeast Asia is more or less equally Buddhist and Muslim. 

Alarmingly, a divide has opened up between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.  Although the proximate cause is the eruption of communal conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine State after 2012, my own exploration through dialogue with Buddhist and Muslim leaders, indicates that increasing conservative practices over the past two decades have fuelled suspicions and generated a sense of threat on both sides of the religious divide in the broader regional context.   

This perception of threatened sacred space has been exploited in turn by politicians who have mobilised religious nationalist platforms that preach hatred on social media platforms more and more people have access to.  The threat to security stems from the possibility of communal violence spreading beyond the confines of Rakhine State.

Yet, unlike the case in the multilateral sphere of traditional security, the tools of dialogue are less effective and the space for civilised discourse is shrinking.  The point about religious belief is orthodoxy, which does not lend itself to compromise.  Governments find it hard to regulate people’s beliefs, while political actors continue to exploit them to win votes.

So, what can be done?

We need to start by looking within our communities. Buddhists and Muslims, as well as other faiths, need to reflect within their communities on the dangers of polarisation that lie ahead.  This is not easy.  Neither the Muslim nor Buddhist faith are easily moderated because they lack coherent leadership; moderate views are easily hijacked by extremists reflecting a growing insecurity in society fuelled by political uncertainty and alarming economic inequality. 

But I do see the possibility of Muslim and Buddhist leaders reaching a consensus on the need to preserve traditional customs and laws that reinforce tolerance, and I see this as a useful starting point for more effective action.

The ASEAN Foundation has been quietly conducting informal dialogue on religious tolerance; this initiative could usefully be amplified and empowered, and its outcomes elevated to the official and leadership level as a matter of concern for regional security.   Bold leadership is needed to stem the tide of bigotry and prejudice that can easily undermine the stability that is the lynchpin of Asia’s security and prosperity.     

The alternative, in my view, is to sleepwalk into the kind of sectarian conflict that besets the Middle East.  Insecurity and the failure to deliver effective governance, for example, is what effectively gave birth to the siege of Marawi in Muslim Mindanao.  This together with the Rakhine State Crisis in Myanmar should be a wake-up call for us all.

Excellences friends, ladies and gentlemen.

Neither of these security challenges – one geo-political, the other socio-cultural - can be addressed until we recognise the need for this region to establish a mechanism for mobilising more effective coordination and cooperation.

Virulent sovereignty has for the past seven decades, ensured a strong aversion to interference in the affairs of one another’s countries.  There is a strong argument put forward that the reason why regional security has been so well preserved to date is because the existing mechanisms of non-interference cordon off potentially divisive issues.  Countries simply turn away from the problems of others instinctively.

But how does this tried and tested safety valve help us address nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula?  How does it meet the challenge of spreading sectarian tensions in the wake of the Rakhine State Crisis?  How does it foster closer cooperation and coordination to protect the environment in maritime areas? 

The challenges we face in the security realm today are no longer delimited by boundaries.  Something has to give, in my view.  For both larger and smaller states in the region, pressure to consider intervention as a tool for managing regional security is building.

Successful regional management of common problems and challenges always involves trade-offs. And as my friend Dr. Surin tirelessly pointed out: the principle of non-interference does not mean that states can’t help each other in times of need. 

So, I want to leave you with the following suggestions.   In the face of the more complex challenges to regional security that I have described just now, it would be useful perhaps to consider a more flexible, less dogmatic approach to regional coordination and cooperation, one that: 


  • allows security forces to establish ad-hoc joint task forces to address violent extremism – something President Duterte floated at the height of the Marawi siege;


  • that enables the mobilisation of humanitarian agencies and regional resources to address human and natural disasters – which is what the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre was designed to do;     


  • that empowers leaders to use their good offices to mitigate conflict – which the ASEAN Charter allows for and China is increasingly recognising as a plank of its foreign policy;


  • that recognises the tools of dialogue and facilitation in informal space as a means of reducing tensions and resolving disputes, which ASEAN leaders recognised when they established the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

You’ll notice that the tools are already at our disposal.  They just need to be used.  For the smaller states of this region, this flexible approach to engagement and the use of creative diplomacy will ensure that they can continue to manage regional security without the fear of external intervention by larger powers. 

Such an approach might also prevent another Marawi, where more than 1,000 civilians and soldiers were killed and more than 300,000 people displaced; it might ensure that when huge numbers of people are displaced, as in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, their needs can be addressed more speedily and effectively; and it might provide a platform for solving complex and protracted conflicts, both internally and externally.

Thank you for listening.

Image: Sukit Jaroenmukayanan









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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team