The seventh World Peace Forum, organised by the Tsinghua University in association with the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, was held in Beijing from July 14 to 15. The theme selected for this year’s event was ‘Constructing a security community: Equality, equity and justice’.
The event was attended by former heads of state and government, foreign ministers, representatives of think tanks and opinion leaders across the globe. Over 70 think tank scholars from 23 countries spoke at the forum, where 270 researchers and practitioners in the field of international relations were present. Solutions to the current security challenges faced by the international community were the main themes discussed at the forum.
Among the topics discussed included the ASEAN and Construction of Asia-Pacific Security Architecture, Sino-ROK relationship and Northeast Asian Security Cooperation, Artificial Intelligence and International Security, Sino-Japanese Relationship and East Asian Regional Security and South Asian Security: Trends and Cooperation.
The forum was declared open by Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, who is also Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs.
Pathfinder Foundation was represented by its Chairman and former Foreign Secretary Bernard Goonetilleke, who took part in the panel discussion on South Asian Security along with former Foreign Secretary of India Shyam Saranformer Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, Riaz Khokhar and Chinese Association for International Understanding Vice President Ping Ai. Sichuan University Centre of China-South Asia Studies Director Sun Shihai moderated the panel discussion.
Following is the speech made by Goonetilleke on South Asian security.
South Asia is a vast geographical region comprising eight countries and home to approximately 1.75 billion people. Combined with China, the population of South Asia accounts for more than 41.5 percent of the world population.
The South Asian countries share a common history and with the exception of a few, the rest had been under colonial domination for centuries. However, despite the common civilizational bonds, unresolved border issues, nuclear weapons, religious tensions and fanaticism as well as terrorism have been divisive factors. Consequently, SAARC, the regional organisation launched with much expectation in 1985, has not been able to achieve its full potential or intended objectives.
When focusing on the South Asian region, we cannot isolate the landmass from the Indian Ocean that washes the shores of five South Asian countries. In fact, all eight countries are heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean (IO) for their economic well-being.
The crucial role being played by the IO in the conduct of international trade and transportation of energy supplies needs no emphasis. India, the most populous country in the region, which is currently the sixth largest economy, is expected to become the second largest global economy by 2030, after China. According to the Lowy Institute’s ‘Asia Power Index - 2018’, Indian economy already occupies fourth slot after the USA, China and Japan. With the global economic importance in the 21st century shifting to the Asia-Pacific, commercial and strategic importance of the IO requires to be re-evaluated.
When we speak of security trends and cooperation relating to South Asia, these are the dynamics that cannot be ignored.
Collective security: Asia’s historical experience
According to Britannica, “collective security arrangements have always been conceived as global in scope; this is in fact a defining characteristic, distinguishing from regional alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations were founded on the principle of collective security.”
Delving further into the subject of security, we observe that there is a difference between collective security and collective defence. The principle that seems to govern the former is, ‘an attack against one is an attack against all’. It differs from ‘collective defence’, which is a coalition of nations that agrees to defend its own group against attacks from outside forces. Thus, we are told, the NATO and Warsaw Pact are examples of collective defence arrangements, while the United Nations is a mechanism for collective security.
We need to accept that collective security has its own limitations. States will always have different security interests and even then, they are not likely to remain constant. Generally speaking, countries would take a stronger interest in their immediate neighbourhood, as we have clearly experienced in South Asia. In times of conflict, they would weigh cost benefits of indifference against engagement on a case-by-case basis. One such example was India’s intervention in East Pakistan in March 1971 that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
Even when there are clear threats against international security, based on power politics and national interest, some permanent members of the UN Security Council would feel obliged to veto action proposed to address the situation. This demonstrates the weakness of the collective security arrangement at the highest level.
Collective security during Cold War era
Currently, South Asia does not have an arrangement for collective security or collective defence. However, it must be recalled that during the period of Cold War, there were such arrangements for certain regions in Asia. The first was the establishment of SEATO in 1954 by the US.
Conceived by President Truman and headquartered in Bangkok, its major preoccupation was to act as a bulwark against fast spreading communism at that time and Pakistan was the only South Asian country that became a member of that organisation.
The second was CENTO also established by the USA in 1955, with countries such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan as members, the organisation was ostensibly designed to foster peace in the ME.
However, it was evident that the USA’s motivation was to checkmate the USSR and prevent spread of communism in that part of Asia. What was significant was, the South Asian countries thought it was prudent not to embrace one or the other security arrangements promoted by the West.
In the midst of these developments, the USSR too desired to carve out an area of influence for itself and in 1969, General Secretary Brezhnev proposed “creating a system of collective security in Asia”. That call was repeated by Premier Alexei Kosygin while visiting Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
However, it was clear that in making that proposal, in addition to the USA, the USSR had China in its mind. A comment made by a soviet official at a press conference that “a common front of the peace loving people of the Soviet Union, India and Burma against the adventurous policies of the Chinese government was required”, confirms the intentions of the Soviet Union’s attempt to introduce a collective security system for Asia.
It was during this period that a group of newly independent countries decided it was prudent not to align themselves either with the West or East and laid foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with five guiding principles. A significant element of the NAM was its conviction that the members should distance themselves from the two warring super powers.
These historical developments serve to confirm several matters. First, such security arrangements were promoted by the two antagonistic parties to the Cold War. Second, it was only one country in South Asia that saw the benefits of joining such security arrangements. Third, none of the remaining countries in South Asia, despite their colonial background and close relations with the West, saw benefits of joining the new groupings. Fourth, while the attempt of the US was to block the expansion of communism in Asia, the Soviet plan was designed to counter the West as well as China, with whom Moscow had engaged in an undeclared border war around that time.
By now it is clear to us the antagonistic nature of security alliances the world had witnessed in the past. With the exception of eight member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, currently operational political alliance focusing on political, economic and security issues in which India and Pakistan are members, they were products of the Cold War.
We are also aware that there is a global collective security provider, namely the United Nations Organisation. It is against this light we need to examine whether there is a rationale for a collective security or defence arrangement for Asia or for that matter, South Asia at this point of time.
The first question is what exactly is the security threat faced by the Asian countries today, to the extent they find it necessary to become parties to a new regional security arrangement. One could however argue that although there are no security threats at present, there might be such situations in the future.
There is general acceptance that the unipolar world is in the process of shifting and emergence of a multipolar world is inevitable. Such a development, like shifting of tectonic plates, would create severe turbulence and conflicts that would impact negatively on the security of countries in the region. So, they better be prepared.
Looking at the issue of security, whether collective or cooperative and looking from the South Asian perspective, one would tend to ask why do we discuss the subject at this juncture? The Cold War ended over two decades ago and during the intervening period, the US holds sway in the Asia Pacific region, with some expressing the view that its presence had helped stabilize security in the region.
China’s vision for regional security architecture
It is also clear that China has taken a policy decision to play a role in shaping the world security architecture to commensurate with its growing global economic standing. That decision was demonstrated by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the eighth Asia Summit in October 2013, who said, “It is imperative to establish a regional security architecture that suits the realities in the region and meets the needs of all sides.”
Chinese President Xi followed proposing creation of a “new regional security cooperation architecture”. Thus, it is clear that China is determined to follow the dictum of Chairman Mao, who advocated that “Asian affairs should be managed by Asian people themselves”.
Further examination of statements made by Chinese authorities indicate that at least for the time being, what has been aimed at by China is mutual accommodation involving China, the US and other major powers, on issues relating to regional security.
While China is making an attempt to carve out an area of influence for itself in the Asia-Pacific theatre and even if we assume that plan may not be confrontational, some doubt that the US, which had enjoyed an undisturbed period of superiority in the region, would peacefully yield its reins to a newcomer without confrontation.
While such a scenario is developing, other emerging powers too would try to retard the expanding sphere of influence of China. In South Asia, India would see no reason to be a bystander, while the US is unilaterally withdrawing from or being elbowed out of the Indian Ocean and allow China to fill that vacuum. Consequently, India would do all within its means to prevent China from getting a firm foothold in the Indian Ocean Region, which would adversely impact on its national security.
Indian plan for regional security architecture
Finally, we need to examine the possible response of the South Asian countries for a collective security architecture. In September 2017, during the Indian Ocean Conference in Colombo, the Indian External Affairs Minister highlighted the need for development of a security architecture that strengthens the culture of cooperation and collective action and emphasized that those who live in the region should bear the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity of the Indian Ocean.
India’s desire for collective security should be evaluated in the backdrop of its hostile relationship with the nuclear armed Pakistan and New Delhi’s desire to influence developments in the Indian Ocean. Such strained relationships among the countries within the region do not augur well for forging a security alliance involving the South Asian countries.
On the other hand, India will actively oppose any security-related alliance, particularly between its smaller neighbours and extra-regional powers.
Quite apart from India’s position on the matter, the South Asian states would undoubtedly look at the cost benefits of a new security architecture. As relations currently stand, they are likely to see unacceptable costs, in comparison to possible benefits of becoming parties to new security arrangements within or outside the region.
There are no prospects for seeking an alliance through SAARC either, as the Charter of the organisation does not provide for conferring such a responsibility to that regional organisation. It is clear then, that China and India are visualizing new security architectures of their own design for Asia and South Asia, including the Indian Ocean region.
However, as things stand, such arrangements would be difficult, unless festering bilateral issues are resolved, confidence building measures are adopted and new understandings reached.
If the historical experience directs us to a difficult road ahead, that is no reason to be discouraged. Forging a new security community may not be an easy task. But then, if we do not take the first step, we may not know jointly what we are capable of achieving. After all, we heard today that a challenge could be transformed to an opportunity.
Within a decade or so, the world would witness a multipolar world. By then, China would truly be a global power, economically as well as militarily. China’s global leadership would be decided not only through its economic and military might but also how China would conduct its relations with the rest of the world, particularly those in Asia. Taking steps to win trust and confidence of countries and resolving outstanding issues, would go a long way in enhancing China’s standing as a reliable world leader.