Asia's Security Threats, Real and Perceived

HONOLULU (June 10) – Security analysts who follow the Asia Pacific region are less concerned over the rise of China as a threat to regional stability than they are about the United States' response to that rise.

This is one of several conclusions from a recent international survey of 128 security analysts conducted by the East-West Center in Honolulu. For the last three years, the Center has surveyed security experts in 16 Asia Pacific countries, including North Americans and some Europeans, on a broad range of topics concerning stability and prospects in the region.

Click here for a  full report on the survey (and those from previous years).

The survey, which is anonymous and voluntary, provides a frank look at the thinking of individuals whose work puts them at the front lines in the rapidly changing Asia Pacific arena.

Overall, said Richard Baker, coordinator of the project and co-author of the report, the experts agreed that in 2008 the broad outlook for regional security has improved over the past year.

Terrorism, as it has for some time, remains their primary long-term concern.

But the experts rate two other factors – broadly falling in the category of "nationalism" – as critical to the future security of the region: These are the rise of China along with the evolution of Chinese policy, and the reaction of the United States to China's rise.

And there is a striking difference in how the experts view these two factors.

Generally, they reject the proposition that China's rise is a threat to regional stability. Analysts from neighboring Northeast Asian countries were the only ones who tended to agree with the "China threat" proposition.

But if most analysts do not see China as posing a near-term threat to regional stability, they do agree with the proposition that the United States will see China's rise as a threat.

In practical terms, this translates into concern about the direction and management of future U.S. policy in the region and corresponding uncertainty over the prospects for stability.

Even though the ongoing U.S. presidential election campaign has not thus far focused much on China or Asia Pacific policy in general, the question of U.S. policy towards China and the potential for a shift in political attitudes will surely be an issue the next U.S. administration will have to deal with – and soon.

While the China-U.S. question and the ongoing threat of global terrorism remain the overarching general concerns among the experts, their greatest concern among specific short-term issues involved the implications of internal instability and political turmoil in Burma/Myanmar and Pakistan.

Baker said that this likely reflects events underway in those two countries just as the survey was being conducted in November and December.

While concern about Burma/Myanmar and Pakistan was on the rise, those surveyed offered a contrasting dose of "sober optimism" about the threat of the North Korean nuclear program -- an issue that had been ranked among the top in previous surveys. Over time, the respondents said, they expect slow if uneven progress toward denuclearization of the Peninsula.

On other topics:

• The experts anticipate no early end to conflict in Iraq. Most do not see U.S. involvement in the conflict ending any time soon. A strong majority also believes that the American-led stabilization effort will not be successful. This "pessimism" tended to be true of Western (including U.S.) security respondents as well as those from Asia.

• Global warming has emerged as the leading "nontraditional" security concern among the analysts. A more general concern about environmental degradation had been a leading concern in previous surveys, but the high profile of the global warming issue throughout 2007 has put this specific subject into first place.

• As in previous surveys, the regional institutions that have grown up around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rate higher for their effectiveness in building a sense of regional community than other institutions such as the United Nations or elements of the U.S. alliance system. In addition, the 2008 survey rated ASEAN as more effective than in the past as a means for solving practical problems. This likely reflects ASEAN's successful 2007 summit meeting at which a new charter was approved and three initiatives were launched to frame political, economic, and cultural communities among the ASEAN members, Baker said.
• Finally, the survey reflected a distinct lack of enthusiasm for proactive or aggressive interventions by the international community in response to conflicts with serious humanitarian impacts. With the exception of the ongoing crisis in Darfur, those responding were generally against international or U.N.-authorized forceful intervention in a variety of hypothetical scenarios.

The 2008 survey and report were completed well before the cyclone that hit Burma/Myanmar in May. However, an additional short survey conducted on that specific crisis revealed that the general reluctance to intervene applies even in this dramatic and immediate humanitarian tragedy:

Cyclone intervention?

On May 9, the Center polled the same group of security analysts as to what action they would recommend in response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma/Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis.

Among the 61 who responded, there was considerable reluctance among the Asian analysts to support direct intervention. And even among the "Western" analysts there was demonstrable caution about any sort of intervention that was not under United Nations auspices.

The question posed was what action the international community should take in response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma/Myanmar, considering the resistance of authorities there to international help.

Four options, plus an open-ended answer, were offered. The options ranged from continued diplomatic efforts only, through a UN-authorized intervention or, failing that, intervention by a "coalition of the willing" to bring relief to suffering areas.

The 61 who responded were fairly evenly divided between Western and Asian analysts.

A little more than half supported some form of international intervention, while the remainder backed diplomatic approaches.

Western responders broke heavily in favor of intervention (most preferring UN authorization), while Southeast Asian analysts tended to favor diplomatic actions – negotiations with the Burma/Myanmar regime -- over intervention.

The analysts from North and South Asia were evenly split between the two options.

Baker noted, however, that while the Southeast Asian analysts were cool to the idea of aggressive intervention, they were far from calling for a passive international stance.

"In most cases (they) favor quite active diplomatic efforts in this situation," Baker said. "It is the use of international sanctions or forceful intervention that gives most of these analysts pause."

The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center