How to preserve the long peace in Asia is of critical importance not just in Asia, but to nations across the world. The question is simple, yet the answer is complex: how do we maintain peace and stability in our region?

This is not a question of academic theory. This is not a question of purely academic inquiry. Each of us only needs to pick up the daily newspaper to be hit with one barrage of headlines after another suggesting that Asia may be closer to the brink of conflict than it has been in decades.

The most obvious proximate cause is North Korea. This has been a crisis long in the making, beginning with the Soviet training of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers after the Second World War; the North’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2002; and the subsequent series of ballistic and nuclear missile tests.

We’ve seen the North Koreans just test the new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. The expert community has analysed that the Hwasong-15 just used is so big that the warhead may not even need to be miniaturised. This of course adds to the already complicated challenges facing Northeast Asian security.

China’s interest lies in ensuring a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and preventing the disruption of peace and security in Northeast Asia, and more broadly, the wider Asia-Pacific region. And furthermore, to think about what would be the strategic and diplomatic consequences of a nuclear North Korea.

At the beginning of this year, I raised some eyebrows when I said that the risk of armed conflict on the Korea Peninsula in my estimation had risen from about 5 percent to something like 25 to 30 percent. What I now see is that many, many commentators around the world have now increased their estimation of the risk – the numbers approximating to the 30 percent I spoke of in January-February this year.

In fact, I believe we are moving in a particularly dangerous direction right now. I can also say that I believe that we are moving in a direction whereby the risk of armed conflict on the Korea Peninsula is heading in the direction of a one-in-two risk.

These are dangerous times – deeply dangerous times. And therefore it requires the earnest engagement of all of us, whatever ever country we come from, if our common concern is the preservation of the peace of this extraordinary region of which we are all privileged to be part.

The uncomfortable truth is that for the last quarter of a century, the international community has simply been kicking this can down the road. And now, at one-minute-to-midnight, everyone is scrambling to work out what to do about it.

Of course, it’s legitimate that all regional and global preoccupation now lies with how to prevent this crisis from developing further. As Chinese friends have often reminded me, a crisis has its own logic. War has its own logic. And the best course of action in international relations is to avoid ever getting into a crisis in the first place. At that point, other dynamics tend to take precedence. And what I sense and what I see, and what I know in part, and what I believe to be the case, is that we are now on the cusp of a crisis on the Peninsula.

It is therefore entirely legitimate that we focus now in the Norton Korean question.

But it is equally legitimate that we also focus on the wider strategic environment which has been evolving across our region over recent decades.

Just as it is legitimate for us to consider how we can prevent this Asia-Pacific region from simply degenerating into armed conflict more broadly over time.

And what we can do to deal with Asia’s collective failure to produce a united voice, not just the evolution of the North Korean threat, but on the plethora of other threats confronting long term regional stability, security and peace.

Many times you’ve heard speeches delivered over the last 10 to 20 years which talk about peace, stability, and prosperity. They acquire almost a “teflon” effect. They wash quickly over you without ever capturing the inherent meaning of each of those words: stability, peace, prosperity.

Once again, we are faced with deep challenges about how we preserve the substantive content of each of those propositions, and this requires extraordinary intellectual and policy focus. We can no longer simply assume that peace, stability, and prosperity will remain “givens” within our wider region.

The uncomfortable truth is that there are a very large number indeed of potential sources of instability in our wider region. A region which has given us what is broadly known as the Great Asian Paradox: high levels of pan-regional economic integration, underpinning unprecedented levels of regional prosperity on the one hand; while at the same time a continuation and gradual exacerbation of underlying geopolitical threats to security, driven by underlying unresolved territorial disputes on the other.

Apart from North Korea, there have been other troubling headlines in the last several months highlighting potential instabilities in our region: ongoing evidence of maritime confrontation; increasing strategic competition between India and China; and I think it’s fair to say, the increasing polarization of the region into Chinese and American camps. As well as new and emerging security threats across the wider region, in particular, Southeast Asia with the return of ISIS fighters from the Middle East to Islamic Southeast Asia, and potentially Central Asia in those areas lying adjacent to Xinjiang.

All these points highlight a common concern, and that is that the widespread assumption that has prevailed for many years in Asia—the belief that regional economic prosperity would eventually resolve, or sufficiently reduce, bilateral territorial frictions and geopolitical rivalries—may indeed not prove to be true.

And furthermore, that perhaps we are headed into a period where in spite of our common interests, in spite of growing economic integration, despite higher rates of education, regional trade and investment integration, and greater movement of peoples across our wider region, the countries of Asian could instead still be headed towards one form of conflict or another.

Which of course brings me back to the first question and the subject of this report—which we put together as the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, and of which I am proud to be president—how do we preserve the long peace in Asia? In other words, what can be done?

In 2015, I decided to convene an independent commission of high level former policymakers and experts to explore this challenge with me—folks who have worked in the diplomatic trenches for decades, and who understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to hardheaded and practical diplomacy.

In addition to my good friend and colleague here in Beijing, Professor Wang Jisi, this group included Tom Donilon, former National Security Advisor to President Obama; Shivshankar Menon, former National Security Advisor of India under Manmohan Singh; Igor Ivanov, the former Foreign Minister of Russia; Yuriko Kawaguchi, former Foreign Minister of Japan; Sung-Hwan Kim, the former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and Marty Natalegawa, the former Foreign Minister of Indonesia. That’s a pretty wide group. The interesting thing about most of them is that recently they’ve been in office. And it was my pleasure and honour, and I thought responsibility, to chair this independent commission.

And remarkably, despite the fact we come from the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan, the ROK, Indonesia and Australia—we managed to reach consensus in this report. I commend it to your attention as a serious piece of policy analysis, and a serious piece of policy recommendation.

In fact, we spent eighteen months discussing the common security challenges we face in the Asian region, as well as the types of mechanisms that might make a difference in dealing with these problems in the medium to long term. The finished product, this publication, is the result of these discussions and deliberations, and I am pleased to be able to launch the Chinese language version of this report here at Peking University with Professor Wang Jisi. I have already done so in Washington. I have already done so in New York. And in Tokyo. In January, I will be doing so, also in India. And it’s good that other opportunties will present themselves to make this report known to other governments across the region.

The premise underpinning this report is simple. If Asia is indeed facing a moment of greater friction and factionalism between different countries, then we need to develop a stronger regional multilateral mechanism to bring countries together and prevent instabilities from spiraling into the crises of the future.

The problem I believe, is that in some ways, we in the Asia-Pacific region have become complacent over the past several decades. We’ve come to believe, and indeed, assume that the relative peace and lack of major conflict (at least since the fall of Saigon in 1975) that we’ve enjoyed for many years now—this long peace—is automatically self-sustaining.

But challenges like North Korea remind us that this simply isn’t true. The uncomfortable truth is that sustaining this peace is going to require active management, creative foreign policy imagination (including in part having robust regional institutions that can help set regional norms and rules), increased strategic transparency, real and substantive security dialogue, and in time, bringing nations to the table to deal with long standing differences, including those of the territorial nature.

Regional institutional architecture may not seem like the most exciting of topics, least of all in Beijing on a Friday night when the bars are already open. But you know, the hard work of diplomacy in my experience is rarely exciting. It’s demanding. It’s just bloody hard work. But when we don’t do the work – when we don’t set new policy agendas for enhancing cooperation, for enhancing integration, making rules that people can abide to avoid the crises of the future which are currently not known—then that’s when our assumptions about a stable regional future tend to go off the rails.

So this report which we are launching here today provides our commission’s best recommendations on how to prevent that from happening, or at least reduce the possibility of it happening, and outlines instead a roadmap for how we could begin to strengthen regional institutions in Asia, starting with a little known institution called the East Asia Summit.

For those of you who are not familiar with the East Asia Summit, or the EAS, as it’s often known, it is the only pan-regional leaders meeting in Asia dedicated to political and security challenges. It came about in 2005 with the Kuala Lumpur Declaration. If you want to strengthen regional institutions dealing with politics and security, this is the best place to start. You start with the organization which has the right mandate and the right membership to really get things done.

To remind you all of the membership, it’s comprised of the ten nations of Southeast Asia – the ASEANs; it’s comprised of the three in Northeast Asia – China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea; it’s comprised also of India, Australia, and New Zealand; and most recently, through diplomacy efforts both on my part and others who were in office at the time, including now both the United States and the Russian Federation. Eighteen in all. But it’s the one institution in the region which brings those eighteen together with a clear-cut security mandate from the get-go outlined in article one, Kuala Lumpur Declaration 2005.

Our commission took a look at the East Asia Summit and we’ve made a number of recommendations on how to build up this institution to make it more effective in the future, to make it more operational in the future. For example, by creating temporary working groups that could develop practical rules of the road around, for example, maritime security.

Second, to focus on crisis management and crisis prevention.  Countries would benefit by looking at confidence-building mechanisms, or even more enduring crisis-prevention practices  that could help prevent conflicts before they emerge.

And furthermore, by building in greater flexibility in setting a forward-looking agenda for the institution itself.

As fast as events are moving in Asia, countries need to be able to change and adapt the agenda to tackle new challenges as they emerge.

The report outlines five functions regional institutions must be able to play, and five principles to achieve these goals.

First, regional institutions should play a binding role, drawing regional states towards greater convergence around common security interests. The report doesn’t say this will automatically resolve long-standing security tensions. It acknowledges the reality of these tensions. But it supplements and complements existing bilateral mechanisms by placing a new emphasis on areas where common security interests across the region also exist.

Second,  regional architecture should mitigate against historical mistrust and offset the patterns of history by providing opportunities for strategic dialogue as well as practical cooperation.

Third, effective regional architecture should, over time, facilitate better management of crises and disputes.

Fourth, regional architecture should also better rationalise and align the efforts of existing institutions and mechanisms.

And fifth, effective regional architecture should also provide a capacity for setting appropriate, forward-looking agendas in order to negotiate future pressures arising from shifting regional dynamics and new, emerging security policy challenges.

The report also envisions particular pathways to reform. It argues that strengthening the East Asia Summit would be one of the most important and practical steps that countries right now could take.

In the near term, the report suggests that member states could retain the relatively informal nature of the EAS, but also focus on some basic reforms that would better institutionalize the forum and enhance its ability to set a strategic agenda, and be more responsive to emerging events in the wider region.

Furthermore, member states could also take initial steps to develop a more operational role for the EAS, enabling it to play a useful role in preventive diplomacy, establishing crisis management protocols, and identifying confidence and security-building mechanisms.

It also recommends several immediate steps that countries could take to help smooth the path for future institutional reform in the future, such as:

  • First—establishing a high-level EAS reform committee. This committee could meet on an ongoing basis to consider proposals for reforming EAS rules and procedures, particularly as they relate to strengthening the EAS’s role as the premier leaders-level venue on regional security.
  • Second—we could establish also a non-governmental Eminent Persons Group, or EPG, to propose concrete regional confidence-building measures. Leaders could agree at the next EAS meeting to establish a nongovernmental EPG that could propose concrete regional confidence-building measures, building on the success of some existing bilateral arrangements.
  • Third, we could also add regional architecture building on leaders’ bilateral agendas. In order to build a stronger architecture, leaders must overcome their preference for an exclusive bilateralism, which is becoming increasingly fraught, and begin to discuss the priorities and concerns they have on a more regional, multilateral basis.
  • Fourth, our South-East Asian friends could also look at strengthening the ASEAN Charter. As ASEAN member states review the Charter, they might want to consider revisiting the proposals of the 2006 Eminent Persons Group. This could include reviewing the proposal to allow for more flexible applications of the principle of consensus.
  • Fifth, we could also initiate Track II dialogues on the further development of regional principles for managing the challenges of the future. Member states could benefit from a more robust discussion about how the regional principles they have endorsed in the past are best deployed both today and into the future. States should consider establishing Track II dialogues to build consensus on the practical implementation of regional principles and discuss how statements, such as the Bali Principles, should be interpreted.

You as intelligent students and researchers can read the report we have produced and reach your own conclusions. You will see at the back of the report the many more detailed recommendations that we have provided.

But our basic argument is that if you want to preserve peace, countries need the right tools in front of them. And they must be prepared to use them.

We have lots of regional institutions at present, but we need to make sure that they are effective and that they don’t just exist on paper only. We must ensure that they’re fit for purpose. This will require giving them the appropriate mandate and support to play a serious role in driving a pan-regional security agenda. That I believe it is the task in front of us all.

If we achieve this goal, we can indeed look forward to the continuation of Asia’s long peace. But this goal is by no means assured. It will require us to work hard together to find solutions. It’s difficult work, it’s hard work, but much is at stake. I do believe we can make a difference.

To conclude, reflect for a moment on the evolution of Europe after 1945. Reflect for a moment on the history of Europe prior to 1945. Prior to 1945, Europe had no pan-regional institutions to speak of. And we know the history of Europe from that period.

The Second World War, preceded by the First World War, preceded by the carnage of some centuries prior to that as well, back to the rise of the inter-state system of 1648.

Well, the Europeans finally decided after 1945 that enough carnage had occurred, that war was in fact too destructive a prospect for the future, that new radical institutional arrangements were necessary.

So they innovated. They created something called the European Coal and Steel Community. They innovated and created something called the Common Market. They innovated and created something from that called the European Union. And they continued to innovate, albeit with certain British distractions.

But the bottom line is this: they resolved as a community of states, around a region which had historically been wracked by territorial disputes, mutual distrust, and centuries of hatred—look at the Franco-German relationship in itself—to do something different, to in fact take the arguments for common interest,  common purposes in avoiding the future reccurrence of war, to do something different.

And despite all its critics, I would say to people looking at the European Union and what it’s achieved in the period since the Coal and Steel Agreement of the early 1950s until the present, the idea today that France and Germany could go to the war is nonsensical. The idea today that Britain and France could go to war is nonsensical. The idea that countries which have spent centuries at each others’ throats could go to war again is nonsensical within the reality of the European Union of today.

Europe is not of itself an applicable model to East Asia. But the concept, the idea, or the inspiration of a different approach to managing historical regional tensions—I think is.

How do we resolve as nation states not  to endlessly repeat the mistakes of history?

And I would’ve thought we folks in Asia are wise enough, given the antiquity of our civilisational traditions, to understand the imperative of avoiding a simple recurrence of some of the ugliness of history in our part of the world for the future.

Hence this report, hence its recommendations, and I would commend it to your attention.


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