Asia Pacific Security: An Analysis of Trends

G.V.C. Naidu, Research Fellow, IDSA



Perhaps there is no other region in the world whose regional security is as hotly debated as the Asia Pacific and the quest to build a viable security order continues. While the region on the one hand continues to be the most promising in terms of economic dynamism (occasional hiccups such as the recent financial crisis notwithstanding), regional security remains a cause of concern on the other. In addition to the enormous complexity that is endemic to the region, the Asia Pacific is in the throes of an unprecedented change, a transition that is widely believed to be ridden with far-reaching consequences. The end of the most ubiquitous bipolar security order, the rise of new power centres, the new experimentation in multilateralism, the lack of a classic balance of power, and the growing perception that the dominant hegemon is increasingly less assertive are some of the issues that need closer attention even as India develops greater security stakes in the Asia Pacific. The article takes a look at the security environment in the Asia Pacific, in order to examine certain broad perceptible trends in the region and their impact on India.

In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, it had become fashionable in the Asia Pacific to talk in terms of geo-economics as a dominant security theme as opposed to geo-politics; the inexorable decline of "realist' theory of power balance that swayed most part of the Cold War era; the ascendance of multilateralism as a panacea that can take care of regional security; the gradual but inevitable demise of the Cold War alliance system and block politics; and, last but not least, the declining role and influence of the most assertive and domineering hegemon during the entire last century, the United States. In its true uncanny historical tradition, the Asia Pacific has once again belied expectations. Hence, it must be mentioned at the outset that any discussion on the security of the Asia Pacific must begin with a note of caution, for the region is not only vast, but also very complex in every sense of the term and hence is fraught with problems. There are as many inter-linkages and as many dimensions of security in the Asia Pacific that only temporal contextualisation is possible and that is what is attempted here.

Before going into greater details about the subject under discussion, it is important to keep the following backdrop in mind in order to understand the contemporary security dynamics. Notwithstanding the definitional problems of what exactly constitutes the geographic entity called the Asia Pacific, any meaningful analysis would include, in addition to Northeast and Southeast Asia, the US, India and Russia. Thus, it is a unique region where all the world's great powers are not only physically part of it, but also have extensive strategic and economic interests. Two, there is no single characteristic that is common to the entire region. Three, the region is beset with the largest number of unresolved land and maritime disputes. Four, probably the most noticeable aspect of the Asia Pacific is that the nations of this region are at varied levels of development, including some of the most developed and backward economies in the world.

Security in the Asia Pacific: The Debate

Before analysing the mega-trends across the Asia Pacific, it is useful to briefly review the debate about various models to build the regional security architecture. On a theoretical plane, after the end of the bipolar system, no perspective has been able to offer much help to deal with the Asia Pacific security satisfactorily. The political flux that ensued after the military disengagement of the former Soviet Union from the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and considerable build-down in the American military presence in the Asia Pacific in the early 1990s provided a strong case to come up with a number of ideas to build a stable security architecture. But the bulk of the strategic literature tends to fall into two dominant schools of thought: Realism and Liberal/Institutionalism,1 whose ideas diametrically opposed each other, although Constructivism makes an occasional presence. Other ideas that have been forcefully put across include building of security communities and formation of a concert of nations.


Liberal/institutionalists advocated replication of the European example of security management through institutional structures. Buttressed strongly by the Chinese economic liberalisation and fast growing intra-Asian economic linkages as well as with the rest of the world, it was suggested that regional institutions would reduce the risks of wars occurring.

Institutionalism gained currency in the Asia Pacific after the Cold War ended abruptly leading to enormous uncertainties as opposed to a well-established and more predictable regional order that came about during the later years of the Cold War. Proponents of an institutionalised multilateralism argued that states in Asia Pacific have certain neutral, common interests, for instance, the pursuit of economic development, which would be the major incentive for them to cooperate. As economic interdependence grows, webs of overlapping institutions will act as disincentives for the nations to resort to force, which in turn will automatically increase stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability. This would also gradually foster greater understanding of security concerns and help build confidence. The whole process, if channeled properly, would eventually lead to greater transparency and predictable patterns of relationship and thus would ameliorate mutual suspicions.

Especially in the Asian context, given enormous diversity and complexity, a less rigid and legalistic institution was regarded a major catalyst for cooperation. The experience of management of regional security by the existing sub-regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was perceived to be one of the most successful cooperative ventures in the developing world, was a readily available example and hence could be emulated.


On the other hand, there is a strong school of thought led by the Realists who take a pessimistic view of the role of these institutions and their ability to "markedly affect the prospects for international stability".2 They contend that these "are basically a reflection of the distribution of power in the world. They are based on the self-interested calculation of the great powers, and they have no independent effect on state behavior." And hence are "not an important cause of peace."3 On the question of common interests, E.H. Carr argued that these were usually national interests of the strong states in masquerade.4 According to Realists, international or regional institutions can be formed but their success would depend on accommodation of the interests of the hegemonic power(s).

In the case of Asia Pacific, the success of the newly created multilateral institutions is hinged on acquiescing to the interests of the dominant power, that is, the United States. At the same time it is also possible that new hegemons may arise and they too may try to create new regimes or support existing ones provided they serve their interests. The other aspect of institutional survival is the dynamics related to fundamental political changes leading to, for instance, the formation of a multipolar world implying the end of the bipolar or unipolar global security system.

If one is to subscribe to the argument that the collapse of the bipolar world has ushered in an unipolar world, but a multipolar Asia is also in the making, one has to concede that there is an ascendance of new power centers. And these will have their own interests to pursue. And this may intrinsically be more prone to instability than a bipolar order in part because ambitions of a rising power are difficult to gauge and its interests tend to be vague. In such a scenario the normal tendency is to resort to the policy of appeasement (as it happened in Europe with Germany) so that its interests could be accommodated rather than adopt a confrontational attitude. But this may not necessarily be a lasting solution because a rising power's perceived vital interests keep rising. In these circumstances, according to the Realists, the multilateral institutions will have little or no significant role to play. In any case, the argument goes, institutions survive so long as great powers support them and great powers support institutions only if they advance their interests.

Concert of Asian Nations

The idea of a concert of Asian nations was floated soon after the Cold War era, which seems to be getting attention once again as the limitation of the ARF began to unravel after the financial crisis. The concept of concert of nations, with its roots in the European experience in the early 19th century, is primarily premised on "multilateral consultations among the great powers.... to manage crisis situations."5 It is supposed to go beyond the balance of power because it also aims at settlement of disputes not only among the powers of the concert, but also third parties. No doubt management of great powers relations is the biggest challenge in the Asia Pacific, however the relations among the great powers have not reached such a level of maturity where a successful concert could be established. Notwithstanding frequent high-level meetings, except a few cases, the bilateral relations are not deep enough to undertake a tangible dialogue on security issues. In addition to an extremely uneven relationship, other aspects in Asia, such as mutual suspicions still linger and a number of unsettled territorial disputes involving these powers may impede a successful evolution of a concert. One of the preconditions of a successful concert is equality of status that is something missing right now. The only dialogue that is worth mentioning is the one between China and the US, but that is by no means between equals. China is a junior partner and China strongly suspects that the American engagement is nothing but containment through other means. Moreover, two important great powers, Russia and India, are still on the margins in the concert that is being talked about. It primarily pertains to the triangular relationship among the US, China and Japan.

Security Communities

The other idea that has caught the fancy of both security analysts as well as planners is the creation of security communities. A security community by definition implies peaceful resolution of disputes among the members of the community through constant dialogue and interaction and shared common objectives. The concept of security community is alien to the Asia Pacific. Even a well-established organisation such as ASEAN with a number of shared interests and strategic concerns, never evolved as a security community. The existence of a number of bilateral and trilateral defense links among the member states of ASEAN has not been very helpful. Major impediments to building a security community in the ASEAN region are continued mutual suspicions and a number of unresolved territorial disputes among the ASEAN states. However, there appears to be a renewed interest in this concept. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command, Admiral Dennis Blair, for instance has argued that "security communities are the right way ahead for the Asia Pacific region." Discounting strongly a balance of power centered security regime, he proposed that "an alternative approach is one in which states concentrate on shared interests in peaceful development and actively promote diplomacy and negotiation to resolve disagreements. Shared interests in peaceful development provide the foundation for building security communities. This process involves developing mutual trust through both dialogue and action. Dialogue provides the basis for understanding. Action demands a deeper level of cooperation."6 He further argued that existing structures like the ARF, the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), ASEAN, and American alliances could constitute the basis to build security communities. If ASEAN serves as an example, it becomes clear how difficult it is to build larger security communities in the Asia Pacific.7


Amidst the debates mentioned above, one could discern three broad mega-trends in the Asia Pacific. One is the multilateralism that has caught the fancy of many analysts and policymakers. The second is well known balance of power, which has manifested itself in the form of restrengthening of the alliance system. Finally, the new phenomenon of bilateralism. While the first two are conspicuous, the last one is less pronounced but has begun to gain momentum in the last few years, a sign that indicates not only the lack of a sustainable security architecture, but also enormous uncertainties that the region is faced with, both with regard to the future of multilateralism as well as the alliance system, more specifically substantial American commitment.8 While a detailed discussion on the nature of bilateral relations, particularly among the great powers, is beyond the purview of this paper, the other two major trends have been accorded greater attention.


In order to objectively probe into the ARF's progress, it is necessary to keep in mind the circumstances in which it was born and the expectations of its possible role. It is interesting to note that ARF came into existence not because of ASEAN's initiative. In fact ASEAN was extremely reluctant to support any new institutional venture when suggestions came up initially by Japan to create a process of region-wide dialogue and later followed by Canada and Australia, which advocated then Conference on Security Cooperation in Europe (CSCE)9 model for Asia. ASEAN was not particularly enthused by these ideas of cooperative security, probably fearing that its own importance would further erode after APEC was founded. The January 1992 summit meeting of the ASEAN Heads of Government held in Singapore devoted a separate section on security cooperation but was reluctant to embrace any forum. It said,

"ASEAN could use established fora to promote external dialogues on enhancing security in the region as well as intra-ASEAN dialogues on ASEAN security cooperation (such as the regional security seminars held in Manila and Bangkok in 1991, and the workshops on the South China Sea held in Bali in 1990 and Bandung in 1991), taking full cognizance of the Declaration of ASEAN Concord. To enhance this effort, ASEAN should intensify its external dialogues in political and security matters by using the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conferences (PMC). ASEAN has made major strides in building cooperative ties with states of the Asia-Pacific region and shall continue to accord them a high priority."10

Senior political leaders of ASEAN also expressed similar views time and time again. Their main worry was that in the process of creating new institutional structures, ASEAN might get overshadowed and gradually lose its importance. But, they were also acutely aware of the fact that the Southeast Asian security could not be delinked from that of Northeast Asia. At the same time, however, ASEAN was also beginning to grope for a suitable role. The end of the Cold War and the resolution of the Cambodian issue left ASEAN at a crossroads. ASEAN either has to retreat into a position of political irrelevance living under the shadow of new, larger multilateral initiatives dominated by great powers or thrust itself to the forefront by taking the mantle of leadership so that it can set the agenda and the pace of multilateralism, which will take into account the security interests of smaller and weaker states.

It was only after the initial misgiving and apprehensions about Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)-another multilateral initiative for economic cooperation that came into being in 1989-were overcome, was ASEAN willing to commit to any new multilateral venture in the sensitive area of security. To be sure, notwithstanding its stated objectives, ASEAN was a political creation at the height of the Cold War and political issues in Southeast Asia and regional security always dominated its agenda. Thus, APEC in a way facilitated the creation of a multilateral framework for security affairs.

Two incidents expedited the debate about the Asia Pacific security and the urgent need to create new security institutions: first, the Chinese attempt to forcibly occupy the Spratlys leading to armed clashes, especially between China and Vietnam, in the South China Sea resulting in sinking of some Vietnamese ships and death of about 80 soldiers; and second, the categorical declaration by China's National People's Congress of its sovereignty over all the islands in the South China Sea. In fact, from a careful examination of the deliberations that went on during the formation of the ARF, it is apparent that a major objective of the new initiative was to rein in China and make it renounce force.11

It was generally perceived across the region that ASEAN's lead in the creation of a new regional security framework would be more advantageous than any other arrangement. First, ASEAN's own long-drawn experience of dealing with security issues in its own inimitable style in a multilateral fashion though confined to a limited geographic region. Second, ASEAN had also initiated a dialogue process with important powers outside of Southeast Asia, called the Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMC), which basically addressed security-related issues thus involving great powers in the dialogue. Third, given China's central role and the problems it faced with the U.S. after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, probably only ASEAN could allay Chinese fears of containment and ensure its active participation. Finally, there were unmistakable signs that the US was unwilling to commit large number of troops along a chain of bases across the Pacific after the end of the Cold War. The American decision to close down its largest overseas base facilities, especially the Subic Bay naval base, in the Philippines after failing to secure the renewal from the Philippines, which left Southeast Asia for the first time in centuries devoid of major presence by external powers, created fears of power vacuum and the inevitable strategic competition among the regional great powers to fill that void. For ASEAN, by the early 1990s, with the removal of the Cold War political constraints, it was no more a taboo to openly articulate issues related to security cooperation.

Fascinatingly, most great powers, except Japan to a limited extent, were unconvinced of the viability of building new institutional security structures. The Bush administration, for instance, dubbed the CSCA proposal as "solution in search of a problem". The U.S. saw this as a threat to its bilateral alliance system. As an official made it clear that "while the United States would adjust the form of its security role in the region, it intends to retain the substance of its role and the bilateral dense relationship which give it structure."12 China saw multilateral initiatives as a ploy to browbeat it into compromising its geographical claims in the region.13 They also perceived multilateralism as containment and encirclement by other means. As far as India is concerned, except in the early 1950s, throughout the Cold War India remained on the margins of the Asia Pacific security. In any case, India had all along been opposed to security issues being discussed in multilateral mechanisms, either in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) or the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

The advent of a new administration in Washington led by Bill Clinton, its liberal image and its willingness to reconsider U.S. policy toward the Asia Pacific, gave tremendous boost to the creation of a new regional security dialogue through multilateral efforts provided basic American strategy was not undermined and its interests not jeopardised. It was also a clear reflection of the mood of the American public, which was extremely wary of sending troops on foreign missions.

Thus, when the ARF came into existence, it had to take into account diverse interests and at the same time draw up realistic plans to produce tangible results. Cooperative security approach was felt to be the most appropriate way to conduct ARF's business. According to David Dewitt, the typical traits of cooperative security include its inclusiveness and a gradualist approach. "It is also a flexible concept, as it recognizes the value of existing balance-of-power arrangements in contributing to regional security, and for retaining them-indeed, for working with and through them."14 He further adds that cooperative security "does not require leadership by dominant military powers or acknowledge that hegemons alone are able to define either the agenda or the rules.... it neither requires or indeed explicitly calls for the creation of formal institutions or mechanisms, though welcomes both if they emerge from the decisions of the parties."15 Thus, the key element of cooperative security is to 'establish the habits of dialogue'. Because non-governmental organisations too have an important role to play, a track-two dialogue in the form of Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) was also set up to provide intellectual inputs into the decision-making of the ARF. It is such a broad sweep that it accommodates everyone and almost everything, but its effectiveness as a tool to resolve the security concerns is yet to be proven.

By the time the first ARF meeting was held in 1994, there was considerable confusion about its geographic purview (whether it was confined to Southeast Asia or extended to the entire Asia Pacific)16 and the fate of the existing bilateral security arrangements. It was clarified that the ARF would encompass the entire Asia Pacific region and that the individual security arrangements of the member states would not come in the way. Thus, the initial thrust of the ARF was to build trust through regular dialogue. Hence, enormous emphasis was laid on the development of confidence building measures (CBMs). It was at the Second ARF meeting at Brunei in 1995 that a roadmap was put across encompassing a three-staged evolutionary approach to the ARF's multilateralism: evolve CBMs, develop Preventive Diplomacy (PD), and finally undertake Conflict Resolution. The Track-II CSCAP activities were expected to play a significant role. While there has been broad unanimity on a variety of CBMs, some have expressed serious reservations about Preventive Diplomacy arguing that before embarking on PD, the definitional problems, its relevance in the Asian conditions, its limitations, and its contextualisation needed to be addressed first.17

Since then, under the ARF auspices a number of CBMs have been initiated, but progress on the PD has been virtually stalled because of Chinese objections. Perhaps the biggest blow the Asia Pacific multilateralism got, that badly dented its credibility, was the financial crisis. While much of the attention on the implications of the financial crisis that hit the Pacific Asian region has been centered on the social and economic costs of individual countries badly affected, probably a far-reaching repercussion is felt more acutely in the way the fledgling multilateral institutions got battered in the process. In a way it also provides us with an opportunity to dispassionately reexamine the issue of multilateralism and its possible role in and contribution to shaping the regional security order. In the euphoria that followed the formation of new multilateral institutions, the inherent limitations these new institutions were faced with in addressing security and economic problems of the region were ignored or overlooked. In fact, the financial crisis exacerbated these contradictions that had all along existed ever since these institutions were founded. As a result, today these institutions are facing a crisis of identity and even a crisis of survival.

Specifically with regard to the ARF, from the start, one of the principal objectives of the Forum was to "foster the habit of constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interests and concern"18 leading to predictable patterns of relations in the region. It is a big question mark since the formation of the ARF in 1993 whether it is leading anywhere closer to this aim. Even as the ARF muddles through, it has to take into account certain geostrategic realities. The foremost among these is the rise of China, for the Forum's fate is critically dependent on the attitude of China, though China has come a long way from open skepticism and hesitation toward security multilateralism to actively supporting it. However, China has expressed serious reservations about the agenda of the ARF and more importantly, the US-led military alliances. China may not warrant a diplomatic isolation by withdrawing its support to the ARF at this juncture, but it is important to understand what China expects from the Forum. Judged by Chinese pronouncements, it appears China wants to reduce the centrality of the American bilateral alliance system by promoting multilateralism as an alternative. And secondly, China obviously would like to use the ARF mechanism to improve its relations particularly with ASEAN. One should however underscore China's insistence on non-inclusion of two of the three flashpoints in the region: the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea dispute in the ARF agenda. Whether ASEAN's enmeshing strategy of engaging China at various levels would succeed in enlisting Chinese unreserved support to multilateralism is difficult to determine.

The second question that needs attention is the dynamics of intra-great power relations and its impact on multilateralism. Arguably the strategic stability of the Asia Pacific is critically dependent on the nature of relationship between the US and China. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, Sino-US relations have been rough, and a series of recent events have made them quite volatile. The differences are not confined just to the Taiwan issue. The US has a vested interest in the promotion of democracy and human rights, while China considers this to be an interference in China's internal affairs. Even rhetoric can have serious consequences. China's avowed aversion to "hegemonic and splittist forces" and their "neo-interventionist" policies-which are primarily aimed at Washington, can whip up strong nationalist sentiments. Despite deep engagement, Washington has not overcome its suspicions about China's ability to undermine its interests. With regard to other great powers, while Japan has been striving to become a "normal" state, a resurgent India with nuclear weapons and formidable conventional prowess has become an important factor in the regional balance. India's suspicions about China and Japan and China's mistrust about each other are symptomatic of the kind of rivalries that would involve the major powers that the ARF would have to take into consideration.

Finally, the question of ASEAN's leadership in the ARF. Much has been commented upon in the recent past about ASEAN, its "style" of doing business, and its effectiveness as a regional grouping capable of undertaking complex tasks particularly in the security arena. Because of its ample experience in multilateralism, not just among the member states, but with outside powers as well, ASEAN's lead in running the ARF was welcomed simply because it was politically convenient. At the time of the ARF's founding, it appeared that in order to ensure China's participation and to build a genuine multilateral institution, ASEAN's lead was indispensable. However, it is not without its problems. As it has been demonstrated especially since the financial crisis that has ravaged the region, the so called ASEAN approach is not necessarily the most suitable one while dealing with the larger Asia Pacific issues. Contrary to expectations, ASEAN appears to have failed to emerge as a geopolitical power centre and its geostrategic weightage has not gone up after its expansion. Till recently ASEAN's membership was confined to a limited geographic area within Southeast Asia and the member nations shared certain common interests and concerns. The only major diplomatic initiative ASEAN has so far undertaken is with regard to Cambodia and here too it found itself inadequately equipped and had to seek the assistance of major powers and the UN. Further, threat perceptions vary among ASEAN members and defence policies are not coordinated. Fundamental differences have always existed among the members over how to deal with the great powers, especially with China's growing military power. "ASEAN way" itself has come under considerable attack from within. Being mostly small, weak states, the ASEAN countries are faced with enormous domestic problems and continue to be vulnerable to external pressures. The earlier advantage of having a small core group steering ASEAN politically is being lost. Periodic outbursts of nationalist feelings, continued mutual suspicions, and numerous unresolved maritime boundary and territorial problems within ASEAN have exacerbated events such as the financial crisis. Indonesia, the linchpin of ASEAN and its success, is struggling against possible political and social collapse. Not surprisingly then, questions are being raised about ASEAN's ability to maintain itself as a united entity, much less to lead the ARF.19

The San Francisco Alliance System

As noted, the Asia Pacific security was (and continues to be) dominated by what is called the San Francisco alliance system that emerged once the Cold War started hotting up after the Second World War. The US, which had already developed considerable stakes in the region starting from late 19th Century, entered into a series of bilateral arrangements with key countries of the region as part of its containment strategy20 and in most of these countries the US maintained a larger military presence. It is not that the US has had a smooth sailing to pursue its strategy through the alliance system. SEATO had to be wound up after the Indochina victories in the mid-seventies and with that the base facilities in Thailand were also closed down. After the end of the Cold War, the US firstly scaled down the scope of its arrangements with Australia and ANZUS faced its worst crisis when New Zealand virtually withdrew in 1984. Troops were cut and short-range nuclear weapons were removed from the Korean Peninsula. The largest US bases outside its territory in the Philippines were vacated in the wake of strong nationalist sentiments in 1992. What appeared to be disarray and an uncertain future in the early 1990s, the policy direction was in a way settled once it became clearer that the American presence was indispensable for the maintenance of regional stability. After considerable debate,21 partly in response to the new political conditions and partly to overcome domestic opposition within the US to underwrite the security of other nations at an enormous cost, a broad consensus was reached that at least about 100,000 troops22 need to be stationed in some form or the other in the Asia Pacific in order to maintain regional stability.

It was widely believed that the Clinton administration would take the process that began with the Nixon Doctrine of 1969 to its logical conclusion, i.e., further reduction of US military profile in the region. Contrary to the Bush administration, which castigated the attempts at multilateralism, Clinton gave the green light to the formation of new region-wide security institutions, widely perceived to be a clear indication of reduced military presence. At the same time, what needs to be underscored is the repeated reiteration by the US that multilateralism would supplement basic American policy of forward deployment and bilateral alliances than supplant it.23 It was surmised that, even as multilateralism starts to take root, American reliance on its time-tested strategy of forwardly deployed military and a network of bilateral arrangements will undergo a sea-change and its strong presence will be transitional in nature.

Whereas, recent events suggest that the new phenomenon of re-strengthening of the US alliance system is taking place, either because of a "hedging strategy" or because of growing skepticism about the role of multilateralism. The rationale for continuation and consolidation of the alliances, the alliance partners argue, is that, unlike the Cold War era, these are no more threat-based but interest-oriented. In other words, alliances promote bilateral as well as larger regional interests and are not necessarily directed at any one.

Probably the most significant among these is the review of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation. Undertaken under the auspices of the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee that was set up in 1996, the new Guidelines were formally adopted in a joint declaration in 1997. Unlike the 1978 revised Guidelines, the new ones not only encompass a much larger region, but also assign a greater security role for Japan. For instance, one of the aspects that was incorporated related to "cooperation in situations in areas surrounding Japan that will have an important influence on Japan's peace and security (situations in areas surrounding Japan)."24 Though it was claimed that this is not "geographical but situational",25 it has come under sharp criticism from Beijing raising doubts whether these areas would include Taiwan, South China Sea, etc. Moreover, in a conflict scenario, in addition to using the usual modes of cooperation, Japan's "rear area support" is not confined to Japanese territory, but would extend to high seas and international air space.

The second pillar on which America's East Asian strategy rests is its alliance with South Korea, which also has been under intense focus particularly since the historic Korean summit in June 2000. Judged by the bonhomie that ensued the summit, it appears eventual unification of the two Koreas is a distinct possibility. Now the question is what happens to the 37,000 troops that are based in South Korea guarding the Demilitarised Zone. There had always been a small vocal group in South Korea that contended that the U.S. presence was a major impediment for reunification of Korea. Interestingly, contrary to the North Korean rhetoric about US troops in South Korea so far, there is a remarkable consensus on the desirability of continuing their presence.26 Recent reports suggest that North Korea has not only not set the pre-condition of withdrawal of American troops preceding unification, but has in fact hinted that it would welcome the American presence. Reportedly, Kim Jong Il told President Kim Dae Jung during the Summit that it was "desirable" for US troops to stay on the Korean Peninsula and that he had sent a high-level envoy several years ago to tell that to the US Obviously both the Koreans as well as the Americans do not want the Korean Peninsula to come under the influence of any of the regional great powers, China27 or Japan. It may thus be assumed that the US special relationship with the Korean Peninsula would continue in the foreseeable future.

There are other, less conspicuous, significant developments that further demonstrate that the U.S. alliance system is being restrengthened. Notable among these are, first, the Sydney Statement also called Joint Communiqué of Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations on July 31, 1998. Apart from the extension of the treaty governing the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, Australia's crucial role (known as US southern anchor) in the American East Asian strategy was reiterated and close collaboration in security issues was underscored.28 Second, signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines in January 1998.29 Though this agreement primarily deals with the legalities regarding the status of US troops while on official duties in the Philippines, its psychological import is much greater on the rest of the region, particularly in the light of the intensified contest for islands in the South China Sea where Manila too has claims. Three, Singapore in early 1998 announced its decision to build a new large naval base called Changi Naval Station and that it will be available to US naval combatants and include a pier which can accommodate an American aircraft carrier.30 Four, after the closure of its base facilities in the Philippines in 1992, the US has entered into a series of access agreements and other arrangements with countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.31 Finally, US plans to merge all four bilateral exercises in the Asia Pacific into a larger regional one (to be called Team Challenge) starting from 2001, and initiation of a dialogue on Asian security with India (for the first time) are other indicators that further buttress the US alliance system.32

Despite US avowed attempts to fortify its alliance and other arrangements, doubts persist about the long-term American involvement in the Asia Pacific. Many view the current moves as transitional before the impending downgrading of US troop presence. The Asia Pacific security architecture undoubtedly is grounded on the US strategy toward this region.


Based on historical experience in the Asia Pacific, the following analysis is premised on certain widely accepted assumptions. First, the attitudes and policies of great powers largely determine the regional security in the Asia Pacific. Second, great powers have time and time again expressed a strong penchant for bilateral dealings, either structured or otherwise. Three, despite initial enthusiasm, great powers have not been as sanguine as they appeared to be to deal with regional security in a multilateral framework. Although any extensive discussion on this aspect is beyond the purview of this paper, it may be useful to look at great power dealings with their counterparts in the recent past.33

Among the bilateral relationships in the Asia Pacific that has received probably the most attention is the US-China relationship. This has gone through various stages since Henry Kissinger made an opening with Beijing about three decades back. During the Cold War, it was pretty straightforward and simple to comprehend the US-China bilateral relationship. With the disappearance of the common enemy, this has reached a complex stage even as China started making unprecedented strides in economic growth.34 Whereas a significant section in the US has been vociferously arguing the dangers of inevitable clash of interests between the US and China, most have argued for constructive engagement while keeping in place the instruments of containment, called the "congagement" policy.35 It appears the US is pursuing the twin strategy of engagement alongside containment. Whatever the strategy may be, the cornerstone of the Asia Pacific security is the relationship between China and the US and the only framework for that relationship is bilateralism and not either multilateralism or the alliance system.

The resurgence of bilateralism is best manifested most recently on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Dae-jung's bilateral initiative, known as the "sunshine policy", has paid rich dividends and all of a sudden as a result Korea has become a much less dangerous place. Similarly, other important examples that fall in this category are bilateral relations between Japan and China, and Japan and North Korea. A mention may also be made with regard to both China and India, two major powers that do not belong to any alliance system, which have time and time again expressed their preference for bilateralism rather than multilateralism. A similar scenario can also be found in the case of relations among the nations of Southeast Asia despite a well-established regional multilateral organisation, ASEAN.

India and the Asia Pacific

Here the discussion, (as it is with the rest of the paper), with regard to India is confined to the post-Cold War period. Despite India's growing relations with this region; it has not yet become a major determinant of regional security. First, insofar as security-related multilateralism in the Asia Pacific is concerned, though it had become a 'sectoral dialogue partner' of ASEAN in 1992, which was elevated to full 'dialogue partnership' in late 1995, India neither was involved in the deliberations about creation of multilateral institutions nor was it a founder member of the ARF. India was offered the membership of the ARF in 1996. Thus, this was the first time that India ever participated in an exercise of this kind.36 India's support to the ARF is strongly underpinned by the belief that historically India's relations with the Asia Pacific in general and Southeast Asia in particular prospered whenever this region was politically stable and was devoid of external intervention. If multilateralism serves that purpose, India would be an active participant. Inclusion of India, the only South Asian power, undoubtedly has a strategic dimension. 37 India is one of the fastest growing economic powers in the world, its nuclear capabilities are well known, and its conventional military capabilities are notable in the Asia Pacific. India has also in the recent past developed strong defense and economic links with the Asia Pacific. At the same time, it needs to be stated clearly that India somehow has not shown much interest in multilateralism or discussion of security issue in such a framework. India's wariness toward security-related multilateralism is borne out of fears that it could become a tool for some to grind political axes or to advance their interests. For instance, India was particularly disturbed when a section of the ARF tried to condemn India by name for its nuclear tests during the 1998 ARF meeting. As noted earlier, in two regional institutions in which India is a member, SAARC and the IOR-ARC, New Delhi has been vehemently opposed to the discussion on security issues.

Second, with regard to the alliance system, throughout the Cold War India had opposed military blocs, alliances, and the presence of foreign troops. However, while there are no clear indications about India's attitude toward alliances, the raison d'etre that underpinned the earlier opposition is non-existent today, i.e., the Cold War politics and their impact on regional security in South Asia. Specifically with regard to the US forward deployment in the Asia Pacific, now in the changed circumstances India may not only not have reservations, but may even want the US presence to continue so that regional stability is not disturbed. It appears however certain that India would not seek to be part of any alliance system.

Finally, like most other great powers in the region, India too has shown greater inclination for bilateralism either with other major powers or even with the countries of Southeast Asia.


The strategic uncertainties and the political fluidity, which had always been the hallmarks of the Asia Pacific security, have not really dissipated despite the end of the Cold War. The bipolar security order has given way to a multipolar Asia with the rise of new power centres, especially China, and the transitory stage, in the absence of regulatory mechanisms, either the balance of power or a well developed multilateralism, has been unnerving. Against this background, three broad trends are more visible. First, attempts to create a multilateral institution, which manifested itself in the ARF in 1993. The promise of multilateralism and its effectiveness in the Asia context does not seem to be very encouraging given the complex nature of expectations from and interests of the member states. The slow pace of the ARF's progress, the limitations of the application of ASEAN's way to a larger region that the ARF encompasses, ASEAN's leadership in the ARF at a time when ASEAN itself is perceived to be much weaker, the seeming incompatibility of the US-led alliance system and multilateralism, doubts about China's long-term commitment to multilateralism, etc., are some of the questions that have been posed with regard to the future of the ARF. The second trend indicates the re-strengthening of the San Francisco security system by way of new defence guidelines agreement between the US and Japan, plans to develop the TMD, VFA with the Philippines, consolidation of the ANZUS Pact, and Singapore's offer of facilities to visiting American naval ships. Beijing has interpreted these as attempts aimed at containment of China and inimical to the development of a genuine multilateralism, whereas the US has argued that these were measures to protect its interests and multilateral efforts were supplementary to its strategy of forward deployment and bilateral arrangements. The third significant process that runs parallel to the above two is bilateralism. In the absence of viable, alternative mechanisms, bilateralism seems to be on the resurgence. Moreover, the great powers, which have traditionally shaped the Asia Pacific regional security, seem to be more comfortable with bilateralism. Despite India's enthusiastic participation in the ARF, India too has exhibited the same tendency. India has not yet become a major factor in the Asia Pacific security calculus. It needs, however, no underscoring to reiterate the fact that India's relations have been undergoing remarkable changes since the early 1990s and hence developments in the Asia Pacific do impinge on Indian interests.



1. For a brief review, see Amitav Acharya, "Realism, Institutionalism and the Asian Economic Crisis", Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 21, no. 1 (April 1999), pp. 1-29. Thomas Berger, "Set for Stability? Prospects for Conflict and Cooperation in East Asia", Review of International Studies, vol. 26, no. 3 (July 2000), pp. 411-526.

2. John J. Mearsheimer, "The False Promise of International Institutions", International, Security, vol. 19, no. 3 (winter 1994/95), p. 7.

3. Ibid.

4. E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London: Macmillan, 1939), quoted in Rajesh Rajagopalan, ""Why the Non-Proliferation Regime Will Survive", Strategic Analysis, May 1999, p. 205.

5. Amitav Acharya, "A Concert of Asia", Survival, Autumn 1999, p.85.

6. Dennis C. Blair, "Security Communities Are the Way Ahead for Asia", International Herald Tribune, April 24, 2000. Also see his Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2000 under the subheading Security Communities, <>.

7. See Amitav Acharya, "The Association of Southeast Asian Nations: "Security Community" or "Defense Community?", Pacific Affairs, Summer 1991, pp.159-178.

8. It needs to be qualified that whereas bilateralism is perceived to be not incongruent either with multilateralism or with balance of power, greater emphasis on bilateral relationship undercuts both the remaining aspects. This dimension is particularly marked in the case of the Sino-American relations.

9. It has since been renamed as Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It claims that it is "the primary instrument for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation in its region."

10. Singapore Declaration of the ASEAN Heads of Government, January 28, 1992.

11. Michael Antolik, "The ASEAN Regional Forum: The Spirit of Constructive Engagement", Contemporary Southeast Asia, September 1994, p. 125.

12. Straits Times, August 7, 1991. Quoted in David Dewitt, "Common, Comprehensive, and Cooperative Security", The Pacific Review, vol. 7, no. 1, 1994, p. 6.

13. See Banning Garrett and Bonnie Glaser, "Multilateral Security in the Asia-Pacific Region and its Impact on Chinese Interests: Views from Beijing", Contemporary Southeast Asia, June 1994, pp. 14-34.

14. David B. Dewitt, "Concepts of Security for the Asia Pacific Region", in The Making of a Security Community in the Asia-Pacific, edited by Bunn Nagara and K.S. Balakrishnan (Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 1994), p. 30.

15. Ibid., p. 31.

16. For instance, the Chairman's Statement at the end of the First ARF meeting in Bangkok mentioned that the "the Meeting signified the opening of a new chapter of peace, stability and cooperation for Southeast Asia." See Chairman's Statement, The First ASEAN Regional Forum, Bangkok, July 25, 1994.

17. Preventive Diplomacy broadly entails preventive measures to ensure that no open conflict occurs, prevent this conflict from becoming an armed hostility, and finally prevent the conflict from spreading to the neighbourhood. At the same time it should be mentioned that PD may warrant, in addition to other measures such as good offices, goodwill missions, etc., a possible preventive deployment of peacekeeping forces. It is here that the question of national sovereignty and interference/intervention in domestic affairs prominently figure.

18. Chairman's Statement at the end of the First ARF Meeting, Bangkok, July 25, 1994.

19. These issues have been discussed in detail in G.V.C Naidu, Multilateralism and Regional Security : Can the ASEAN Regional Forum Make a Difference, Asia Pacific Issues No. 45 (Honolulu: East-West Center, August 2000).

20. Military Bases Agreement with the Philippines (1947), which gave US forces access to naval and air base facilities, which was supplemented by the Mutual Defence Treaty (1951); Peace Treaty and a Mutual Security Treaty with Japan (1951); ANZUS Pact (1951), Mutual Defence Treaty with South Korea (1953); South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), which included Thailand (1954), which was augmented through the Rusk-Thanat Communiqué (1961) thus forming a special relationship.

21. For a detailed discussion, see Douglas T. Stuart and William T. Tow, A US Strategy for the Asia-Pacific, Adelphi Paper 299 (London:IISS, 1995).

22. These troops are principally deployed in Japan, Korea, Guam, and Diego Garcia. These forces include the 7th Fleet, 8th U.S. Army, III Marine Expeditionary Force, 5th Air Force, 7th Air Force, 13th Air Force, the 1st Battalion of the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and other joint special operations forces, maritime pre-positioned ships, and Army and Air Force pre-positioned stocks. Adm. Joseph W. Prueher's CINCPAC Testimony on Pacific Security to the US Congressional Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, May 7, 1998.

23. See for instance, The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia and Pacific Region, 1998 (Washington: Department of Defense, 1998).

24. See The Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation.

25. Ibid., Section V of the Guidelines.

26. "Pyongyang Wants U.S. Troops to Stay", International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2000.

27. According to an Agence France Presse report, an editorial in the PRC's People's Liberation Army Daily stated that the stationing of US troops in the ROK is the biggest obstacle to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and the key to maintaining US hegemony in East Asia. The paper noted, "The Korean Peninsula is at the heart of northeast Asia and its strategic importance is obvious, to control the Korean Peninsula is to tightly grasp hold of northeast Asia. With the end of the Cold War, and especially with the cooling down of the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula in recent years, the US military presence in South Korea is out of sync with the times." It continued that US interests in maintaining troops in the ROK is key to US post-Cold War ambitions of strengthening its position as the world's only remaining superpower capable "of fighting two major regional wars at once." It added: "If the United States removes its troops from South Korea as relations between the North and South Korea improve, then it would be even more difficult to find a reason to maintain troops in Japan and the so called 'Europe-Asia strategy' would lose one of its wings. Because of this, and even though maintaining troops in South Korea is incompatible with the times, it is certain that the troops will not leave." The editorial was seen as the first article advocating the removal of US troops from the ROK since the inter-Korean summit in June. <> July 10, 2000.

28. See Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations: Joint Communiqué.

29. For the full text of the agreement, see <>

30. See US Security Strategy for the East Asia and Pacific Region, 1998. Singapore also hosts about 200 US marines on a rotation basis and offers its air facilities for the US aircraft.

31. A similar arrangement with Vietnam too has become a distinct possibility.

32. For instance, according to the joint U.S.-India communiqué, issued at the end of President Clinton's visit to India in March 2000, "a dialogue on Asian security will be conducted as part of the Foreign Office Consultations." See, US-India Relations: A Vision for the 21st Century.

33. The growing significance of bilateralism is also seen in the case of smaller powers too.

34. According to the World Bank, in PPP terms, China is already the second largest economy in the world.

35. Zalmay Khalilzad, Congage China, <> (1999).

36. Clear qualitative distinction should be made when comparing India's active participation in the UN-led multilateral activities with mechanism such as the ARF.

37. Though not openly acknowledged, an overriding factor that influenced ASEAN to include India in the ARF was the anticipation that India could counterbalance China.