Dialogue is the way forward for a peaceful Asian Century: ARI roundtable

With a downward spiral of distrust among key state actors in the region, sustained talks are crucial to de-escalate growing threats of conflict, urged distinguished speakers at a special roundtable entitled “The Idea of Peace in Asia”.

While the 21st century marks the end of 200 years of western primacy and the rise of Asia, this geopolitical shift is also accompanied by “a lot of doubts about whether…the Asian Century will actually be a peaceful century,” observed Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow from the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at NUS.

Prof Mahbubani, who was moderating the roundtable to commemorate ARI’s 20th anniversary, cited several examples of geopolitical tension in the region that cast a pall over prospects for peace – from strategic mistrust between China and India, China and Japan, China and the US, India and Pakistan, to other bilateral strains.

Amid this volatile backdrop, three renowned Asia experts shared insights on the historical antecedents of peaceful relations among Asian states, and discussed the way forward for conflict resolution, particularly in disputed areas such as the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and Kashmir.

Trust deficit in Sino-Japan relations

Professor Wang Gungwu, University Professor at NUS and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, started by pointing out that peaceful relations were actually the norm between China and Japan for about 1,500 years, as the Middle Kingdom remained an inward-looking continental power.

All this changed in the 19th century as Japan started to identify with and emulate western maritime powers. It instigated wars with China that inflicted such a deep trust deficit that the bilateral relationship today is overshadowed by Tokyo’s deep-seated fear of Chinese vengeance.

This was not helped by Beijing’s push for militarisation. China’s naval expansion over the past two decades now makes it impossible for both sides to avoid each other as they did in the distant past, observed Professor Wang.

Over the past 50 years, both countries have made “so many efforts to come together” but failed, complicated by factors such as growing Sino-US rivalry, the US-Japanese alliance and China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Taiwan issue hanging over Sino-US ties

Trust is also in short supply in the US-China relationship, particularly over the Taiwan issue. “We are entering a difficult phase,” said Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

China is concerned about Washington’s rhetoric and actions, she said, referring to the US Secretary of State Mr Antony Blinken’s call on 26 Oct for United Nations member states to support Taiwan’s robust participation. It sent “mixed signals” about whether the US continues to be guided by the One China policy.

To avoid accidental wars over the Taiwan Straits, mechanisms need to be put in place for both sides to talk, urged Prof Chan, who is also a member of the NUS Board of Trustees.

She pointed to past instances where such mechanisms worked to defuse conflict, such as the George W. Bush administration’s handling of a collision between a US spy plane and a Chinese jet off Hainan island.

Further afield, countries across the Asia Pacific have long used regional platforms, such as ASEAN’s multilateral groupings and free trade agreements, to engender peace.

These initiatives “may seem economic in nature, but in intent, it is all strategic,” said Prof Chan. “This regional architecture worked – for peace and prosperity.”

Start small to revive Indo-Pakistani engagement

For India and Pakistan, who clash over highly complicated disputes today about “the four Ts of territory, trade and terrorism and third-party relationships disputes”, dialogue had proven effective in resolving past conflict, said Professor Kanti Bajpai, Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

“They had a very respectable history of cooperation…by 1964, they had resolved almost every single bilateral quarrel peacefully,” he noted.

While disagreements over the sequencing order of resolving “the four Ts” may seem intractable, he remarked that dialogue over two smaller territorial disputes – the Sir Creek and Siachen Glacier – can be “a very good starting point” for both sides to engage.

Dialogue to foster peace

The question of how to advance peace among states must invariably also include considerations of domestic pressures, the speakers agreed.

The US and Asian powers like China and India face enormous challenges at home, from economic and political pressures to social fractures. This will affect their leaders’ ability to dialogue confidently with counterparts and forge peace.

“Trust between states is relatively easy to manage...It is the lack of trust within a country that is (not),” said Prof Wang.

The conversation about fostering trust within and among states may not yield immediate or definitive answers. But as this roundtable has shown, dialogue must be restored and ramped up if Asia is to chart a peaceful path of ascendancy.