Question: What are the central diplomatic challenges Asia faces?

Evan A. Feigenbaum: Two difficult strategic challenges will test the region’s diplomats in coming years: first, the collision between economic integration and security fragmentation, and, second, the dominance of form over function in the institutions that could help to mitigate this debilitating dynamic.

Evan A. Feigenbaum
Evan A. Feigenbaum is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, Beijing and New Delhi on a dynamic region encompassing both East Asia and South Asia.
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The central strategic challenge in Asia is that economics and security are increasingly in collision. Put bluntly, two Asias, wholly incompatible, have emerged in stark relief. There is ‘Economic Asia’, the Dr. Jekyll—a dynamic, integrated Asia with 53 per cent of its trade now being conducted within the region itself, and a US$19 trillion regional economy that has become an engine of growth. And then there is ‘Security Asia’, the veritable Mr. Hyde—a dysfunctional region of mistrustful powers, prone to nationalism and irredentism, escalating their territorial disputes over tiny rocks and shoals, and arming for conflict.

Amid slow growth in the United States and protracted austerity in Europe, intra-Asian demand will likely become a more central driver of regional growth. Already, China has become the top trade partner for many of Asia’s major economies, which increasingly provide economic related public goods to one another while pursuing pan-Asian agreements on trade, investment and technical standards. But long-term strategic intentions, especially Beijing’s, inspire deep anxiety. With the exception of China, all major Asian countries, though their economies are increasingly integrated within Asia, are tacking hard across the Pacific toward the United States for their security.

The region does not lack institutions that could help mitigate this dynamic. But regional groups in Asia mostly duplicate one another’s roles. They have too many members, and mostly lack functionality or a comprehensive template to measure and systematically assess results. They have developed habits of dialogue, but social interchange and political rhetoric dominate. Lingering suspicions and historical anxieties remain. Asian concerns about maintaining ‘face’ have typically meant that the most sensitive topics, from human rights to territorial disputes, are avoided. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is perhaps the best example of this. It is Asia’s leading security forum, and yet all of the potential sources of major conflict are mostly off the table.

A more effective and purposeful multilateralism would begin with lessons learned. Asia’s redundant existing mishmash reflects an underlying assumption that dialogue and process are beneficial in and of themselves. With most of the major groupings—ASEAN, ARF, APEC and so on—now decades in the making, groups need to emerge that can solve real problems by pooling real capabilities. So function will need to drive form, not the other way around. And function ultimately will need to be married to capacity, with those that have the greatest capacity playing the most significant roles. Asia’s major multilateral institutions have proved to be almost irrelevant to practical problem solving. It would be wise for a group of like-minded countries to think through a modest but substantive operational agenda for the next East Asia summit meeting to decide priority issues. Then, depending on the issue, leaders could ask that ARF or APEC, or another relevant body, follow up with practical actions. This would begin to inject greater relevance into regional institutions and more connectivity among them.

This piece was originally published in the East Asia Forum Quarterly