PEACE and security in the Asia-Pacific are essential if Asian countries are to achieve their full potential and realise the dream of an Asian century. But while almost everyone recognises this, few in Asia are willing to do what it takes to make it happen.
Ultimately peace and security in the region rests on the removal of differences and the resolution of disputes. Currently, however, it is fashionable - even statesman-like - to shelve disputes in the hope they can be resolved by wiser future generations. That is a cop-out tantamount to passing the buck to future generations.
A good example of the latter is the way commentators have urged China and Japan to shelve their territorial dispute in the East China Sea over the uninhabited rocks known as Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyus in China (and Taiwan).
Another fashionable cop-out is to argue the case for investment in so-called non- traditional security in the hope that dividends from such undertakings can be deployed to resolve traditional security problems. This too has not borne fruit. If Asian countries are to realise their full potential, they must make a determined effort now to address their differences and animosities so that political and territorial disputes can be peacefully resolved.
Non-violent change should be accepted even if it implies losses. There will be immediate winners and losers, of course, but ultimately the region as a whole will benefit from such peaceful dispute resolution. In this way, peace, security and stability in the region will become more durable. And Asia's continued economic rise will rest on a strong strategic foundation.
Constructing a peace and security architecture is a complex matter, of course. Fortunately there is no need to start from scratch. Several pillars of such a system already exist in an inchoate fashion. These include alliances, alignments, national military modernisations, regional multilateral forums, and international adjudication institutions. The requirement now is to recognise, integrate and further develop them.
Alliances and alignments are not Cold War relics. They continue to have important deterrent roles in contemporary national security strategies. But they must be defensive in nature.
Likewise military modernisation is not out of place, but it must be accompanied by transparency and be tempered by considerations relating to effective deterrence and dispute resolution.
For example, military modernisation and security policies in the East and South China Seas must avoid further aggravating and complicating the resolution of existing disputes. Rule-making and dispute resolution should become the central function of regional security forums. The regional multilateral forums mostly spearheaded by Asean must focus on developing a common strategic framework, with emphasis on rules and processes for managing and resolving disputes. In the East and South China Seas, for example, dispute resolution (not just management) must be a central goal.
Leaders must bite the bullet now. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia submitted their disputes over certain islands to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). More recently Thailand and Cambodia also submitted a residual problem relating to the Preah Vihar temple to the ICJ for a ruling. Although these rulings may create immediate winners and losers, all countries concerned and the region as a whole will benefit from desecuritisation of such disputes.
Regional forums must make headway in encouraging countries to negotiate the settlement of disputes within a fixed time frame, failing which they should be required to submit them to international adjudication.
Scholars, research institutes, think-tanks and policymakers must devote considerable attention to preventing the outbreak of war in specific conflict situations. They should explore ways of not only managing disputes but also resolving them through negotiations and adjudication.
It is not enough to manage disputes. They must be resolved. Durable peace and security in the Asia-Pacific requires policymakers to discuss security disputes openly and calmly, with the goal of resolving them within fixed time frames.
That requires Asia's leaders and key forums like Asean, the East Asian Summit and Asean Regional Forum to directly address strategic problems and issues rather than shy away from them.
The writer is Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, and non-resident Senior Associate with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.