Foreign Policy Forum: Security Challenges in Asia

Foreign Policy Forum panel members

Student voices from the lecture hall

By Yuma Osaki and Emma Micklewright, Masters students

Security in East Asia matters for the states and people in the region, and it matters for the rest of the world. Structural power shifts now coalesce with military modernisation and a multiplicity of transnational threats – ranging from the spread of terrorism to energy security and climate change, which all have regional and global consequences. Putting a spotlight on East Asia forces us to consider a central paradox, namely that we are witnessing a revival of the traditional notion of sovereign territory at the very moment when borders are becoming more porous. How can we best understand the nature and scope of security challenges in East Asia today? And what are the perspectives and roles of academics, media, journalists, and policy analysts in defining those challenges?

On November 11th 2016, after witnessing Donald Trump elected as the 45th President of the United States, the School of East Asian Studies hosted a Foreign Policy Forum with Professor Katherine Morton’s ‘Dream Team’ members: Professor Christopher Dent (Leeds University), Isabel Hilton (an international journalist), James Miles (The Economist China editor), and Dr. Alessio Patalano (King’s College).

Prof Katherine Morton with International Politics in East Asia class

Our first speaker, Professor Dent from University of Leeds, presented on energy and environmental security in Asia. Demand for energy in East Asia has increased more than seven fold in the past 40 years, which marks a completely different path from the rest of the world. This correlates closely with China’s very energy intensive, industry-driven economic development. While China’s growth is a consequence of globalisation, what remains at the core of the issue is the use of relatively less competitively priced natural resources and fossil fuels. Since Asian countries rely heavily upon importing their energy from overseas, they are increasingly diversifying energy resource imports in terms of international markets and technologies, and this causes geopolitical tensions. For instance, demands for liquefied natural gas are primarily dominated by the 5 largest Asian economies: Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Taiwan. In terms of supply risks, Asia’s imported energy comes through one narrow strait, Malacca, and as a consequence both China and Japan have sought to develop energy partnerships with Indonesia. In terms of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, energy security is the key driver behind this large-scale infrastructure strategy, yet regional cooperation on energy is still very minimal. Finally, environmental security is now posing existential threats to human society. Renewable energy is the one promising area that Asian states are promoting as an alternative to nuclear energy.

An international journalist, Isabel Hilton gave us an eye-opening talk about Asia’s water tower- the Himalayan glaciers. As the largest fresh water source outside of the poles, the Himalayan glaciers are crucial for human survival across the region and therefore – as expected – contestation over how to protect the glacial rivers running across borders is rife. On top of this, the most important rivers in the region, including the Yellow river and the Brahmaputra are sourced in part from these glaciers with far reaching consequences for the regions and states downstream. Development projects aimed at drawing upon the vast water resources have been considered and attempted by governments, including mega-damn projects (mostly spearheaded by China) in order to provide hydroelectric power. The crux of the issue here is the level of interconnectivity of environmental problems in the area. Damning rivers to produce clean energy reduces the water flow to agricultural land, and also traps sediment behind damns, thus losing a crucial natural stabiliser of river flows and habitat further downstream. Also, the river cannot be thought of as only a line of power. It is a whole ecosystem of interconnected elements and if one part is changed this causes cascade effects across the region. Further adding to the danger is the fact that damns are both subject to and possibly a cause of some of the massive amount of seismic activity in this region. Isabel ended her talk with some important take home messages: the interdependence of environmental security problems, the existential nature of the climate change threat and the surprising relevance of seemingly remote places to policy.

James Miles – the Economist’s China editor- talked to us about the importance of information itself to policy in the region with, naturally, a particular focus on China. He recounted stories from his many years spent working as a journalist in Beijing and writing on foreign policy. We heard that, in the past, press conferences were held once a week in the capital but only once every two weeks were journalists allowed to ask questions. He also stressed the importance of personality in leadership especially in terms of how accessible their ideas are to authors. As an example of this he discussed the changes during the Xi Jinping premiership. He noted that under the current leadership Xi is moving further towards individual power rather than collective, he has a low willingness to share responsibility for policy and he holds no press conferences at which he himself will speak. Mr Miles’ conclusion was that despite the numbers of foreign journalists increasing exponentially in recent years, it is still difficult but crucial to produce accurate analysis on the region.

Lastly, Dr. Alessio Patalano, a Senior Lecturer from King’s College London, highlighted the potential for a paradigm shift in the East and South China Seas. Why does security at sea matter in international politics? The East and South China Seas represent two interesting cases in revealing how maritime security is changing. China is a new state actor projecting its militarised power at sea. How China consolidates, undermines, or simply changes the way maritime security is understood and practiced is a crucial issue. Compared to the conventional understanding of maritime security, which used to be designed as a tool for implementing maritime governance, modern day policy has become increasingly more competitive. The core feature of the seas is that they connect the world together – enabling military, diplomatic activities and so on. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the legal framework for coastal states to develop their understanding of rights and duties, such as protecting the maritime environment and maintaining stable order. Although maritime activities are inherently cooperative, a competitive dynamic is at play in which US navy strategy brings together like-minded countries to maintain order, which then leads to a chain reaction led by China. What drives competition at sea is the desire for control, which creates the conditions for conflict since maritime boundary definitions are not as yet clear. Since achieving maritime security in East Asia is so difficult, the ongoing conflicts have become increasingly complicated, competitive and difficult to solve.