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Can we preserve Asia’s ‘long peace’?

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Foreign ministers applaud after a group photo at the start of the 7th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meeting as part of the 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings in Manila, Philippines 7 August 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Aaron Favila).

In Brief

How can we save Asia’s ‘long peace’? Right now, the world is legitimately focused on the emerging North Korean nuclear crisis.


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This has been a crisis long in the making, beginning with the Soviet training of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers after the Second World War, the North’s expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in 2002 and the subsequent series of ballistic and nuclear weapons tests.

The uncomfortable truth is that for the last quarter of a century, the international community has simply been kicking this can down the road. And now, at one minute to midnight, everyone is scrambling on what to do about it.

There is a further, more substantial question, however, which we must equally consider for the medium- to long-term, and that is Asia’s collective failure to produce a united voice on not just the evolution of the North Korean threat but on the plethora of other threats confronting long-term stability, security and peace. And the equally uncomfortable truth is that there is a bucket-load of them in what has become the great Asian Paradox: high levels of pan-regional economic integration underpinning unprecedented levels of regional prosperity on the one hand; while at the same time a continuation and gradual exacerbation of underlying geopolitical threats to security on the other.

We seem to have become collectively desensitised to the ‘long peace’ from which the region has benefited since the Korean Armistice of 1953. The Vietnam War remained a sub-regional conflict — albeit one which was devastating for the participants. The Sino-Indian border war of 1962 remained an exclusively bilateral affair, as did the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Led initially by Northeast Asia, after 1975 by Southeast Asia and more recently by the economic advance of India, Asia has by-and-large quietly become not just a region of growing prosperity, but the long-term guarantor of global economic growth.

To a large extent, the ‘Asian economic miracle’ has induced a significant degree of pan-regional, geopolitical complacency. We have become the unwitting victims of the neoliberal orthodoxy that economics ultimately solves both politics and geopolitics — that is, that market liberalisation will ultimately produce Western political democracy at home and peace abroad, because democracies never attack each other. China constitutes the singular exception to this view — but there are others as well.

One of the problems in all this has been the failure of the wider region to generate a pan-regional political security institution capable of entrenching regional norms, practices and cultures for the management of underpinning geopolitical tensions.

ASEAN is the standout counter-example. It is a testament to its founding vision 50 years ago that for states which originally had hostile relationships with each other (the Singaporean and Malaysian confrontation against Indonesia; and later, the original non-communist ‘South East Asian Five’ versus Communist Indochina), there has been no intra-regional conflict of any magnitude for the last 40 years. When one threatened between Thailand and Cambodia in 2008, it was ASEAN institutional diplomacy which prevailed and resolved the problem.

But despite ASEAN’s success, for half a century we have failed to replicate a parallel political security institution for the whole of East Asia — let alone wider Asia itself. APEC has evolved into a successful regional economic institution, although India is not a member. The ASEAN Regional Forum, which does have a security policy mandate for the wider region, does not meet at head-of-government level and has never really worked. ASEAN+3 (China, South Korea and Japan) evolved into ASEAN+6 (including India, Australia and New Zealand), which evolved into the East Asia Summit (EAS), which now includes both the United States and Russia.

Over the past two years, an independent policy commission of the Asia Society Policy Institute has worked together on how we could strengthen the existing East Asia Summit, created a decade ago, to enhance its effectiveness as a political security institution for the wider region. The commission was made up of former foreign ministers Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, Yoriko Kawaguchi of Japan, Kim Sung-Hwan of South Korea and Igor Ivanov of Russia; former national security advisors Shivshankar Menon of India and Tom Donilon of the United States; Wang Jisi, a member of the foreign policy advisory group of the Chinese foreign ministry; and myself.

The EAS has the mandate to expand its activities in the security domain. The Kuala Lumpur Declaration of 2005 is clear about this. Furthermore, members of the EAS have all signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which commits partners to peaceful dispute resolution. Moreover, the EAS uniquely has all necessary players around the one table.

To begin with, the EAS needs a permanent secretariat. It should be empowered to create temporary EAS working groups on current and emerging security policy challenges. It could also, over time, consider aligning the existing ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus with the EAS heads of government process. And its overall objective should be to establish the habits, protocols and procedures for crisis prevention and dispute resolution within the wider region.

In the absence of that, the brittle, usually bilateral nature of existing security policy tensions across the wider region will simply get worse. Indeed, this will be reinforced by the emerging system of competing alliances across the region — with US allies on the one hand and a raid against the expanding network of Chinese semi-alliance structures unfolding through a combination of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia and perhaps the Belt and Road Initiative on the other.

An expanding East Asia Summit, perhaps one day evolving into a wider East Asian community or an Asia Pacific community, will not exist as a substitute for evolving and existing alliance structures. But it could well help take the sharper edges off what is currently unfolding, as well as slowly evolving concepts of common security, military transparency and common military exercises which could over time help preserve the ‘long peace’ from which we have collectively benefited since the end of the last Korean War.

Kevin Rudd is Australia’s 26th Prime Minister and President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. The Asia Society Policy Institute’s Report, Preserving the Long Peace in Asia, is available for download.

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