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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 17:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 17:54 | SYDNEY

A European salve for Asia's open wound

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13 October 2011 14:09

Dr Daniel Woker, Swiss Ambassador to Australia, was a junior member of the Swiss delegations to the CSCE meetings in Belgrade (1977/78) and Paris (1990).

Two recent blog posts, 'Your questions for Zhu Feng' by Peter Martin & David Cohen, and 'An Asia Pacific concert by another name' by Graeme Dobell, point to the indisputable fact that no structure yet exists to defuse, and in the long run hopefully solve, the Asia Pacific's most intractable security problem: the stalemate symbolised by the DMZ between North and South Korea.

This point was driven home to me on occasion of a recent private visit with the still existing Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) in Panmunjon, comprising five military personnel from Sweden and Switzerland, with a very occasional visit from a Polish officer. Within the confines of the NNSC's barracks, poised directly at, or rather over the border, it is possible to make a few steps into North Korea, and this only meters away from both a South Korean and a North Korean soldier staring unblinkingly at each other.

It seems to me that the rest of us, in Korea, in East Asia and indeed anywhere in the world, are rather staring into a potential nuclear abyss, much as was the case during the Cold War in Europe at dividing lines such as the Berlin Wall. So rather than the European Concert of Powers, which Graeme so convincingly tells 'to not apply', why not try out another European analogy to defuse these tensions or at least manage them better?

Some time ago on this blog I pointed to what might be useful 'lessons learnt' from what was first, during the Cold War, the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and still exists as the O(Organization)SCE.

This is  not to say that a 'Conference of Security and Cooperation in Asia' could and should be created, and even less that such a structure should and could replace what Graeme calls the 'Pan-Asian talkfests' of  APEC, ASEAN- and East Asia Summit. There are however three reasons, and potentially many more, why it would be worth at least a try to apply some 'European' ( the US, and Canada, were always part of CSCE) know-how to a difficult and dangerous situation:

  1. This is not a new idea. Recently, for example, SIPRI of Stockholm and CSS of the ETH Zurich brought together both Korean sides, albeit without much success yet, to discuss possible confidence building measures (CBMs) for the Korean conflict. CBMs are a formula 'invented' during interminable negotiations between East and West in the framework of the Helsinki process.
  2. Cornerstones of the CSCE process were its universality and its egalitarian character: all involved and potentially affected countries could and did take part. If Liechtenstein could sit at the same CSCE negotiation table together with the USSR, then who is to say that Papua New Guinea, Tonga or Sri Lanka should not now also have their say in an Asian multilateral security forum (which they do not at this time)? Of course, countries are not all born equal, but this was a reality well understood at the CSCE (well, mostly). Plus, the CSCE never was, and never wanted to be, 'the only show in town'. Much as today in the Asia Pacific, there were a multitude of structures and institutions where the two (nuclear) big boys talked bilaterally, and others where NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off.
  3. The CSCE process allowed for climb-downs and even solutions, without too much loss of face from situations that otherwise had run aground hopelessly, triggering generally adverse and aggravating reactions from third parties. This is much like the Chinese conundrum towards its lately very aggressive little neighbor to the east. I quote from the already-mentioned Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies, who said China is caught in a 'morbid comradeship...China's approach remains tantamount to coddling a dangerous, nuclear-armed state, strategic rivalry across East Asia might revive around a Washington-Tokyo-Seoul axis vis-à-vis a China-North Korean coalition.'

Photo by Flickr user Piero Sierra.

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