Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 14:30 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 14:30 | SYDNEY

Why an Asian Peace Research Institute might not work


Rory Medcalf


15 December 2008 14:36

Sam Bateman’s proposal for an Asian Peace Research Institute is worth an airing, but leaves some important questions unanswered.

Given the existence of SIPRI and other research bodies, not to mention the CSCAP process, is there really a space and a need for an additional and specifically Asian organisation in this field?

If the need is for reliable information about military spending in Asia, then global research centres – including SIPRI and the IISS, with its annual Military Balance publication – already do the job. The composition of their funding bases, or indeed their global character, does not skew their collection or dissemination of Asian security data.

If the need is rather for fresh and practical ideas on confidence-building measures and the prevention of conflict, then it is not clear why the region’s existing and growing web of think tanks is less suited than would be some new centre. Ultimately, the hard part may be less about developing new thinking than about its effective advocacy to governments.
Sam rightly identifies funding as a crucial obstacle. Who would fund the proposed centre? How realistic is it to expect regional governments to pitch in without attempting to influence research findings in ways suited to their national interests? Presumably the defence industry is not the only source of funding that has its own expectations about what it will get for its money.

If somehow these hurdles could be overcome, and an independent and well-resourced APRI were to be established, how then to maximise the prospects of its advice being heeded by governments? For a centre with multiple funding sources, including presumably contending national governments, the desired aura of impartiality might be purchased only through creating an overlay of international bureaucracy. And by thus creating a management structure that ensured all regional countries had a voice, the institute would likely be born cautious, slow-moving and unwilling to offend. In other words, it would be bedevilled with all the problems that beset government-level region-wide institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum.

None of which is to say that we should be complacent about Asia's future security.

As it happens, I am not convinced that the current defence acquisition dynamic in Asia can be summed up as an arms race. And I suspect that those who share this view are not fundamentally influenced by the thought that this is what the arms industry wants to hear. Indeed, it could be argued that weapons makers have a commercial incentive to promote the impression of an arms race, rather than, as Sam argues, to limit it. After all, fear is usually good for the arms trade. In any event, I am not wholly persuaded that forums receiving defence-industry funding will necessarily reach uncontroversial conclusions. The region is better off with the Shangri-La Dialogue, for instance, than without it — not least because of the high-level interactions it enables.

But in donning the mantle of arms-race sceptic, I am not suggesting that inter-state security relations in Asia can be safely ignored. More of the sort of creative policy thinking that Sam Bateman calls for is certainly needed: for instance on how to prevent or manage risky incidents at sea among some of the region's growing navies. It's just that a new, multi-nation research centre may not be most viable way to generate such ideas or prompt governments to take them up.