What does not kill you will make you stronger. That’s the conventional wisdom. Time will tell if this holds true in a Europe that is suffering a financial and banking crisis. Right now nobody can tell if Europe will emerge stronger after the crisis and its contagion have blown over. Or if the crisis will let up at all before the continent is crushed by the weight of its troubles.
But there was a time when Europe came to grips with a protracted crisis, addressed it with wisdom, and came out stronger. Because Europe was the frontline of the Cold War from the mid-1940s to the late-1980s, it was there that the fate of humankind would be decided: whether it would survive and flourish or it would go up in nuclear smoke as the US-led West and the Soviet-led East plunge into MAD — mutually assured destruction.
Asia had an easier time then. True, there was three years of fighting on the Korean peninsula. A succession of wars raged in Indochina. China threatened to seize Taiwan. A spate of intrastate and interstate wars spluttered in Southeast Asia. But all of these, even if bunched together, didn’t have the potential to turn into Armageddon.
Over in Europe, under threat of a nuclear war that could have abolished life on earth as we knew it, nations had to muster and put to good use all of their supplies of prudence and common sense. Representatives of 35 states, including the United States, Canada and all but two European nations, gathered in Helsinki in 1975 and signed the Helsinki Accords, which highlighted detente between the US and the then Soviet Union.
The Accords served as the basis for the establishment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the forum that precipitated the end of the Cold War and the transformation of Eastern European states from totalitarian to democracies-in-transition. The OSCE, now comprising 55 states, has a counterpart in the Americas and in Africa — the Organization of American States and the African Union. In Asia, there is none.
Asia has many organizations with limited scope and mandate, and bilateral arrangements, most of them involving the United States or Russia. Among the most significant is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, but it is hampered by rivalry between its two strongest members, India and Pakistan. The best of the lot is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with its remarkable networking capability. Because of its inclusive forums and sustained efforts at building a balanced regional architecture, it is often seen as a candidate for a central role in a future pan-Asian forum.
But at the moment, it’s far from being the Asian counterpart of the OSCE. This should worry us because, as one pundit points out, this century cannot be the Asian century solely on the basis of the economic credentials of some Asian countries. There has to be a pan-Asian politico-security entity to ensure continental peace and stability.
It has been argued that such an entity doesn’t exist because, unlike Europe, Asia has never been under sufficient pressure to create one. This excuse does not hold water any more — not with the rise of China and its increasingly assertive posture, coupled with the robust American pivot to East Asia and the Pacific. In the face of a possible devastating armed conflict between China and the United States, Asia today is in the same predicament as that of Europe at the height of the Cold War. Asia is now called upon to hold its own Helsinki Conference and create its own OSCE; an organization with a strong mandate, immense reach and a capacity to massage away a politico-security or economic crisis.
Only Asean can start that process; and only if it recognizes the opportunity.