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The Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the world’s hottest flash points, yet security discussions remain woefully ad hoc. There is no regular dialogue forum for regional defense officials, and when leaders do get together, security issues rank second to economic issues. That may change after last weekend’s defense summit in Singapore. The Shangri-La Dialogue (named after the hotel in which the meetings were held) is intended to lay the groundwork for a regular discussion of security concerns among the region’s defense policymakers. It is long overdue.

Last week’s meeting was the brainchild of the Institute of International Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. The institute holds similar forums around the world, but this was its most ambitious project yet. Not because of the scope — the Singapore meeting is modeled after a German conclave that is held each year in Munich — but because the Asia-Pacific region has no history of this type of get-together.

That is odd. Three of the world’s hot spots are in the region: the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and Kashmir. Nor are the dangers purely theoretical. There have been tensions, and sometimes clashes (as is now the case in Kashmir), in all three over the past few years. The end of the Cold War has had less direct impact in Asia than it did in Europe; some worry that the end of the superpower standoff may have lifted an important damper on conflict. The region is host to a bewildering mix of societies, economies and political systems — which would suggest the need for confidence-building discussions and dialogue. Yet there is no overarching security framework, despite shared problems and security concerns. In fact, Asia-Pacific governments have long maintained that the region’s diversity is the primary obstacle to a broad, regional approach to such issues.

The pessimists have a point. It is difficult to craft regionwide solutions when participants cannot even agree on what the main problems are and how they are to be prioritized. That failure is compounded by the economic focus of the region’s multilateral institutions; indeed, the driving forces behind regional dialogue have been economic. Security concerns have been relegated to second place, both to avoid the misallocation of resources (which policymakers would prefer to direct at development) and to ensure that militaries remain subordinate to national political institutions. Foreign ministries have jealously guarded their prerogatives at multilateral meetings.

The failure to create a regional security architecture is one thing; the reluctance to pursue a regional security dialogue is another. Defense officials should be talking about shared issues and concerns, even if their governments cannot agree on how to proceed. They probably will discover that they have more in common than they thought. Given the changing nature of post-Cold War security threats, that is almost a certainty.

Globalization has put a premium on international cooperation in security affairs. Investigations into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made it clear that the fight against terrorism must be multinational if it is to succeed. New thinking about national security embraces a wide array of forces — including environmental degradation, resource shortages and human migration, to name but a few — that can only be tackled successfully with other governments.

Suspicions remain, however, and that is why the IISS was the midwife of last week’s meeting. The organization has no stake in regional politics and is considered to be neutral by all participants. It has a reputation that allows it to bring together top officials from around the world — a promise on which it delivered last weekend.

The meeting included more than 150 representatives from 20 countries, with heavyweights from the United States, Europe, Japan and Southeast Asia in attendance. Notably, even China — which has been extremely cautious about endorsing regional security discussions — sent observers. Their discussions covered the gamut of security issues, and IISS is reportedly eager to institutionalize the dialogue.

There is a long way to go. At meetings of Southeast Asian nations, members are reluctant to include defense officials on a regular basis. Those same governments are going to be extremely careful about opening the door to extra-regional powers. Moreover, the thorny political issues that have created the region’s three hot spots have not been overcome: For example, neither North Korea nor Pakistan was represented at the discussions. For Japan, the Shangri-La Dialogue provides an opportunity to hammer away at the attitudes and fears that color much of the country’s international relations. It should not be missed.

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